The old Shaver dam

February 15, 2012

Pop Laval Foundation

Then: Workmen pose for a photograph in the summer of 1892 on the wood face of the rock-filled Shaver sawmill dam.

The draining of Shaver Lake for repairs this winter presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to revisit history. The old Shaver dam, hidden from sight for decades, was fully exposed for a few weeks.

It was a reminder of the lumber trade and ingenuity that helped shape the development of the Central Valley.

Before Fresno County was established, lumbermen discovered the rich timberland of the southern Sierra Nevada. Seeking their fortunes in pine, fir and cedar, they built numerous small sawmills in the Shaver Lake area, then known as Pine Ridge.

They faced a steep challenge: how to transport logs to market in the valley. Heavy freight wagons negotiated the twisting, narrow Tollhouse Road, with treacherous grades of 40% in places. The road was nicknamed “the beast killer” for the oxen that died on the way.

An early sawmill firm had an idea to get around Tollhouse Road: build a flume to carry the lumber on rushing water. But the flume proved too leaky and the group ran out of money.

Michigan lumbermen Charles B. Shaver and Lewis P. Swift saw great potential when they arrived in 1891. Convinced that with proper engineering they could succeed, they secured the rights to the original flume company and renamed it the Fresno Flume and Irrigation Company. They hired civil engineer John Eastwood to design a new flume, while Swift designed and built the sawmill. 

Disaster struck soon after the mill went up. An earthen dam, built on Stevenson Creek to form the millpond (the first Shaver Lake) and provide water for the flume, was washed away in a huge storm. Undaunted, Shaver and Swift started work on the centerpiece of the operation, a substantial rock-fill dam costing $16,000, in the summer of 1892. 

But Mother Nature had her way again when this dam, not quite completed, was swept away in a flash flood that winter. The Fresno Expositor reported: “The noise was beyond description, causing the ground to tremble. The rolling of boulders that weighed hundreds of tons added to the roar of the water. Trees were snapped like straws.” The sawmill, a hotel and townsite were a complete loss. 

Shaver and Swift again pressed forward, rebuilding the mill and dam in mid-1893. The dam—the one exposed this winter—was an engineering marvel.

Boulders were packed with dirt into a framework of vertical and horizontal timbers behind an overlapping double layer of 3- by 12-inch boards. It provided a nearly water-tight barrier as the wood swelled, like an oak barrel filled with whiskey.
Investors poured $300,000 into the operation that started with the dam and sawmill and continued with the 42-mile flume to a Clovis finishing plant. The mill site, named Shaver, boomed with stores, saloons, a blacksmith shop, hotel and houses. The “Michigan,” a small steamboat much like the one featured in the Humphrey Bogart classic film, “The African Queen,” served the mill as a tug, towing logs across the millpond- Shaver Lake- for many years. In it’s off duty, it was used as an excursion vessel, touring visitors around the lake. It was named for Shaver and Swift’s home state.

During its 26-year run, the mill cut 450 million board feet of lumber—said to be enough to build a large city— and played a prominent role in Fresno County’s economic development. The mill closed in 1914 after the peak of the industry had passed. Southern California Edison bought the property and adjoining land in 1919 to supply water to its Big Creek hydro-electric plant.

In 1927, the utility built a new, much bigger dam downstream from the old one. The old sawmill and numerous building were burned down before the expanded lake was filled. 

Among the remnants exposed when the lake was drained: giant iron drive wheels which set saw blades whirring, and the little steamer “Michigan,” still resting in place at the dock where it was left when the lake was filled. And built into the base of the old dam, on the north side, was a little house, the only structure to survive the fire. 

Inside the tiny building, the valve that controlled the water level of the lake was still at work. Left in the open position, the large iron valve wheel allowed the icy water of Stevenson Creek to flow through the dam after 85 years, making a picturesque waterfall, if only for a brief time. 

Addendum: Regarding the 1892 photograph of the dam during construction: the photographer, likely from a Fresno studio, is unknown, hired by Shaver and Swift to document a proud moment and a key piece of their operation: the ingeniously designed dam. Little did these craftsmen realize that in a few months the dam would largely be swept away, and would necessitate them building it a second time. A special thanks for the photograph’s preservation to the family of Fresno pioneer Edwin Eaton and to the Pop Laval Foundation- which generously provided the high resolution scan from the original.

Now: Sections of the wood face of the old dam, still in place, exposed when the lake was drained. These thick boards, combined with a framework of timbers inside the dam\'s structure- also visible- helped make the dam fairly watertight.