History: Joseph Gray – Early Pioneer and leader in Truckee
Special to the Sierra Sun
In 1863 the town of Truckee did not exist. All that was visible along the banks of the Truckee River were rocks, virgin forest and one solitary log house build by pioneer Joseph Gray.
A small early settler’s settlement near the head of Donner Lake served the many coaches and their teamsters and passengers who passed daily along the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road, enroute to Virginia City and the booming Comstock Lode.
Near this spot, transportation routes converged – the Henness Pass route from the upper North Fork of the Yuba (today’s Highway 89 north), and the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road (today’s Donner Pass Road). Five years later the Central Pacific would choose the same area as the focal point for its mountain train operations.
Joseph Henry Gray was born in 1826 in Middleton County, Durham, England. Gray’s parents emigrated to Tumockwa, Pennsylvania in the late 1820s. Then in 1833 the entire family, including Joseph and his nine brothers and sisters, moved to Dubuque, Iowa, “the heart of the Indian country.” The family moved again in 1834 to Galina, Illinois where they settled and farmed.
Bored and restless with farming, young Joseph and two of his brothers went West in 1849 seeking adventure and fortune. It was not the prospect of gold and mining that lured Gray to head West but rather business opportunities. He first went to Texas where he purchased a herd of cattle, drove them to California and sold them at a high profit. He settled in present day Citrus Heights with his wife, Ann, and three daughters.
Gray became friends with Charles Crocker, one of the railroad’s “Big Four,” whom he considered “his partner.” It may have been through Crocker that he learned the proposed route of the Central Pacific railroad over Donner Pass and decided better opportunities might await him down the hill past Donner Lake.
Joseph Gray believed that the Truckee area would be a good place for a tavern and way station for weary travelers. By c. 1863 Gray had constructed a log station along the wagon road at the intersection of today’s Jibboom and Bridge streets where he provided provisions to the endless stream of freight wagons. He also kept his corral full of cattle to provide fresh beef to teamsters and stored plenty of feed for their horses.
Gray ran the frontier hostelry, which served travelers arriving on the six-horse Concords of the California Stage Company. Twenty- and thirty-horse freight wagons rolled past the cabin day and night. Gray’s establishment was a place where travelers and teamsters could rest and enjoy all the comforts and hospitality of a friendly roadside inn, purchase supplies, and obtain directions or information.
Gray became a successful business man and was associated with the lumber, freight and cattle industries, and also entertained travelers. Truckee’s biggest commodity at the time was lumber and wood, which was shipped heavily to the Comstock Mining District in Virginia City, Nevada up until 1877-78 when the silver and gold ore played out. He owned several freight teams, sixteen or eighteen mules, four to six horses and a number of wagons. Huge supplies were stored near his cabin for winter consumption.
Gray’s Station, as it existed at the time, encompassed the entirety of the present downtown district of Truckee. Next to his cabin, Gray built a horse stable and blacksmith shop. The stable was located where Truckee’s downtown post office currently resides.
As the railroad approached, a man named S.S. Coburn purchased land to the west of Gray’s Station and built another depot which grew into a larger settlement called Coburn’s Station. When Coburn’s Station burned down in August 1868, Gray sold portions of his land along the railroad to a number of entrepreneurs who built the town, now called Truckee.
Prosperity created recognition for the ambitious pioneer; Gray became a familiar face in town and was affectionately called Uncle Joe. By 1870 he was recorded as a hotelkeeper alongside Ann and their four children, Annie (12), Isabella (9), Alizence (5), and Joseph (1). As his children grew the family moved to a larger residence on Church Street.
Always seeking new opportunities, Gray sold his interest in his lumber mill to his partner, George Schaffer. He hired Chinese workers to cut cordwood for the railroads and to fuel the stoves of the growing town. Gray’s business ventures continued to branch out. In 1875 he opened the American House Hotel and became president of the Peoples Ice Company located at Camp 20 east of town where he also owned and operated a sawmill. (Camp 20 was also called “Cuba,” 13 miles below Truckee where Gray Creek enters the Truckee River).
By the early 1880s the cold, difficult winters in Truckee may have finally gotten to him so he moved to Sacramento with his family. Joseph Gray remained in Sacramento, making frequent visits to Truckee, until he passed away on August 6, 1897 at the age of seventy-one. His widow, Ann, lived until 1909. They are both interred at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Sacramento.
Despite the many fires which razed the town, the ceaseless construction of roads, freeways and commercial developments, winter storms and a continuous barrage of occupants, Joseph Gray’s original log cabin still stands reflecting the tenacity of Truckee’s early founders. The structure exemplifies a memorial to Joseph Gray’s accurate, prophetic vision. It is a tribute not only to Truckee’s past but also to the future of a town steeped in history and to its citizens who have accepted progress while still embracing the pioneer spirit and determination of the town’s founder, Joseph Gray.
Source: Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Gray’s Cabin, built c. 1858, is Truckee’s earliest standing structure. The building’s horizontal logs are hand-hewn, cut with an adz in squaring the logs and pre-dates circular sawn lumber that was best seen in sawmills. The logs were typically chinked with hair or lime mortar to prevent cold Truckee winds from coming into the building. Prior to the lumber industries that lined the river, small buildings like Gray’s Cabin were typical structures.
In 1909, D.J. Smith donated the cabin to the Donner Parlor No. 162 of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Gray’s Cabin used to sit on the corner of Jibboom and Bridge Streets. It was completely disassembled and rebuilt in the current location on Church Street, less than 50 feet away.
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