A Ride in the Belle Mille Flume
● By Al Rocca
Streaming LiveDecember 2015
By Al Rocca
In 1878, at age 41, Charles Ellsworth was already a wealthy lumberman. He owned the successful Belle Mill Sawmill, located northeast of Red Bluff near Lyman Springs. Ellsworth had purchased the sawmill in 1872, and while plenty of pine timber remained near the mill, the aggressive businessman wanted a more efficient and profitable method for getting his product down the hillsides to his warehouse at the town of Sesma – just east of the railroad station at Tehama. After hearing about the success of logging efforts in Nevada that used V-shaped water flumes, Ellsworth decided to give it a try. The result was a 30-mile-long, wide-planked wooden flume that followed the natural terrain down to the valley floor and the Sacramento River. The flume, for the most part, sat up on stout horizontal support brackets that hugged the ground. However, at several points, the flume needed to cross small canyons. To do this, his men erected intricate timber-trestles, one of which stood an impressive 110 feet above the canyon floor. The Belle Mill Flume held the title of California's first long-distance water flume.
In October 1878, the sawmill caught fire and was completely destroyed. Several millworkers remained, sending recently cut boards and constructed boxes down the flume. A correspondent for Red Bluff 's first newspaper, The People’s Cause, who had been sent up the mill to cover the story on the fire, decided that he and a companion would “shoot the flume.” Despite strict “no ride” regulations, it was common knowledge that numerous people had occasionally taken short rides.
On October 20, 1878, the two men reasoned: “If we could muster courage to launch a box with ourselves aboard, we were sure of a happy trip, provided we got the box and no accident befell us.” The intrepid pair selected the widest boards they could find and quickly assembled what they described as the “best box ever manufactured.” This is their account of the flume adventure:
At half past 9am we “launched” with plenty of water [in the flume], a fair wind, and everything favorable for a splendid trip. We left the dock in a hurry as it was a pretty steep grade and our speed was at the rate of a mile in five minutes—pretty good for a flume box. We went down grades and around curves, and in 30 minutes were on the high trestle above Finley’s, 110 feet from the ground and sailing along as smoothly as one could wish. The view from the top of the trestle would have been splendid if it had been in some other locality, say for instance, on the top of Mount Washington. As it is, all one can see is a broken, barren country, producing nothing but scrub oak, manzanita, chaparral and rocks.
Below the lake at Finley’s, the water failed us and our huge box, that we thought incomparable, would hardly move, and the other boxes behind came along with a rush, striking our box and sending a perfect shower of water over us; but it was all right, we were in for a jolly time and wanted to get wet. After pushing, coaxing and working ourselves… we finally discarded the unwieldy craft, begged into another box, and so finished the trip.
To anyone contemplating a ride in the flume, I would advise for a box to ride in well-seasoned lumber, not too wide, plenty of water, good faith in Providence and a string to hold on your bonnet.