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California \ Towle Brothers Lumber Co.

The Towle Brothers Lumber Company.

By Andrew Brandon

The Towle Brothers Lumber Company got its start near Dutch Flat in the early 1860s. The company was founded by brothers: Allen, George, and Edwin Towle. Originally from Vermont, Allen was the first to move to California in 1859. He became involved with the local lumber industry and invited his brothers to join him out west.

In the 1870s, they established a town 5 miles east of Alta, named “Towle”, on land leased from the Central Pacific Railroad. There they established a large sawmill and company town. In the 1877, the Towle Bros. received their first locomotive, a 0-4-0T from H.K. Porter and began construction of 3-foot gauge railroad. Rolling stock for the ine, 16' 4-wheeled flat cars, were ordered from Billmeyer & Small Company, the only railroad in California to operate cars built by that company. The railroad brought rough cut lumber from smaller mills in the woods down to Towle for finishing.

The railroad extended down to the Bear Valley where they established a sawmill in Bear Valley in 1881. The railroad crossed the Bear River into Nevada County, as the railroad advanced they established mills at Steep Hollow where the company built a sawmill. At the turn of the century, the Towle Bros. operated five narrow gauge steam locomotives, 60 flat cars and a single caboose/pay car.

"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... 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...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."

In 1892 they constructed a mill on the south fork of Deer Creek, sixteen miles from Nevada City. The railroad was now 36 miles long and the nearest rail connection to the mining camps of Alpha, Omega and Washington.

As the timber supply, north of Towle diminished, the company acquired a mill on Texas Hill mill near Emigrant Gap in Placer County. The Towle Bros. moved and enlarged the mill and expanded the operation. A second mill was built in Fulda Flat and operations began winding down in Nevada County.

George W. Towle, the last of the brothers, died in 1901. The Towle family sold the operation to the Read Lumber Co. Ltd. of Canada, on August 20, 1902. Read Lumber Co. continued operating the mills at Fulda and Texas Hill until 1920 when timber supply was depleted. The family had an interest in a box factory in Sacramento until the 1960s and remained a major landowner in the area.

Revised: March 8, 2018
Staab, Roger. Towle Brothers, Forgotten Sierra Town, Logging Railroad, Family Empire. Colfax: Placer Sierra Railroad Heritage Society, 2013.

Reference Material Available Online:


The Towle Bros. and their narrow-gauge railroad.
From the Placer Republican, May 27, 1885.

Lumbering in California. - The Wisconsin Lumberman, Volume I. Number 3 (December, 1873).
State of Wisconsin Collection, University Wisconsin Digital Collections.


Towle Brothers Company, Articles of Incorporation. January 14th, 1889.
Articles of Incorporation Page 1
Articles of Incorporation Page 2
Articles of Incorporation Page 3
Articles of Incorporation Page 4

Virginia & Truckee Railroad Records, Correspondence on sale of locomotive to Towle Brothers Lumber Company, 1902. Adobe PDF 0.44MB
Courtesy: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.


Collected Towle Brothers Lumber Company Photographs.
Images collected from private collections, libraries and historical societies.

California \ Towle Brothers Lumber Co.
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