By Richard Miller | Wednesday, August 11, 2021
IVCBA, Live, Work, Play.; 3 Minute Read - Incline Village's Famous Flumes by Richard Miner

In 1880, after establishing a successful logging business in nearby Little Valley and with the timber mostly gone on the east side, Walter S. Hobart — already a successful Comstock businessman--and partner Seneca “Sam” Marlette — the former Surveyor General for the State of Nevada — planned to move their operations to the Lake Tahoe side of the mountains where fresh stands of timber were just starting to be cut and hauled out. They chose the spot now known as Incline Village for their new venture and set about enacting an ambitious plan to collect timber from all over the north end of the lake and milling it (does “Mill Creek” ring a bell?) at a new sawmill to be built here. The man to manage this ambitions plan was none other than John Bear Overton who not coincidently also had held a similar position for the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Company (V&GHWC). But how to get all this milled timber and cord wood across the mountains and all the way down to the Carson Valley on the other side where trains from the Virginia and Truckee Railroad could haul the timber up to the mines in Virginia City? To begin with, they planned to build a short steam powered cable car affair to haul milled timber and cord wood up the side of the imposing mountains; the ox and mule team pulled wagons used elsewhere in logging just would not do. But how would they get the timber from the ridge tops across the rest of the mountain range and down to the Carson Valley on the other side? Well it wasn’t for nothing that Walter Hobart was also an owner of the V&GHWC which since the early 1860’s had been supplying Virginia City and nearby Gold Hill with that most precious commodity that mining, ore milling and the miners who worked the mines could not live without. Water. Initially much of the water that Ol’ Virginy depended upon, at least once the meager supplies available from wells and mine shafts up there had played out, came from sources on the west side of the Carson Valley. The principal source was up the Franktown Creek watershed which ended at a small lake named for Hobart himself near his Excelsior sawmill. By the early 1870’s “his” Virginia & Gold Hill had already built dams, box flumes and iron pipes to convey that precious water across the valley to Virginia City. But the demand was insatiable and the existing sources were running low, so the water company surveyed the options and upon the analysis of engineer Hermann Schussler planned to drill a nearly 4,000 foot tunnel through a mountain just north of Marlette Lake at just the right level to allow water from that lake to flow via a new flume and the new tunnel to bring water down to their previous distribution location below Hobart Lake and then on to Virginia City using the existing flumes and piping. With this knowledge and the completion of the tunnel in 1877 the possibility now existed that timber could also be transported by flumes and the tunnel from the west side to the east side of the mountains. To cement the deal, so to speak, the water company was also building a new flume called the North Flume from Third Creek below what we all now know as Tahoe Meadows down to the entrance of their new tunnel to supplement the planned water flow from Marlette Lake. This water could also be used to move lumber through the tunnel and on down to the Carson Valley, so moving their sawmill operation to the shores of Lake Tahoe just a few miles from the new tunnel was not such a big gamble after all, right? With the North Flume in place and the tunnel open, the socalled Incline Railway was constructed with cars on opposite tracks lifted or lowered by a cable affair turned by a steam powered Bull Wheel located a short distance above where the North Flume crossed on it’s way to the tunnel. In order to allow for the incoming box flume water to be able to power the V-flume to move lumber as well as to continue to be used as drinking water for Virginia City, a device was created just below the Bull Wheel to split the flow with water going into the V-flume into which the lumber was dropped during the day and then divert the water to a box flume to continue to flow at night when the sawmill was not operating. The box flume continued on to the tunnel at a lower level than the V-flume. When the V-flume reached the tunnel it was then perched directly on top of the box flume for the ride through the tunnel. The two flumes then separated at the Eastern Portal and went their separate but initially parallel ways down to Red House — a flume tenders station — where the water company’s existing facility mixed the Hobart Lake flow with the new water. A short note about flume construction is appropriate here. Historically, almost all flumes designed to carry water--at least in the mountains--were box flumes, so called because of their rectangular design with flat bottoms and vertical sides. The sides and walls were usually double planked and sand was used in the bottom to help seal them from leakage. In addition, since they carried potable water, they frequently needed to be covered to keep out debris and buried if possible to ground level to minimize the need for bracing and prevent freezing in the winter. The V flume, named for its shape, was invented because it was not only easier to construct but also required less water to move logs and less likely to get obstructed, especially if moving milled timber or cordwood which could get crosswise and jam up. V flumes were I N C L I N E V I L L A G E ’ S Famous Flumes even used “dry” if the slope was steep enough and frequently greased with butter or animal fat which in many locations was cheaper and more available than wagon grease. That said, all the Incline area flumes were fed with stream or lake water. To supply the new sawmill at the foot of the newly built Incline Railway, a narrow gauge railway was built to haul logs from Sand Harbor in the south after the original line to the north along the water to the area near the current Burnt Cedar Beach proved unsuitable. A spur line running a quarter mile inland from the beach was built to intersect with short V-flumes bringing timber down from logging operations on both Third and Incline Creeks in the general area where the route 431 traffic circle is now located. Incline Flume, originally known as The North Flume, was a box flume and was constructed by the water company immediately after the tunnel was opened to provide even more water than the Marlette Flume could supply. It ran from Third Creek just north of the current Mount Rose Highway near the location of the unrelated, and now dry Incline Lake down the mountain pulling water from several streams as it went including First, Second, Mill, Tunnel and Incline Creeks. It crossed present SR431 from north to south where the large parking area exists today just above the lookout. There’s a small parking area on the south side of the highway where the flume continued in a semicircular path following the terrain slowly descending the Incline Creek valley until reaching the Bull Wheel location. That flume and the trail that rests on its path takes about 9 surface miles to cover the 4.5 mile distance as the crow flies and drops approximately 6 feet every mile. The Marlette Lake Flume was constructed by the water company after it purchased the original dam there in 1876. They raised the height of the dam and built a flume that ran down towards their new tunnel which was still under construction. The Marlette Flume was initially planned to intersect the new tunnel as much as 200 feet higher than it eventually did. Is it possible Hobart, et. al. convinced the water company directors that lowering the tunnel level to accommodate a log V-flume as well would be a win-win? History seems to say Yes. Even today there is still evidence on one or both ends of the rock above the as-built tunnel openings that work may have started at a much higher level before being shifted downwards to the final level. By 1894 or so, most of the timber on the west side of the Carson Range had been logged off as it had been 20 years earlier on the east side, and Hobart, Seneca and Overton closed down the business in Incline and moved operations to an area just north of present day Truckee where they had purchased considerable virgin forest land. The railroad, sawmill and many of the employees moved. The land around Lake Tahoe began to return to nature, albeit largely without trees — it was a virtual moonscape for many years to come. The flumes ceased to operate except from Marlette Lake and through the tunnel which continued to supply water to Virginia City and to the State Capitol in Carson City which, I add in conclusion, it still does to this day albeit with steel piping instead of box flumes. By Richard Miner PAST PRESIDENT, INCLINE VILLAGE & CRYSTAL BAY HISTORICAL SOCIETY