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The Incredible History of the Timber Mountain Log Ride

Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff grew up going to theme parks on the East Coast, but now lives 20 minutes from Knott's Berry Farm. For years, Jeff has written on the various theme park topics for a variety of publications, including several fan sites, magazines, the podcast Communicore Weekly, and has written two books on the subject. He currently writes the serialized audio drama RETURN HOME, which can be found on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffheimbuch

The Timber Mountain Log Ride is one of the most iconic, and classic, attractions at Knott’s Berry Farm. For years, it has delighted and entertained families of all ages with its rough and tumble look into the lives of the folks of Calico.

While it’s called the Timber Mountain Log Ride now, it was originally called the Calico Log Ride. Bud Hurlbut and his father, Ray Hurlbut, began working on the basic idea for the attraction almost five years before construction on the ride began. Bud already had a lot of success with the Calico Mine Ride, which focused on the troubles of the gold miners, at Knott’s Berry Farm when it opened in 1960. He dug into California history again for the Calico Log Ride and discovered a connection between the lumber industry and the gold rush. 

After thousands had flocked to California in search of gold, two really big problems arose: the lack of building materials for the new settlers to use and the lack of enough gold to go around. Now, because the miners had no building materials, they had to improvise a way in order to create them. And so, many of them turned to the lumber industry. Because these building materials were in such demand, they actually found a lot more profit in lumber than they would have from the depleted gold streams. 

Historically, the very first sawmills were built on riverbanks. Lumberjacks cut the trees along the banks, rolled the logs into the water and then floated them to the mill. When the supply of trees along the river banks had been completely cut down, the Lumberjacks turned to the trees a little more inland. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any equipment to carry the heavy logs back to the streams to float them up-river, so that led to the development of the flume. Looking at this, you can definitely see how this type of thing could naturally translate to a ride! 

Exactly! However, it wasn’t planned a flume ride at first. Bud wanted the ride to be as thrilling and historically accurate as the rides taken by the loggers when moving the trees back to the mill, but not as inherently dangerous. The original idea was for it to be a roller coaster, and make it appear as if the car was floating in a trough. Walter Knott, the owner of Knott’s Berry Farm, was not interested in it at all. Bud went back to the drawing board, and after talking with his friends Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon of Arrow Development, it was proposed that the ride be a log ride, as we know it to be today. 

Bud, Ed, and Karl worked together to create a model of the ride and presented the idea to Walter Knott, who, again, turned it down. Thankfully, this still didn’t deter Bud. He took this opportunity to work out the financing for the ride and work out all the bugs. At the same time, Arrow Development fine-tuned the log-ride system and sold it to Six Flags Over Texas in 1963. After that version was up and running, Bud brought the idea to Walter Knott for the third time. He explained that, unlike Six Flags Over Texas, he wanted the Knott’s version to have a fully themed environment that told a story. He designed another model of the attraction, and described, in minute detail, every single scene to Walter Knott, from lighting to the sound effects, and even the action. This time, Walter greenlit the attraction. 

The Calico Log Ride was a costly effort, costing millions of dollars, and taking nearly a year to construct. It opened on July 11, 1969 with screen legend John Wayne and his son, John Ethan, taking the first ride down the flume. The ride is housed in a mountain 300 feet long and 75 feet high. The flume itself is 2,100 feet long and six feet wide. The fiberglass logs, weighing 450 pounds apiece, carry four to five passengers, enabling 1,800 passengers an hour to board the 36 logs for the thrilling 4-minute journey. The “free float” system of the logs did not employ any mechanical device to regulate passage. Fluid drive – water current, controlled by a pair of 125 horse-power pumps circulating 24,000 gallons of water per minute, cause the logs to rush through the flume at speeds ranging from 8 to 22 feet per second. A reservoir of 350,000 gallons of water is required to maintain the flow. 

Once aboard, passengers see and experience what might have happened to actual loggers at the turn of the Century. The mountain is constructed on three levels. From the point of departure, logs are lifted 36 feet by a conveyor belt (in the original incarnation of the ride, chains were used) to the entrance of the Calico Log and Lumber Company. Passengers then float into the mill to witness the operations, complete with mechanical and hand equipment, animated figures and true-to-life sound effects. After being “stripped” of their bark and “sawed” in the mills, the logs carrying passengers soar down a five-foot waterfall, land in the flume and begin their free-floating journey. 

Sweeping through the water on their own power, the log passes picturesque scenery and realistic settings while surging around, over and through the mountain. Passing a forest of Ponderosa pine, wild animals are seen lurking in the thick underbrush. Floating under a waterfall, the logs slip along a trestle precariously clinging to the side of a cliff overlooking a deep ravine. The journey continues, passing many more animated scenes before the final plunge, shooting down a 42-foot incline, plunging with a big bow wave into the mill pond below. 

In January 2013, the ride closed to undergo a massive refurbishment. The overhaul took five months to bring the ride up to today’s standards. Garner Holt Productions stepped in to help create over 40 human animatronics, along with countless animal figures. The refreshed version of the ride, now called the Timber Mountain Log Ride, keeps the same them as the original but updated it with fantastic new animatronic and scenes. On May 30th, the ride re-opened with a re-dedication ceremony attended again by John Ethan, son of John Wayne, to help open the ride just like he did with his father back in 1969. The ride continues to be the most popular attraction in the park, carrying millions of guests every year through the Calico Logging Company.


Black and White Photos Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

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Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff grew up going to theme parks on the East Coast, but now lives 20 minutes from Knott's Berry Farm. For years, Jeff has written on the various theme park topics for a variety of publications, including several fan sites, magazines, the podcast Communicore Weekly, and has written two books on the subject. He currently writes the serialized audio drama RETURN HOME, which can be found on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffheimbuch

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