Special Reports

Historical Perspective: Rail, flume fueled early Clovis

Even before its Old Town was old enough to be called Old Town, Clovis had a bustling central business district.

In 1909, three years before Clovis became an incorporated city, horse-drawn wagons made their way along muddy Front Street, now Clovis Avenue, at Fourth Street, rolling south through the business district.

Brothers J.E. Good (far end of photo) and Robert E.L. Good operated general merchandise stores at opposite ends of the block. All four Good brothers were Clovis merchants. The block of Front Street included a lodging hall above J.E. Good’s, three saloons, a livery stable and feed store, a restaurant and a shoe shop.

Back then, Clovis had about 500 people. Today, it has about 100,000.

Clovis got its start in 1891 as a freight station on the San Joaquin Valley Railroad, which ran 26 miles between Fresno and Hamptonville (now Friant). The first station was a parked railroad car between the Pollasky and Tarpey stops. The restored 1892 Tarpey station is the only surviving structure built by the railroad.

Banker and lawyer Marcus Pollasky, representing the railroad, secured rights of way from landowners. He bought land from farmer Clovis Cole (1858-1939) and Cole's wife, Elizabeth, for $4,000 in gold coin. The railroad named the townsite after Cole, who was known as “Wheat King of the Nation” for good reason: He once farmed 50,000 acres of wheat.

Clovis got a big boost in its development thanks to lumbermen from Michigan, who formed the Fresno Flume and Irrigation Co. and acquired thousands of acres of timberland east of Clovis.

Original plans called for a manufacturing facility and flume terminus in Fresno. But high Fresno real estate prices prompted owners C.B. Swift and C.B. Shaver to buy 60 acres of land from Clovis Cole at his namesake town to serve as the terminus.

A dam was built on Stevenson Creek, creating Shaver Lake, as well as a mill and a 42-mile flume -- the third largest in the nation. Finished in 1894, the flume carried the cut lumber to Clovis and provided irrigation water.

As much as 200,000 board-feet of lumber a day floated down the flume, which had a vertical decent of 4,000 feet and trestles as high as 90 feet. By the company's second year, the owners had invested $1 million into the operation and had between 300 and 500 workers on the payroll.

All of this fueled Clovis' early growth, with workers building homes near the mill, and the need for services such as schools and businesses. The Clovis School District started in 1895 with one teacher conducting classes in the town depot, and Clovis was incorporated as a city in 1912.

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