Farad to Floriston hike through history

The old wooden flume used to divert water to the old Farad Hydroelectric Power Plant built in 1899. | Mark McLaughlin

The Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway is still a work in progress, but the sections that are open offer an opportunity to enjoy inspiring hikes and bike rides along rarely accessed terrain. The project, which was the brainchild of Janet Phillips, received enthusiastic support when she first proposed the idea in 2003. Due to issues with private landowners and public entities, Phillips’s dream encountered obstacles; but, year by year, more of the trail has been either improved or opened. The Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway will stretch for 116 miles from Tahoe City to Pyramid Lake when completed.

The section of the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway in the Truckee River Canyon between Floriston and Farad is only 4 miles roundtrip, but there is much natural beauty and history to enjoy. The trail parallels the Truckee River and at times runs along the bank, offering one an opportunity to cool one’s feet in its refreshing water. Cottonwoods and willows abound in the moist riparian environment while the arid mountain ridges towering above sport mostly sagebrush and scrub pine.

The Floriston pulp mill along the Truckee River in 1910.

The trail can be accessed at either end, but the easiest parking is at Farad. Take Interstate 80 to the Farad exit about 14 miles east of Truckee. From there the trail runs upriver. Parking is on the south side of I-80.

The hike starts at the old Farad Hydroelectric Power Plant built in 1899. (A farad is a unit of electrical capacitance named after the brilliant British scientist Michael Faraday, who established the basis for electromagnetic physics.) To generate power, a large wooden flume was constructed to divert water from the Truckee River upstream at Floriston to the power plant. The gravity-assisted flow down the flume drove the turbines at Farad. The Floriston diversion dam and parts of the flume itself were destroyed in a January 1997 flood, but much of the flume remains intact and the trail meanders along this example of early industrialization. The Farad facility’s 2.5-megawatt capacity not only once powered western Nevada mining operations, but also provided lighting for Reno, Carson City and Virginia City.

Cottonwoods and willows abound in the moist riparian environment while the arid mountain ridges towering above sport mostly sagebrush and scrub pine.

The Truckee River Canyon has a long history as an important transportation corridor with a major highway and railroad, but except for one stretch underneath Interstate 80, traffic noise on the trail is abated by the rushing waters of the Truckee River. On the approach to Floriston, you’ll see a destroyed diversion dam in the Truckee River, but there is virtually no evidence of the huge Floriston Pulp and Paper Company mill that went into operation there in 1899. The paper mill produced book, writing and manila paper types along with thin tissue wraps for oranges and other fruits. There was also a machine that made “raisin tray,” a paper tray to lay harvested grapes on so they could dry in the sun to become raisins.

The Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway in Floriston. | Mark McLaughlin

Mill construction required 3 million board feet of lumber and 1.5 million bricks that were burned in local kilns. A sidetrack was built from the railroad to the plant and 25 structures were erected to house the work force. It was a huge project that cost $500,000 dollars, but took only 90 days to complete. When finished, it was the largest pulp mill west of the Mississippi. The job represented the largest lumber contract awarded to Truckee lumbermen since the Comstock bonanza years. The hydroelectric generation plant at Farad provided electricity to run the whole operation.

In 1920, an aerial tramway was built. The tramway’s steel cable extended nearly 9,000 feet from a nearby mountain peak down to a terminal near the railroad tracks. The aerial line was operated by gravity as buckets loaded with wood soared out of the sky. It became a ski lift when mill manager Roy O. Young rode up in a bucket and skied back down.

The project was a huge economic boost, but came with immediate environmental costs. The pulp mill discharged up to 150,000 gallons of acidic waste directly into the Truckee River every day. Fish died and witnesses in Reno reported that the river water consisted of a “blend between black and brown with soapy bubbles covering the surface.” It was said that you could tell what paper was being made at any given time by the color of the river. After years of litigation, the pulp mill closed in 1930 and was dismantled. Some residents in Floriston still live in the same houses built for the workers.

Information and maps may be found at tpbikeway.org.