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July 2024
5min read

In 1875, H. J. Ramsdell, a correspondent for the New York Tribune, went to Virginia City, Nevada, to write about the gold and silver mines of the fabulous Comstock Lode, which had been discovered sixteen years before. After inspecting the mines, Ramsdell was taken up on Mount Rose to see the sawmills that provided some of the millions of feet of lumber needed yearly around Virginia City for fuel, for construction, and, most importantly, for timbering mine shafts. His guides, who were also the owners of the mills, were James G. Fair, James C. Flood, and John B. Hereford. Fair and Flood, both forty-niners, later pioneers on the Comstock Lode, and now partners in the Bank of Nevada, were two of the richest men in the West. [Two of Fair’s daughters — Theresa, who married Hermann Oelrichs, and Virginia, who married William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.— became leaders of Newport society. Their father served as United States senator from Nevada from 1881 to 1887 and died in 1894. Flood later built enormous houses at Menlo Park, California, and San Francisco which he and his wife used as bastions from which they successfully stormed West Coast society. When Flood died in 1889, he was, like his friend Fair, a multimillionaire.] Hereford was president and superintendent of the Pacific Wood, Lumber and Flume Company. There, high on the steep slope of the enormous mountain, Ramsdell was shown the V-shaped flume which had been constructed to float, in a matter of minutes, the cut lumber to the Washoe Valley fifteen miles below. Fair and Flood explained that it would take 2,000 horses harnessed to freight wagons to haul the half-million board feet of lumber which shot down the flume during each ten-hour working day.

Suddenly Flood looked at Fair and winked, “Let’s ride it down to the valley.”

Fair nodded and grinned, “If our guest, Mr. Ramsdell, will join us.”

Ramsdell was startled. He glanced at the rushing water. More than a mile below he could see where the flume crossed a canyon on a high trestle that looked about as sturdy as a spider web. His hosts must be joking.

“All right,” Fair said, turning to Ramsdell, “we dare you to join us.”

Obviously they were not joking. Ramsdell looked at the flume again. If men who were worth millions would risk their lives riding it, he thought, so would he.

“I accept your dare,” he answered at last. What followed was one of the wildest rides ever recorded.

Two boats were ordered, each sixteen feet long, made of two-inch planks and shaped to fit the V of the flume. The prows were left open but the sterns were closed in order to create a barrier against which the flume’s current could push and thus propel them. Seats were fastened across the tops.

Fair and Ramsdell were to take the first boat, but at the last minute Fair decided that they should have one man along who knew the flume. He called for a volunteer from among the mill hands who had gathered to see them off, but no one stepped forward. Finally a red-faced carpenter who looked as though his courage had been heightened by the bottle agreed to accompany them.

Several strong men held the boat above the flume while Fair, Ramsdell, and the volunteer climbed aboard. The moment the boat was lowered into the current, it was off like a shot. Flood and Hereford followed in a second boat.

“The grade of the flume at the mill was very heavy and the water rushed through it at railroad speed,” Ramsdell later wrote. “To ride upon the cowcatcher of an engine down a steep grade is simply exhilarating, for you know there is a wide track, regularly laid upon a firm foundation, that there are wheels grooved and fitted to the track, that there are trusted men at the brakes, and better than all, you know that the power that impels the train can be rendered powerless in an instant by the driver’s light touch upon the lever. But a flume has no element of safety. You cannot stop; you cannot lessen your speed; you have nothing to hold to; you have only to sit still, shut your eyes, say your prayers, take all the water that comes—filling your boat, wetting your feet, drenching you like a plunge through the surf—and wait for eternity. It is all there is to hope for after you are launched in a flume-boat.

“The red-faced carpenter sat in the front of our boat on the bottom as best he could. Mr. Fair sat on a seat behind him. I sat behind Mr. Fair and was of great service to him in keeping the water which broke over the end board from his back. A great deal of water also shipped in the open bow of our hog-trough, and I know that Mr. Fair’s broad shoulders kept me from many a wetting on that memorable trip.

"… I was perched upon a boat no wider than a chair, sometimes twenty feet in the air, but with the ever varying altitude of the flume, often seventy feet high. When the spray would enable me to look ahead I would see the trestle here and there for miles, so small and narrow and apparently so fragile, that I could only compare it to a chalk mark, upon which, high in the air, I was running at a rate unknown upon railroads.

“One circumstance did more to show me the terrible rapidity with which we were dashing down the flume than anything else. It was when the boat suddenly struck something at the bow—a nail, or a lodged stick of wood, which ought not have been there. What was the result? The carpenter was sent whirling into the flume ten feet ahead. Fair was precipitated on his face, and I found a soft lodgement on Fair’s back.

“It seemed to me that in a second’s time, Fair, a powerful man, had the carpenter by the scruff of the neck and had pulled him into the boat. I did not know at this time that Fair had his fingers lacerated when caught between the boat and the flume.

“How our boat kept in the track is more than I know. The wind, the steamboat, the railroad train never went so fast. I have been where the wind blew at the rate of 80 miles per hour, and yet, my breath was not taken away. During the flume ride, in the bad places, it seemed as if I would suffocate. In one particularly bad place it was my desire to form some judgement of the speed we were making. If the truth must be spoken, I was really scared almost out of reason; but if I was on my way to eternity, I wanted to know exactly how fast I went; so I huddled close to Fair, and turned my eyes toward the hills. Every object I placed my eye on was gone before I could see clearly what it was. Mountains passed like visions and shadows. It was with difficulty that I could get my breath. I felt that I did not weigh a hundred pounds, although I knew that the scales turned at two hundred.

“Mr. Flood and Mr. Hereford, although they started several minutes later than we had, were close upon us. … Their boat finally struck ours with a terrible crash. Mr. Flood was thrown upon his face and the waters flowed over him, leaving not a dry thread upon him. What happened to Hereford I do not know, except when we reached the terminus of the flume he was as wet as any of us.

“At the terminus there were these remarks: Fair said, 'We went at least a mile a minute.’ Flood said, ‘We went at the rate of 100 miles an hour.’ My deliberate belief is that we went at a rate that annihilated time and space. Flood said, ‘I would not make the trip again for the whole Consolidated Virginia Mine.’ Fair said, ‘I will never again place myself on an equality with timber and wood.’ Hereford said, ‘I am sorry I ever built the flume.’ As for myself, I told the millionaires that I had accepted my last challenge.

“We had yet sixteen miles to drive to Virginia City. How we reached there I will never know. The next day neither Flood nor Fair were able to leave their beds. For myself, I had only strength enough left to say, ‘I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF FLUMES.’”



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