Even in the deepest drifts the mail got through
February 11, 2008
The trip between Tahoe City and Truckee takes a half hour today, but in the early winters the brave mail carriers who fearlessly battled snow and deep drifts along the Truckee were fortunate to make the trip in a full day.
From 1868 through about 1878 the few hardy souls who lived on the shores of Lake Tahoe got their weekly mail from Truckee via Hot Springs Road, the current Highway 267.
The route to Tahoe City was considered a bit to treacherous to try to keep open for sleighs, or even to ski it regularly.
Tahoe City residents and merchants launched a campaign in 1878 to keep the road open to sleighs all winter long, hoping to increase the number of North Shore winter residents from the paltry three dozen that braved the isolated mountain resorts. Homer Burton got the contract for tri-weekly mail at $699 for the winter of 1878-’79, and agreed to keep the road open to sleigh traffic.
Burton had the backing of John Moody; Truckee Hotel and stage line owner, whose stages were put to use, William Pomin; the owner of the Tahoe House, where the passengers unloaded, Captain Avery; the owner of the steamer Niagra, who took passengers, freight and mail around the lake weekly during the winter, and J. B. Campbell; who operated the Custom House on the wharf.
Truckee and Tahoe City were in a fierce contest with Carson City to supply Glenbrook and the south shore of Lake Tahoe with merchandise and mail service.
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By keeping the Truckee River route open in the winter, it was hoped more traffic would use it during the summer, and winter tourism would pay for the hard work of packing the sleigh road.
In early February of 1879, Sierra Nevada weather threw all sorts of challenges at the attempt to keep the road open.
First the weather dropped 20 degrees below zero, followed by several snowstorms of 2 feet each.
When the sun came out, Captain Avery and his Niagra steamer crew were in Truckee, and it fell to them to try to open the road to Tahoe City.
They set out with a strong team of horses, but fought the snow until they reached Comer’s Fish Ranch, five miles down the canyon.
There they encountered 5-foot drifts, found they could not continue without shoveling the road, and were forced to return to Truckee.
The following day Avery gathered together several more teams and sleighs, loaded them up with shovels, food, and survival gear, and with a crew of Truckee volunteers set out to pack the powdery snow down for travel.
They were determined to succeed.
Another party, led by Rueben Saxton, was supposed to have started from Tahoe City opening the road, but since trees had knocked down the telephone line, no one at either end was sure of what the other was doing.
Undaunted, they opened the road and fixed the telephone line in one long day and night.
A few days later warm rain melted most of the snow and the road was back to bare ground.
But the danger was not over, as the rain melted enough snow to cause the river to start flooding, endangering the bridges ” even with the gates of the dam at the outlet of Lake Tahoe closed.
Spring was not at hand. However, in mid-March, Burton was back skiing the mail over the snow.
He passed Avery and crew struggling to shovel and pack the road.
Avery’s crew was shoveling seven foot drifts well past dark, caught out unprepared for the trip.
They had planned to make Truckee in a single day, but instead were forced to camp out in the snow, sharing a single blanket.
Around midnight, they were awakened by Burton returning to Tahoe on his skis, who had also brought along some well-wrapped warm food for the brave snow fighters.
Late the following day Avery’s exhausted men broke through to Truckee, and the road was open again.
The first effort to keep the Tahoe Road open did not benefit Truckee, nor did it result in a boom of growth at Tahoe City, and those few tourists who braved the ride expressed an opinion they would wait until a railroad was built before they tried the route in winter again.
The next winter Burton was content to stay warm in his Island Farm and let others fight the battle.
John Hyslop offered to keep the road open for extra pay, but Tahoe City was unable to come up with the funding.
Instead Hyslop donned his skis and kept the mail moving over rather than through the snow. Hyslop was a Sierra veteran, having worked many winters logging and cutting wood over the snow. Proud of the title “Snow King” bestowed on him by the Truckee Republican, he skied the river route on 11-foot wooden skis.
Winter wasn’t a big deal in 1880, and even Eli Church drove a sleigh full of tourists in balmy spring weather in mid-March.
April of 1880 was a true storm battle. More than 12 feet of snow fell in Truckee that month, burying the Tahoe road and even the Truckee River at times.
Hyslop gave up seeing the mail through the worst storms, but as soon as the sky cleared he set off through the powder. Often he could only make it half way to the toll house, finishing the trip the next day. Hyslop braved snow slides that often buried the road and mail carriers without warning, and even blocked the river, forcing the water over the road.
Dangers included broken skis, frozen feet when his boots and socks got wet, and a host of numerous other hazards.
In most years the road was opened to wagons and stages by May 1, but in the spring of 1880 the road was not opened until June 10.
In 1882 the mail was carried by a 27-year-old Robert Watson. By early November he was skiing the 15-mile route, and went through most the winter without any major incidents.
He often was able to ski the run in three hours when fast-packed snow was available.
As spring began to dawn, the heaviest storm of the season dropped a fresh 7 feet of snow on Tahoe.
As Watson headed out after the storm, he heard a long-lasting, thundering roar above Bear Creek.
A few minutes later he came across the still-sliding remains of a huge avalanche over a quarter-mile long that had just buried the canyon.
A few minutes earlier and Watson would have been under that slide.
It took him several hours to make his way carefully over the snow ” rocks the size of houses, and the remains of the 4-foot diameter trees that come down with the slide.
The weather was again closing in on Watson, so once the slide was passed he rushed as fast as the deep snow would allow him.
The wind was rising again, and at times he had to stand behind wavering trees to catch his breath.
He made it to Truckee as he always did, but downplayed his heroic efforts to keep the mail moving.
Glenbrook started getting its mail through Carson City during the mid-1880s, and although there was talk of keeping the Tahoe road open for the winter, it was clear that it would take a huge effort to accomplish it. That effort wouldn’t be a paying proposition until there were more full-time residents willing to spend the winter at Tahoe.
So for another two decades the mail stayed on skis during the winter.