A railroad led to the Lake of the Sky
Truckee’s modern connections to Lake Tahoe are two ribbons of asphalt, Highways 89 and 267. From 1900 to 1943, that connection was two ribbons of steel. The railroad from Truckee to Tahoe City followed the Truckee River Canyon, paralleling present Highway 89 south.Before 1899 Truckee and Tahoe City were connected by a dirt toll road, on which stage coaches and freight wagons rolled through dust, mud and occasionally over snow. Once at Tahoe, steamboats took passengers around the lake in relative luxury, but getting there was the weakest link. Even though the stage was somewhat comfortable and exciting, a railroad had been in demand since the 1870s.Railroads had been operating at South Lake Tahoe for over a decade, hauling logs to the lake where steamers towed log rafts over to Glenbrook on the east shore. From the sawmill, narrow gauge trains hauled the lumber up to Spooner Summit, where V flumes took the lumber down to Carson City. The Bliss family controlled these lumber railroads, but due to the decline of Virginia City mines in the 1890s and the lack of remaining timber at Lake Tahoe, they were looking for other opportunities for their rail system.The Lake Tahoe Railway & Transportation Co. was formed in 1898. It bought a right-of-way down the Truckee River from the Truckee Lumber Company and took over all of the Bliss family steamers operating on Lake Tahoe. Building a railroadConstruction began in the spring of 1899, as rails, locomotives, shops and machinery were transported from Glenbrook to Tahoe City. Grading of the line through the fairly level canyon was easy, though a short section between Squaw Creek and Bear Creek caused some concern, requiring five bridges to be built. A 150-foot-long trestle was built over the lake’s edge at Tahoe City to reach the company shops. Since the main rail and steamer operations were to remain at Lake Tahoe, so too did all the main engine houses, repair shops and company offices. Facilities at Truckee consisted of a turntable, a three-stall engine house, water tank, and a wood shed. The passengers used the Truckee Southern Pacific Railroad stations for freight and passenger transfers from the standard gauge to the narrow gauge.It took two years to build the line, as this railroad was very well built, not thrown together like some western shortline railroads were. The Lake Tahoe Railway opened for service on May 1, 1900. Passenger traffic quickly picked up, and the tourist resorts at Tahoe boomed. The route was far more scenic than today, even with all of the logging that had occurred over the past three decades. The views were of willow lined banks, green pools, and foaming waterfalls. There were no houses along the river at that time.Serving the touristsDuring the summer tourist season, the first train left Truckee at 7 a.m., connecting with the eastbound Overland Limited from San Francisco. The second train left at 8 a.m., picking up the late sleeping passengers from Truckee and making several stops at the various camps and resorts along the river. The third train left Truckee at 8 p.m., waiting for the local passenger train that Southern Pacific Railroad ran from Sacramento to Reno. Return trips in the evening took passengers back after a day at the fabulous scenic Lake Tahoe.Many wealthy and important passengers were carried on the rails. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, movie stars Tom Mix and Buster Keaton rode the short line. Buster Keaton was in a film that featured the Lake Tahoe Railway, with cabins and railside sets being built by Truckee workmen.Inbound freight traffic was limited to supplies and materials for the Tahoe resorts. Outbound traffic consisted of logs from Squaw Valley and the upper Truckee River Canyon destined for the Truckee Lumber Company. Fir cordwood was transported to Truckee, then loaded onto Southern Pacific for shipment to the Floriston paper mill. A branch built by the Truckee Lumber Co. went up into Ward Canyon.From 1900 to 1917, the line carried up to 40 containers a day of commercially caught Lake Tahoe trout. The daily trains also carried the mail for all of the Lake Tahoe region.The initial rolling stock consisted of two wood burning locomotives and 60 cars that were barged over from Glenbrook. A few new passenger cars were added, but additional used locomotives were not added until 1904 and 1906. Many of the new acquisitions were from the South Pacific Coast Railroad that ran from San Jose to Santa Cruz. The Bliss family businessThe Bliss family spent half a million dollars on the construction of the railroad. They declared dividends on the privately held stock for the first six years. After that it was paying its way but not turning much of a profit. There was not enough freight traffic to make it the gold mine that cutting lumber for the silver mines of Virginia City had been. After 1909, the Truckee Lumber Company ceased its logging operations, and freight revenues dropped off dramatically.The Blisses built their own resort hotel in 1901 at Tahoe City. The Tahoe Tavern was the resort of the upper class, overshadowing all other resorts at the Tahoe. Passengers were dropped off right at the side entrance of the hotel. Another branch line went out onto the Tavern Pier to load passengers directly onto the lake steamers.Generally, winter closed the line in the early days as passenger traffic was almost non-existent. One incident in 1903 underscored the dangers of winter operations. After leaving Truckee at 3 p.m. one day, the passenger train wasn’t heard from by noon the next day. Grave fears were expressed as the river was high, the snow on the ground was heavy and another storm was brewing. It was known that 12 people from below were on board including two ladies. Search parties on skis were sent from both ends to find the missing rain. It was found several hours later, halfway between Tahoe City and Truckee, stuck in a snowdrift while the blizzard raged outside. After shoveling for over a day the train was freed. Another ski train was stuck in a heavy snowstorm for 24 hours until snowplows could free it in 1928.A losing battleThe three-foot narrow gauge railroad certainly had its drawbacks. The freight had to be transferred by hand to and from the standard gauge Southern Pacific. Heavy loads had to carried on more cars, and the wide loads of steamer equipment had to be loaded carefully. Passenger trains were not interchangeable, so equipment could not be shared. By 1925, the rail line was losing the battle to automobile traffic that could now drive over the Sierra easily on the improved Lincoln Highway. The road was being paved up the mountain and new bridges such as the Donner Summit Bridge were being planned to speed up auto and truck traffic. The U.S. 40 designation was in the near future, and the Blisses knew they couldn’t afford to keep running the money losing independent short line.In 1925 the line was leased to the Southern Pacific, while the Tavern was leased to the Fleishacker family of San Francisco. In 1926 the rails were changed to standard gauge and the Southern Pacific ran three to four through trains a day, including Pullman service. The Bliss family kept the steamers on the lake.A large balloon track was built near the Tahoe Tavern to facilitate turning the trains around. Other than the track widening, the rail route of 1900 stayed exactly the same through the Truckee River Canyon. The lease was converted to a sale, for a shiny silver dollar, and reportedly a bottle of whiskey in 1927.Traffic didn’t pick up to sustain the line past 1941. After the outbreak of World War II, the line was abandoned and in 1943 the rails were taken up. Today much of the route is the route of the sewer export line from Tahoe to the Tahoe Truckee Sanitation Agency sewer plant in Martis Valley. The bike path from Tahoe City to Squaw Valley is also on the old grade. In our celebration of Truckee Railroad Days, the short line to Lake Tahoe is an important chapter.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 582-0893. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.
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