It was the immense resource, in the lower Sierras, of pine and other timber, that “made” Madera. While milling had begun in the Sixties in the San Joaquin River basin, the most of the lumber used in the valley was brought from the north by rail in the Seventies.
William H. Thurman, who later became the first sheriff of Madera County, and who had been a mill man prior to coming into the San Joaquin Valle and settling at Merced, became interested in the commercial possibilities of the large tracts of sugar pine known to lie on the ridges north of the San Joaquin. As a result of his efforts, a corporation was formed, the California Lumber company, in 1874. P. D. Wiggington, attorney of Merced and onetime Congressman became the president and Mark Howell the secretary of the company. Others listed as stockholders were J. J. Dickenson, A. G. Ellis, Dr. J. B. Cocanoeur, John Montgomery, Henry Miller, Charles M. Blain, Russ Ward, district attorney of Merced, and the James brothers. The enterprise was distinguished by the fact that the lumber was to be brought down too the railroad by means of a flume, fifty-five miles in length—this being the first structure of the kind in the valley. Later it was imitated by flumes reaching Sanger and Clovis in the district south of the San Joaquin. The first mill was known as the California lumber mill; a later one was called the Soquel mill because some the stockholders were interested in Soquel, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Proposals to have the flume terminate at Borden, the already established village on the Central Pacific, were frustrated by what were considered too high charges for land and by alleged land level difficulties in running the flume. Consequently, the mill managers accepted an offer from Isaac Friedlander of forty acres for yard and mill and an undivided half interest in a plat for a new town. Thus both the original land owner and the mill stockholders were to profit in the promotion of the new town. The promoters were conscious of the romantic value of Spanish California names and called their new location “Madera” from the Spanish word for
Mr. Thurman, who was the manager of the new milling enterprise, constructed the first home in Madera, on C Street. The first planing mill was located at what is now the corner of Sixth and E streets, a building that is still in existence.
It was in 1876, that the town of Madera took on actual form. It did so with some opposition, as there were vested interests in the location at Borden, two and a half miles southerly on the railroad and the Central Pacific Company itself objected to the new townsite. However, the commercial strength of the new lumbering enterprise overcame all opposition. The town of Madera was laid out with wide streets, which are still a matter of pride to the citizens. The town has also grown—differently from most San Joaquin Valley cities—in that its business district is almost entirely easterly from the railroad, yet its residence section is largely on the west side. On the e\west also were constructed later the chief school building, the court house and the county library and other public enterprises.
Railroad company opposition compelled the town promoters to build their own station house. Sheldon Borden was the first Central Pacific agent. After about ten years, this first depot was destroyed by fire, whereupon the railroad built its own depot.
In 1877 and 1878, California generally suffered under a terrible drought, a year and a half passing with virtually no rainfall. In the general commercial depression that attended this drought, the lumber company at Madera passed into the hands of San Jose financiers who had advanced money for the original construction program. Return Roberts of the Commercial and Savings Bank of San Jose thus became interested in Madera, moved to this city and was for many years a leading citizen. He reorganized the lumber enterprise as the Madera Flume and Trading Company, built more mills in the mountains, constructed a large planning mill at Madera, and in 1893 started the Commercial Bank of Madera, later merged with the Bank of Italy. Return Roberts died in Madera about twenty years ago.
In the Nineties, consequent to the depression in the early part of that decade, the Madera Flume and Trading Company permitted its flume to go into decay, the ills stopping operations. But the timber holdings and the rights of way continued as a valuable asset. In 1899, E. H. Cox led in organizing the Madera Sugar Pine Company. Mr. Cox had been railroad agent at Madera, secretary of the flume company, manager of the commercial bank, and had grown up with the town. He sensed the opportunities in the revival of business at the end of the century, rebuilt the flume and construct a large planing mill east of the City of Madera. The large establishment was laid out at Sugar Pine, which still continues there. The sawmill was burned in 1922, but immediately was reconstructed.