≡ Menu

The History of David Buel’s East Fork Flume, San Gabriel Canyon

Many years ago I came across a very entertaining 1870s story about a somewhat hapless miner in the San Gabriel Canyon named “Uncle” Dave Buel. The story goes that Buel invested great time and money into the construction of a water flume and tunnel so that he could bring water to his claim and perform hydraulic mining for gold. The story’s punch line is that the flume and/or tunnel was built partially uphill so water wouldn’t flow, rendering the planned mining operation useless. The result was that Buel went broke and left for Mexico.

This story was written up by the late, great John W. Robinson, a historian for much of the Southern California mountains. Robinson included the same story in his 1973 book “Mines of the San Gabriels”, an article in Desert Magazine in October, 1977 (“The Great Hydraulic Race”) and finally in his “Mines of the East Fork” book in 1992. All three publishings are essentially the same, however there are a few small and subtle differences.

Here is a link (PDF) to an excerpt of Robinson’s writing on the story, as he tells it far better than I could. Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait. Note that I am using the correct spelling of Buel’s name, which uses only one “l”.

It wasn’t until recently I became aware of the sourcing for Robinson’s story. It appears that Robinson’s entire telling of the Buel story was derived from a story originally published in the Azusa Herald newspaper on October 20, 1937. It was a special edition commemorating the paper’s 50th anniversary. The article itself was written by Jim Roberts, who was the son of one of another early San Gabriel Canyon miner, Henry C. Roberts, a contemporary of Buel’s. To be clear, Robinson did reference Roberts when he quoted Roberts verbatim (but not the where or when), but it seems the other information Robinson presented on Buel also came from the Roberts article.

Here is a link (PDF) to Roberts full article from October 20, 1937. Rather than display a difficult to read image from an old newspaper, I ran it through OCR and cleaned up the text. And hey, I’ve got lots of time so go read this one too. It will become important.

The portion about Buel is a pretty good story, isn’t it? Sharp eyed readers may notice a small difference or two between the Roberts and Robinson renditions but they are mostly identical, with Roberts offering more detail.

Too bad the story is almost entirely BS.

Ok, that’s a pretty strong statement. Let’s just say it’s mostly wrong. I realize that’s still a pretty strong claim, but I base it upon my review of period newspaper accounts, old government mapping records and multiple histories of the area, some going back as far as 1874. In fairness to Robinson and Roberts, the rise of the Internet has exposed an amazing bounty of research sources that simply didn’t exist only a few years ago.

So let’s get on with it, shall we?

Who was David E. Buel?

I came across a self-published eBook biography of Dave Buel’s life, called “Larger Than Life – The Exploits of the Miner and Adventurer David E. Buel”, by Edward S. Slagle, 2013. Rather than my trying to rehash what has already been covered in detail by this publication I’ll just hit the major points of Buel’s life before his arrival in the San Gabriel Canyon. Interested readers are advised to Google the book’s title if they’d like to look at Buel’s life further, as I can’t easily post a direct link.

On October 1, 1825, Buel was born in New York state, with Buel’s family moving to Michigan when he was still young.

In 1846 Buel first entered the military, likely to serve in the war with Mexico. On November 2, 1847, Buel reenlisted as a sergeant in a Michigan volunteer regiment commanded by his brother Captain Grover Buel. In mid January of 1848, Buel’s regiment departed for Mexico, landing at Vera Cruz and began moving toward Cordova. During this time Buel was injured when he was crushed by some falling supplies and sustained a rupture. This injury, for which there was no cure at the time, would trouble him the rest of his life. He was released out of military service but chose to remain with his regiment until they returned to Michigan in May of 1848. This disability did qualify Buel for a modest military pension, although he chose to forego it during the more affluent periods of his life.

In November of 1849 Buel, like so many others, left Michigan for the California goldfields and ended up in El Dorado County. While there he owned a restaurant, as well as several other properties, was a deputy sheriff, and eventually was elected sheriff for El Dorado Count in September of 1853. As sheriff he had a number of notable adventures, some of which have been written up in books of the period.

Probably the most remarkable incident was Buel’s rescuing of an individual suspected of murder who was in the process of being lynched by an armed crowd estimated to number a thousand. Buel stood down the crowd, extracted the individual and moved him to a jail in Coloma. In true western fashion the individual was later convicted and legally hung. But Buel’s actions earned him immense respect in his community.

Due in part to these exploits while in El Dorado County, Buel had the honorary title “Colonel” bestowed upon him by his fellow veterans there. While having no official standing, and purely honorary, it was a title Buel often used for the rest of his life. Another title Buel went by was “Uncle Dave”, although that was more due to general affection than anything else.

On October 1, 1854, Buel married Nina Lucy Terrill in Georgetown, California. During the span of their marriage they remained childless.

Buel was elected to the California Assembly and served a single two year term of office from 1857 to 1859. Following that Buel became an Indian agent on the Klamath River Reservation in Del Norte County, California. A writer of the period, John Ross Browne described Buel as “..an honest Indian Agent – the rarest work of God that I know of”.

Interestingly, the census data of 1860 showed Buel to already be amassing a considerable worth. Buel’s estate was estimated at $12,000, and his wife Nina’s estate at $1,200. Seeing as how a dollar today is worth approximately 26 times what it was in 1860, the Buel family worth was around $343,000 in today’s dollars.

In the winter of 1861-62 floodwaters destroyed the reservation, so in October of 1862 Buel moved on to other ventures, which included prospecting. In Nevada, near the town of Austin, Buel and his partners filed claims that turned out to be extremely profitable. Within a few years an extensive mining operation was developed, as well as a profitable mill. During this period Buel was one of the founders and named the city of Austin, Nevada.

Buel ran for mayor of Austin in 1864, but lost likely due to his southern sympathies (remember this was the pre Civil War era). Still, Buel was extremely respected and liked in town. Buel was a very big man by the standards of his time. He was 6′ 4″ with size 15 shoes, cutting a very outsize figure. Below is the only known image of Buel, drawn by his writer-friend Browne during Buel’s failed mayoral run.

The only known drawing of Buel, circa 1866

In late 1865 silver was discovered near the present town of Belmont, Nevada and Buel lived there for a while. In fact he was one of that town’s founders also. During his stay there Buel again developed a considerable mining operation.

Moving on, as was Buel’s habit in life, he arrived near the present town of Eureka, Nevada in November of 1869. While apparently rich strikes had been made there, the ore proved difficult to process. Buel, along with his long term partner Isaac Bateman, developed an extraction method that proved effective and profitable.

Buel was again the founder of yet another town, Eureka, Nevada (Is there such a thing as a serial town founder?) There are streets in Eureka named for both Buel and Bateman.

By early 1871, Buel was filing claims in Utah in the Wasatch Range and Cottonwood, establishing mines and setting up furnaces.

At this point the stage is set for Buel’s arrival into Southern California and the San Gabriel Canyon. The reason for taking the time to go into Buel’s background is to put forth a measure of the character and competence of the man. Buel clearly was a very successful miner and entrepreneur. He owned many businesses and established and ran a number of significant mining operations in a wide variety of circumstances. Due to his ventures he had become quite affluent if not outright wealthy. Buel also displayed sort of an ADHD approach to mining, always looking forward to the next big thing and moving on. However, unlike most other miners of the time, Buel enjoyed relative success in doing so.

Up until this point, most of the information I’ve presented comes from the “Larger Than Life” Buel biography by Slagle. Oddly, Slagle makes no mention of Buel’s time in Southern California suggesting it may have been a minor sideline in Buel’s overall life arc. So from this point forward I’ll present my own research, mostly derived from contemporary newspaper accounts, maps and legal documents.

One measure of the prominence Buel had was his reported “death”. On February 7, 1872, multiple western newspapers published reports of Buel’s supposed death in the vicinity of Salt Lake. This was followed up by a rather amusing item in the Sacramento Daily Union a week later on February 15:

Sacramento Daily Union, Feb 15, 1872

On February 29, 1872, the Ely Record reported that on February 16th Buel had sold his Flagstaff mine and furnaces located in Little Cottonwood for $1.5 million. While the proceeds would have been split with his partners, Buel earned a tremendous return from this transaction that would see him through for a number of years.

On April 19, 1872, the Sacramento Daily Union (SDU) reported that:

“The placer mines on the San Gabriel sold yesterday to D. E. Buel and others for $80,000. The claims comprise the Matfield & Roberts, Highby & Co and others, and will be worked by hydraulics.”

This thus marks Buel’s entry into the San Gabriel Canyon.

These claims all were part of the newly formed San Gabriel Mining District. I was able to uncover the district’s bylaws at the National Archives and include them below.

The bylaws of the San Gabriel Mining District

On September 1, 1872, the Daily Alta Californian (a San Francisco newspaper) reported that, “Col. D. E. Buel, the well known mining engineer, is making extensive arrangements to develop the consolidated placer claims on the San Gabriel by hydraulics.”

In addition to Buel’s previously reported purchase of claims, he also posted a claim of his own on September 8, 1872 for 20 acres. A 20 acre claim adjoining Buel’s to the east, the Ford claim, was also posted that same day.

Page 1 of David E. Buel’s filed San Gabriel River claim

Page 2 of David E. Buel’s filed San Gabriel River claim

Page 3 of David E. Buel’s filed San Gabriel River claim

However even as Buel was getting his San Gabriel workings underway, there’s evidence he was still involved with other efforts elsewhere, as reported by the SDU of September 18, 1872

Sacramento Daily Union, Sept 18, 1872

The most important thing to note in this report is the statement, “His company has just finished leading water to the claim through five ditches and thus agua in abundance has been secured.” This suggests that the flume had now been completed. There is no mention of any failed water supply attempt. So it appears the flume and tunnel system were likely constructed sometime between April and mid-September of 1872.

It would probably be a good idea to have a look at a map of the area and identify the major player, so have a look at the exhibit below. It’s a portion of a survey map by the appropriately named John Goldsworthy, filed with the California Surveyor General’s office establishing lot numbers for the claim areas of the San Gabriel Mining District.

The major claims on the San Gabriel River. The Baker & Austin, Buel, Ford and Woodman claims were either controlled by or partnered with Buel.

The Ferguson and Graham & Cecil claims to the east (right) had locked up water rights to the east fork. Graham & Cecil were bringing water to their site via a flume on the northerly slopes of East Fork and Ferguson was putting his flume on the southerly slopes. This pretty much shut out anyone west of them (Buel and company) from supplies of East Fork water suitable for hydraulic operations. We know Buel filed for his own claim, the papers reported his ownership of the Baker & Austin claims, and was probably partnering with both Ford and Woodman. So it seems there were at least four claims, clustered together, that would be in need of water, presumably from the North Fork area

The next press mention of Buel’s operation doesn’t appear until the SDU of March 28, 1873. It’s a report by W. W. Woodman, superintendent of the Buel and Bateman claims, (formerly the Baker & Austin) that the operation had produced $5,200. While the article is unclear on the timeframe in which the production occurred, it is a substantial sum and represents a successful operation, at least initially.

Sacramento Daily Union, Mar 28, 1873

Four months later the SDU of July 25, 1873 reported that, “The Buel and Bateman hydraulic claims are running night and day. The San Gabriel Canyon miners at work are reported as doing well.”

A sizable article on mining in the San Gabriel Canyon was printed on December 3, 1873 by the Los Angeles Herald (LAH). A portion of the actual article is shown below as it contains a lot of important information:

Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 3, 1873

The claims owned by Buel and Bateman are the aforementioned Baker & Austin claim at 80 acres, the San Gabriel Mining Co. at 160 acres and the North Fork claim at 40 acres. The article states the North Fork claim is served by a six mile long ditch (as previously mentioned, the vernacular term for flume), which is the flume system of interest to us here. Of the three flumes mentioned, a cost range is given of from $10,000 to $20,000 each. Given that the North Fork flume is by far the longest, it is reasonable to assume that the $20,000 value was its cost.

It states, “Work is not being pushed with much vigor, the mines having been bonded to Messrs Buel & Bateman, of San Francisco, for sale in England.” What this means is that Buel and Bateman were in the process of selling their mining operations to some individual or company in England. The bonding mentioned is sort of an escrow or trust arrangement in which the mining operation is held until the purchaser assembles the necessary funding. Since the claims are being sold, the seller isn’t that interested in expending funds to do more work, however Buel & Bateman still had a total of about 20 men working at that time. Apparently 20 men wasn’t considered much vigor!

It appears Buel was more than ready to move on to other enterprises. The LAH of January 7, 1874 reported that Dave Buel had just returned to San Francisco from the Blue Jay mines (northeast of Twenty-nine Palms) where he apparently purchased a third interest in them.

On January 15, 1874, the LAH contained a report on the San Gabriel mines by J. Van Mathias. While mostly focusing on the ongoing success of the Roberts operation, he states that, “It is generally believed that the arrangement with Buel & Bateman will fall through. Nothing has yet been done by Buel toward closing up the trade.” This implies that the sale of Buel and Bateman’s holdings, reported in process a month earlier, was not going to happen.

Just two weeks later, on January 31, 1874, the LAH reported that Buel, J. R. Frink, J. Van Mathias and an unnamed reverend had just left for the Cedar Mining District in Arizona (northeasterly of today’s Kingman) for at least a two month stay. They were bringing with them supplies with which to open and develop claims.

Buel’s trip to Arizona seemed to signal his departure from the San Gabriel Canyon, as no further mention is made of him there. That is not true of Arizona, as he enjoyed considerable success….for a while. This report by the LAH of July 29, 1874 indicates Buel had yet again established a considerable operation:

Los Angeles Herald, July 29, 1874

And Buel still had considerable funds left at his disposal. This except from the SDU of January 7, 1875 describes a purchase Buel made of $240,000.

Sacramento Daily Union, Jan 7, 1875

While Buel had been fortunate in his acquisitions and sales to this point, having made considerable money, this one was to break him. As described by Slagle in “Larger Than Life…”, ”

“Buel bought into the McCracken, and began to work it. For some reason, however—because he had bought at too high a price and he had to default on the payment terms, because litigation from previous mining ventures went against him at about that time, because the vein at the McCracken that Buel was mining temporarily pinched out, or for a combination of these or other circumstances—he was unable to fulfill his part of the purchase agreement; he lost his financial stake in the mine and the bulk of his assets; and he would never again be a wealthy man.”

Buel continued to move around the west, filing claims and continuing to run mines, but mostly in the employ of others and not as a mine owner. He filed coal claims in Utah, had some success with silver mining in Nevada in 1878 and even prospected in British Columbia. The early 1880’s found him employed as a mine superintendent in several locations in Nevada, then drifting east into Utah, then Missouri.

In March of 1885, Buel’s wife Nina, who had been living in both Salt Lake City and San Francisco and seeing little of her wandering husband, filed for divorce.

On March 4, 1888, Buel arrived in Dixon, Missouri where he was planning on prospecting for Onyx. While in a general store there, Buel suddenly died of a heart attack at age 61.

So….the written record doesn’t seem to fit very well at all with Roberts’ recollections, does it? Buel’s accomplishments and experiences prior to entering the San Gabriel Canyon were likely far beyond any of the placer miners already there. And Buel (and his partners) were apparently well capitalized for such a venture. There is no mention whatsoever of anything other than an ongoing hydraulic operation with an operating five mile ditch producing satisfactorily enough to warrant its sale. And finally, Buel didn’t go broke and leave for Mexico. Instead he went on to Arizona and enjoyed some success in mining there.

Was there really a “Simpson”? Hard to say. There was certainly no mention of anyone by that name in any of the press reports of the day. Could the flume have been constructed uphill and the grade lost? Possibly, as this was something that happened from time to time due to the precision of the instruments of the era. From an 1873 California report on hydraulic mining by Rossiter Raymond, the U.S. Commissioner on Mining Statistics:

“This grade must be adhered to strictly, and under no circumstances must it be lessened at one point and increased at another, since the flow of water, once checked by less grade, cannot be regained by increasing the grade at another point. The ditch in such a case would have to be widened.”

It is certainly possible some sort of problem with the flume’s grade could have been discovered upon its start up. But clearly it wasn’t a fatal flaw, and was correctable, as Buel’s claims went on to reasonable levels of production with the press reporting the flume in operation.

Why didn’t the sale of Buel and Bateman’s San Gabriel holdings go through and why did he apparently abandon them? And what became of the claims Buel once held? At this point it’s hard to say, but answers might be found if the records of the San Gabriel Mining District could be located.

In the late 1800s, in California, claims were generally not recorded with the County recorder but with the mining district the claim was filed in. And custodianship of those records was erratic. In my searches for the records of the San Gabriel Mining District I did come across a portion of them as part of the holdings of the Seaver Center for Western History Research in Los Angeles. Unfortunately they only had volume 4, which began in 1891, well after Buel’s era. There were a couple of interesting notes added to its inside cover.

The first undated note stated that “There is no provision in law for disposition of mining records from mining districts in California”. The second note said, “This book of records of the San Gabriel Mining District was found by the County Auditor in his office and deposited with the County Recorder Feb 19, 1930.” Apparently some time after that the Recorder offloaded it to the Seaver Center. My inquiry to the Los Angeles County Recorder for any old mining records for this area resulted in a response that they held nothing like that.

After digging through this story for a number of months I have developed an educated guess as to what might have happened. First, for Buel, who was at heart a hard rock miner, these hydraulic placer operations were a relatively inexpensive and amusing diversion but not the sort of thing he usually got involved in. Secondly, reports from other placer mining operations in the San Gabriel Canyon attested to the randomness of the gold deposits and it’s very likely Buel’s operation, while initially generating a good return, simply ran out of paying material to process. The lack of evidence of any significant workings by others of the Buel holdings after he departed tends to support this. Finally, as will be elaborated on more in the locating and mapping section, maintaining the flume’s operation may have been problematic and time consuming. So Buel (and his partners), not seeing any substantial long term profits in a marginal operation, and unable to sell it, just walked away from it. He had founded, bought and sold numerous operations and had the experience to know when something was worth leaving behind.

And above all, the lack of any mention of an “uphill flume” in any of the three Los Angeles newspapers would be remarkable. The competition between the LA Herald, LA Express and LA Star was fierce, with each always looking to gain over the other and taking daily pot shots among themselves. (Having personally gone through almost two years of each publication was an amazing experience!). The story of a flume built uphill with the owner going broke and leaving town would be far too sensational to ignore.

So, to quote the Mighty Internet, “Pics or it didn’t happen!”

All righty then, lets list the main things the Roberts story got wrong:

• Buel’s name (ok, I concede spelling is being nit picky).
• The tunnel length was (and still is) 550 feet, not 700 feet.
• Buel’s operation was in fact successful, at least for a while.
• There’s no evidence the flume was constructed uphill.
• No contemporary records of a “Simpson”.
• Buel didn’t go broke and leave (he just left for other ventures).
• Roberts’ definition of a “tram” is completely wrong. Such a device was often used for flume layout but was called an “A Level” and dates back to Roman days.
• The person Roberts named as Sam Hawley was actually named Everton W. Hawley. I found no evidence he ever went by Sam.

But why would Roberts be so completely off in his story? The most likely reason is that according to the 1880 census, Jim Roberts would have been about 4 to 5 years old during the time period this incident would have had to taken place (1872 to 1873). As Roberts was about 69 when he wrote his article for the Azusa Herald it’s probable any first hand recollections would have been that of an old man relating childhood stories. Of course Roberts could have been told the story by family members, like his father who was a very successful hydraulic miner in the canyon, but then it becomes hearsay, easily corruptible by retelling.

And on a concluding note, I probably should point out that Buel probably didn’t “build” the damn thing at all. Oh sure, he probably paid for most or all of it, but its true builder was likely a person by the name of A. D. Ford. From the parcel maps you might remember that name from the placer claim adjacent to Buel’s claim on the east. I found a note in the Daily Alta California newspaper of August 5, 1872 that Buel and A.D. Ford traveled together on the steamship Oriflamme from San Pedro to San Francisco. That, and their claim proximities suggest a business relationship.

But the clincher is an excerpt from the LAH from September 9, 1874, after Buel had moved on to Arizona. It’s primarily about the new mines opening in the Castaic area north of Los Angeles and talks about our same A.D. Ford building a flume there. And……alludes he was responsible for the San Gabriel flume.

Los Angeles Herald, Sept 9, 1874

At this point perhaps you’d like to know where this sucker was. Or actually, is, because it’s still there. You just have to know where to look…..