FAR UP THE precipitous mountainside two heavily loaded lumber cars on the "Great Tramline of Tahoe" crawled toward Incline Summit. It was a bleak, cold morning in early October, 1880, and Captain John Bear Overton, general manager of the Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company, was standing at the base of the nearly vertical 4,000-foot-long lift. Two weeks earlier he had placed this prodigious steam-powered cable railway in operation. Now he was watching the trams as they moved slowly upward to their junction with the V-flume at the top, listening with an engineer's trained ear to the whir of the endless cable as it circled the lower 12-foot iron bull wheel and clacked along over the idlers.
Bull Wheel History
Suddenly Overton saw the black dots hesitate as though pinned to the promontory. They were now some 3,000 feet up the narrow gauge track. He froze for a moment, then sprinted toward the printing telegraph shack to warn the steam engine tender at summit. But he was too late. The two lumber carriers on the north track had already reversed direction and started backwards down the mountain. Slowly at first, then picking up momentum with incredible rapidity, they broke away down the rails. Faster and faster they hurtled downward. Now flaming streaks of fire showed under the trucks and clouds of billowing smoke streamed out behind. Loaders and mill hands scattered on a dead run as the lumber-stacked trams whistled across the lower trestle. With an ear-splitting crash the cars tore into the thick stand of sugar pine at the tramline's base, and timbers flew in every direction, splintering into kindling wood. Both cars were demolished. A two-by-four board was driven like a lance through one of the trees, piercing it 20 feet from the ground and imbedding itself so deeply that it supported its own 10 feet of length, the free end whipping in great swinging arcs.
Bark on the surrounding pines was "gouged and raked as though fired upon by grapeshot" and the Great Tramline's base was a shambles.
After making certain that none of his mill crew had been aboard on the disastrous downgrade breakaway, Overton ordered an investigation. The accident was .finally traced to an overwinding of a clutch brake.
Thus ended what an admiring newsman later described as "the fastest recorded run on wheels in America.
In conjunction with the mill, the S. N. W. and L. Company embarked on an ambitious project the construction of the Great Incline of the Sierra Nevada. A double track narrow gauge tramline, 18 feet in over-all width, was engineered by Captain Overton to run straight up the side of the mountain east of the mill. Cross ties spiked to a solid log bed carried the rails on which the lumber and cordwood cars were to operate, with the cars canted at an angle so that a near level inclination could be maintained on the steep grade. From the staging yard adjoining the mill, a spur track feeder line ran southeast one-eighth of a mile to join the tramline near its base. Here the carriers were loaded for the trip up the 4,000-foot-long, l400-foot vertical lift to the V-flume running below the granite outcropping that anchored the top of the structure. Three-quarters of the way up the mountain, an eight-foot rise in every twelve was encountered, giving a near 67 per cent track gradient.
Alpine-funicular and cable car railways of the time actually furnished the pattern for the tramline, although Overton took full credit for the design and construction of the project. The machinery and equipment consisted of more than 8,000 feet of inch and one-eighth endless wire cable fed around two massive twelve-foot diameter, eight-spoked bull wheels. The wheel at summit was driven by a gigantic sprocket and gear turned with a 40-horsepower steam engine embedded into a granite walled powerhouse. Ten-by-twenty-inch timbers were butted to solid rock and secured with iron rods and ring bolts to support the weight of the terminal wheels with the cable ambiguously described as "running over the top of the cars and hitched on top of the hind ends”.
Twelve combination cordwood and lumber cars were used by the company, each car holding one and one-half cords of wood, or a comparable load of lumber. A maximum of 300 cords of wood, or its equivalent, could be carried up a grade to the V-flume each day, with twenty minutes time elapsing during their climb up the mountain. The tramway was engineered so that two carriers could be pulled up the steep ascent while the "empties" descended on the adjoining track, their weight assisting the overloaded steam engine.
Water from the Virginia and Gold Hill Company's north flume supplied the company's flume, which it paralleled. At the point where cord wood and lumber were discharged into the watercourse, heavy gauge iron plate was faced onto the planks of the V-flume to prevent damage to the structure One and one-half miles south of the tramway's summit lay the west portal of the water tunnel, through whose 4,000-foot length the flume ran. A printing telegraph line, strung on poles, climbed up the side of the steep mountainside adjoining the south side of the track leading to the steam plant and watchman's house at the top.
Reproduced with permission and with thanks to E.B. SCOTT and his son, BRUCE M. SCOTT, from E.B. SCOTTS's fine book:
The Saga of Lake Tahoe, Vol. 1, pp. 305-307 (1957)Copyright 1957
Published by Sierra-Tahoe Publishing Co.,
2525 W. 10th Street
Antioch, California 94509