The Towle Bros. and Their Narrow-gauge Railroad

From the Placer Republican, May 27, 1885

Placer county is remarkable for the diversity of its scenery. From the plains of Roseville and Lincoln, to the eastern end of the county, the changes are wonderful. There are landscapes which, once seen, can never be forgotten, and on every road there are views incomparable. The dead level of the plains is gradually superseded by the slopes and gulches of the lower foothills; these again by the more abrupt ascents and deeper ravines, which merge into the great canyons and lofty mountains, covered by the "majestic cone-bearing pines" which Bret Harte has so well described, and made such a feature of his mountain stories.

The resources and practical interests of the county are as varied as its scenery, and in great measure correspond and harmonize with it. Grain is most natural to the plains, and they are chiefly devoted to great fields of it. Vines and fruit trees are the care of the foothills, which are fast being covered with such orchards and vineyards as will bear comparison with any in the land, while, beginning at a point just above Colfax, the colder and more mountainous district is given up to the more rugged occupations of mining and lumbering. The latter business is of no small consequence to the county. It has furnished employment to hundreds of men, brought thousands of dollars into this section, and, considering the comparatively small area already cleared and the increased demand for lumber as the country fills up, it promises to be an important interest for years to come.

The Towle Brothers were among the pioneers in the lumber business, and have gradually extended their operations until they have one of the largest trades on the coast. They began to cut timber and run a sawmill when it was exceedingly difficult for anyone to give up the allurements of mining for more plodding and less remunerative methods of making a fortune. But they believed in the development of the State, and their business foresight and sagacity have been amply rewarded. They began with a small sawmill at Lost Camp, where Blue Canyon now is, in 1859. Their trade was mostly with miners, and as it increased, they erected another mill at Dutch Flat. They then began work at Towle's Station, which is on the railroad, about thirty-five miles above Auburn. Their offices and head-quarters have since been at that place. During the time the Central Pacific Railroad was building, they put up and operated mills at Truckee and Donner Lake. They had large contracts with the railroad company and furnished a great part of the ties used on this section of the road. At Towles (as the station is called) are their blacksmith shop, wood-pulp mill, and planing mill, and it is the initial point of their private narrow-gauge railroad. The planing mill contains three planers and the machinery necessary for making lath, doors, sash, blinds, box-stuff, and mouldings, all worked by a forty-horse engine. The wood-pulp mill, although not the most important, is one of the most interesting features of their business. The mill is situated on the south side of the railroad in a ravine, where it was placed in order to utilize a water power equal to 700 horse power to run the machinery, the water also being necessary in the process of manufacture. The water is brought through a ditch two and a half miles from Canyon Creek, and has a fall of 375 feet.

This wood pulp, which is made for paper, is manufactured from fir and poplar, the former wood being the kind principally used. The wood is first prepared by cutting it to about the size of common stove wood, and freeing it of all bark and knots. In one room are three wheels about four feet in diameter, and with rims of two and a half or three feet, which are coated with emery two inches thick. These wheels are placed horizontally on upright shafts. Close to the rim of each wheel are six iron boxes into which the prepared wood is placed and pressed against the emery by springs in the ends of the boxes. A stream of water is kept constantly running into each box of wood, and as the emery wheel revolves it grinds up the wood almost as fine as flour. The water, carrying the pulp with it, runs from the boxes to a receiving tank in a room below, where there are two machines for the purpose of separating the pulp from the water. First, the water runs through two sieves which screen any coarse particles or splinters it may contain. It is then conducted in a stream about four feet wide to a revolving cylinder, which is covered by a very fine wire cloth. The water runs through the wire into the cylinder, while the pulp is caught upon the outside. A stream of pure water, the width of the cylinder, is injected into it just over the "pulp water," to keep the meshes of the wire free. Then, as the motion of the cylinder brings the pulp to the top, it is caught up by an endless woolen blanket which passes over the cylinder and in contact with it, and carried along on the blanket, which is kept in motion by rollers, until it reaches another cylinder of smooth iron, also in contact with the blanket. By some curious law of adhesion, every particle of the pulp is transferred from the blanket to the iron roller, which receives one thin layer after another, until there is enough to be removed in the shape of a mat. This is then folded up, and after drying, is ready to be shipped to the paper mill. These mats of pure wood pulp, when taken from the separator, resemble common pasteboard in appearance and even in texture. The pulp mill turns out about 7,000 pounds daily, the whole of which is sent to the paper mill in Stockton.

The narrow-gauge railroad, which plays such an important and useful part in this lumber business, begins at Towles, and runs off wildly over the mountains, across Canyon Creek, Bear River, and over more mountains and yawning chasms into the howling wilderness of Nevada county. A map of the railroad would look like one of Dore's pictures of a streak of forked and jagged lightning. It is twenty miles long, but an air line of ten miles would cover the distance between its termini. Its general direction is northeast from Towles. "General direction" is used advisedly, because it has all the directions of the cardinal points and their possible combinations. In the course of a few rods it will box the entire compass. It has no curves; they are all angles. Its "up and down" course is as eccentric as its confused tangle of lateral bends, twists, and convolutions. In one place the grade is over 230 feet to the mile. Starting on a train from Towles, which is only 3,700 feet above the sea, you suddenly find yourself, with a few jerks and tosses into the air, hoisted to an elevation of 5,200 feet, and from this point you are suddenly dropped, with a whirl, a bump, and a crash into the depths of a miniature Yosemite. Some railroads have been called winding, simply because a man could stand on the rear platform and once in a mile or so shake hands with the engineer. That is nothing to what is possible on this narrow-gauge. Here you can rub noses with that official from the middle car every two minutes. If there were holes in the roof and floor of the caboose, you could thrust your hand through either one of them and shake with the man at the throttle valve until you were black in the face. A trip over this road implies every sensation caused by motion in ancient or modern travel. After making it, one knows what it is to be a tyro on a dromedary, up in a balloon, on deck in a hurricane, in a diving bell or with Jules Verne on a trip to the Moon.

The rolling stock of this road consists of sixty flat-cars and four locomotives. These latter are sturdy little four-wheelers which lustily puff up the side of a perpendicular and drop down another one on a line as straight as a rail fence, without evincing any inclination to leave the track, which is greatly to their credit. There is very little danger of their leaving the track. They don't have time. In their reckless flight, up, down, to the right, and to the left, the centrifugal forces are so quickly and so constantly overcome by the centripetal, and vice versa, that they have no leisure for anything but legitimate business. This is the scientific explanation of an otherwise unexplainable fact. However, as an outside aid to these immutable laws of nature, G.W. Towle has invented and applied a very ingenious contrivance, which materially assists the wheels of the locomotive in keeping the track, and is of great value to railroading on curved track and rough rails. A paper-covered cartridge of tallow, about the size of a candle is fastened under the wheel cover, and being pressed by a spring is kept in constant contact with the flange of the wheel. The amount of tallow used can be regulated by the strength of the spring pressing against the cartridge or by the thickness of the paper shell. The use of this contrivance prevents binding on curves and "climbing" at splintered portions of the rail. There is no grinding, so that tires will last until the tread is worn off, and it prevents the wear of both the flanges and the rail. It does not cause the engine to slip, because it does not spread over the ball of the rail nor over the tread of the wheel, and the train pulls at least a quarter easier. It is thus not only a saver of rolling stock, but a device that secures a greater degree of safety.

As the train leaves Towles, it first passes through the lumber yard, about a mile long, in which is stored at present 6,000,000 feet of lumber. At Bear River, twelve miles from Towles (by the railroad) is a mill with a capacity of 35,000 feet a day. As the business increased, more land was bought, and logging camps stationed farther up in the mountains, the road was extended. Two miles have been built this season, and the road now reaches Steep Hollow, where there is a big double mill with a capacity of 50,000 feet a day. There is also a branch three miles long running to a logging camp at Lowell Hill. Considerable mining is also done at Lowell Hill, and the railroad carries the supplies to the fifteen families residing there. At the present end of the road, the firm is just starting a logging camp and freight station to be called Omega, after the old mining camp of that name, which is in the Yuba valley, only a few miles beyond. This narrow gauge is a business enterprise in more ways than one. It not only carries supplies to the mills and camps belonging to the firm hauls back their lumber, but carries provisions and machinery to Omega, Washington, and several mining camps on the Yuba River. The freight is hauled by Towle Bros.' own teams from Omega Station to different points beyond. The construction of this road has cost over $100,000, but it has been a good investment. It has paid for itself in hauling lumber, and it promises to be a permanent institution necessary to the miners and mountain dwellers of upper Nevada county. But if ever the mining and lumbering interests die out, it can be sold at twice its cost to any enterprising collector of curiosities as a rare specimen.

The railroad is built altogether on Towle Bros.' own land, which comprises some 19,000 acres There have already been four mill sites on it, and in the years to come there will probably be many more. The supply of timber is not exactly inexhaustible, but for all practical purposes it seems to be unlimited, and in many places that were cleared off some years ago, a second growth is springing up. The varieties consist of sugar pine, yellow pine, spruce, fir, and cedar, the last named being cut largely for railroad ties. It is all fine timber, and some of it is unequaled for special purposes. The spruce is superior to anything on the mountains around Tahoe, and for this reason Towle Bros. formerly received large orders for spruce timbers to be used in the mines on the Comstock, and they are now cutting and shipping these timbers in considerable quantities to Arizona. Altogether, since Towle Bros. began business, they have cut about 200,000,000 feet of timber. The sawmills are like all other buildings used for a similar purpose; at least in the detail of having no doors. In the machinery used, however, the mechanical and inventive genius of G.W. Towle is again to the fore in the shape of a fractional head block for adjusting the log to the saw. The feature of this contrivance is an automatic calculating dial, which saves no end of trouble, and makes the sawyer's work a marvel of speed and accuracy.

At the several logging camps are used 150 pair of oxen and sixty or seventy head of horses, which are wintered on the well-known ranch owned by the firm near Lincoln. Another mill which the firm owns between Blue Canyon and Emigrant Gap will be started up in a few days, and then there will be, all told, about 350 men at work for the season of eight months.