Towle thrived as lumber town during 1800s

By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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There was once a place called Towle, located between Dutch Flat and Alta. It was neither a mining camp nor a railroad town. It was a company town for the Towle Brothers lumber business. Founders Allen and George Towle came to California from Vermont in the 1850s. Edwin Towle joined them later. Three mills were built at Towle in 1865. When a new mill was added 10 years later, a narrow gauge railroad was built and the rails kept expanding to carry lumber. In its heyday, the railroad was between 35 and 40 miles in length. In the 1870s the 30-dwelling town had a general store, a three-story hotel, a box factory, sash and door factory, and a mill for grinding slash to sawdust, to be used in the manufacture of black powder. Only the butcher shop, shoe repair shop and the livery stable were privately owned. There was a town hall and a Baptist church. Towle children attended school at Alta until about 1890 when they outnumbered Alta students. An election was held and the school was moved to Towle. The bitterness lingered for years. By the 1930s few residents remained. The Allen Towle home, built in 1870, was torn down in 1959 to make room for Interstate 80. George Washington Towle and his wife, Frances, celebrated their 10th, or tin, anniversary in their home in Towle Glen in 1883. A magnificent top hat, a bonnet, a fan and other tin items worn on that occasion are now in the Golden Drift Museum in Dutch Flat. An article reprinted in Russell Towle’s “Dutch Flat Chronicles” and written by someone identified only by the initials “J. E. C.” gives a fascinating report. In 1873, the brothers had made Alta the base of their operations as the largest timber production between Auburn and Truckee. Fifteen years of perseverance had raised the Towles from common mill hands, at $20 per month, to the leading lumbermen of the region. Their operation cut and sent more product to market than all the other mills from Auburn to the Summit combined. Allen Towle was the head of the firm, with both George and Edwin as partners in the business. Together they had saved their wages as “loggers” and put up enough to purchase the mill in which they were employed. With this Dutch Flat mill as their start their next venture was to build a small mill at Blue Canyon. The new mill barely paid expenses so it was moved over into Canyon creek, on the Dutch Flat to Donner Lake stage road. They named it the Kearsarge mill. Undiscouraged by the failure at Blue Canyon, Allen Towle met with Charley Crocker and struck a deal to provide all timber materials necessary for the Central Pacific Railroad carpenters to construct the Summit snow sheds of the Transcontinental route over the Sierra. For this purpose, the Towles, in 1868, shipped the machinery for the first-class mill over the mountains, in the dead of winter. It took their teams an entire week to make the five miles from Summit Valley to Donner Lake, where the mill was erected. During this two-year period, the receipts from the railroad company averaged about $30,000 a month, the lumber selling at $12-$13 per thousand board feet. When the project was complete the mill equipment was brought back across the mountains and set up in Canyon creek, midway between Blue Canyon and Alta, which they named the Alabama. By 1873, the firm had purchased some 8-10,000 acres of timberland, over half of which was acquired from the CPRR federal grant holdings. They built their narrow gauge rail line to connect the harvest lands and the milling operations. The grading, ties and iron of this road cost $25,000 per mile. Wages ranged from $40 to $125 per month, with board. The lumber sold from $14-$50 per 1,000 bf and found a ready market at points from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. In 1900, George W. Towle, the only surviving brother, sold the sawmill business to his nephews and retired. J.H. Robie, E.T. Robie and Lathrop Huntley purchased the Towle firm and renamed it the Auburn Lumber Company (see Colfax Record, Oct. 6, 2011).