‘Shoot the Flume’: The Origins of the Log Ride

Posted by Staff on Monday, October 17th, 2011

El Aserradero, Six Flags over Texas

Log flume rides, like roller coasters, are derived from commercial transport systems. While roller coasters evolved from a coal transport system in the mountains of Pennsylvania ( the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway), log rides were inspired by the flumes that conveyed logs from mountaintop sawmills to railroad depots miles away using flowing water. The difference between the first log flumes and The Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway is that the log flumes were far too dangerous to be commercially viable themselves. Although some daredevil loggers would “shoot the flume,” it wasn’t until 1963 that the first official log flume ride was built at Six Flags over Texas.

As the demand for lumber grew in the Western United States around the mid 19th century, more efficient means of transporting lumber than horse-drawn carts became necessary. To meet this rising demand for wood, a flume system was devised that carried logs by way of flowing water through a wooden channel. The earliest log flumes were square channels that were prone to jamming. However, in 1868, the first “V” shaped flume was built by James W. Haines. The “V” shape of the flume would cause the water level to rise behind a snagged log, eventually lifting the log and freeing it. This became the standard flume type throughout the Western mountain ranges, the longest running 62 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Sanger, California.

Brennan Creek Log Flume 1918

Brennan Creek Log Flume, 1918

Primarily it was logs that were sent down the flumes, but occasionally daring individuals would brave the flumes in small “V” shaped boats call Go Devils. The most common riders were the “flume herders,” who traveled the flumes to perform safety checks and maintenance; the rest were looking for a thrill. The most famous account of a flume ride, and the one that served as an inspiration for the amusement park ride, was recorded by an East Coast reporter named H.J. Ramsdell. On a visit to the Bonanza V flume in the mountains above Lake Tahoe, the owners, James Fair and James Flood, suggested that Ramsdell accompany them on a ride down the 15-mile flume. Accepting the offer with much hesitation, they set off on a wild and terrifying ride that took less that 30-minutes to complete.

Riding in a log flume

Sketch of lumberjacks riding down a log flume

No one knows for certain what top speed they may’ve hit, but Ramsdell had this to say: “My deliberate belief is that we went at a rate that annihilated time and space.” In another section of his article describing the experience he writes, “you can not stop; you can not 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.” A description like this might sound frightening to most reasonable people, but to an amusement park ride designer, it was a gold mine.

This is exactly the type of story the inspired Bud Hurlbut, designer of El Aserradero (The Sawmill, pictured at top) at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington Texas. It opened in 1963 as the first log flume ride, though a similar type of ride, called Shoot-the-Chutes, had been popular since the late 19th century. El Aserradero, however, was lumberjack-themed through and through. The log flume ride moves passengers along in a log-shaped boat by flowing water, but with much less slope than the original flumes. Often the ride begins with a casual trip downstream, passing by scenic displays of old lumber mills. Finally, the log drops down a final descent and splashes into a body of water, making it the perfect hot weather ride. Bud Hurlbut later went on to design the Timber Mountain Log Ride (1968) at Knott’s Berry Farm , which has become one of the most iconic log flume rides. It captures the spirit of the original flumes with vintage logging equipment and pine-scented forest scenery inhabited by taxidermy animals. In addition to the final plunge, it also includes a dark interior drop. And if it didn’t already have enough Western frontier cred, John Wayne and his son Ethan where the first public riders. When Disneyland unveiled their version of the flume ride, Splash Mountain, in 1989, it was similar to Timber Mountain Log Ride, but upped the ante with audio-animatronic characters performing Disney’s Songs of the South.

 

Timber Mountain Log Ride, Knott's Berry Farm

 

Today you’ll find log flume rides all over the world. Since they are a relatively mild ride, they are great fun for the entire family and for anyone just getting started on their roller coaster riding career. Though they may give you a little rush in that final plunge, they’re nowhere near as gut-wrenching as the original flumes that poor H.J. Ramsdell found himself on. Most likely you’ll never hear someone who just got off a log flume ride sum up their experience as he did: “The terrors of that ride can never be blotted from [my] memory.”

Sources:

Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum

Mendocino Rail History

Dare To Shoot the Flume

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