History: The Survival of Independence Lake: Part 1

Judy DePuy / Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Independence Lake resides in Sierra County approximately 6.5 miles off Highway 89.
Provided / Heidi Sproat

Independence Lake is known as the jewel of the Sierra. It is unique among the lakes of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada because it still retains all its native fish species and is home to one of only two self-sustaining populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout. In the 1970s, the lake and surrounding mountains were the target for a major four-season resort. The natural beauty and tranquility of the area has been preserved but the thought of the changes that would have come to the area is insurmountable.

History of the Lake

Independence Lake is a natural glacial lake in the Sierra Nevada of California. It is 2.4 miles long and half a mile wide with a maximum depth of 145 feet. Its surface elevation is 6,949 feet. Upper Independence Creek flows into the lake on its west side through a subalpine meadow. The lake’s outlet is on the east end which forms Independence Creek, a tributary of the Little Truckee River and then the Truckee River which then flows through Reno to Pyramid Lake.

The lake resides in Sierra County approximately 6.5 miles off Highway 89. The nearest major town is Truckee, 20 miles to the south and Sierraville, a smaller town, is 14 miles to the north.

The Lake sits within the traditional territory of the Washoe people who used it for approximately 9,000 years. Europeans didn’t ‘discover’ the lake until the mid-19th century. It is believed that the lake was named on Independence Day. Two stories exist as to who found and named the lake. The first has Lola Montez naming it on a trip there in 1853. Montez was a former mistress of King Ludwig of Bavaria and was forced into exile by the 1848 European revolutions. She traveled the world and was known as an actress, dancer and entertainer. She arrived in California in 1853 and resided in Grass Valley. Mount Lola is the highest peak (9,143 feet) on the west end of the lake and is supposedly named after her. Alternatively, the lake was named by Augustus Moore who built a stage station there in 1862 for the emigrants coming to California.

Independence Lake resides in Sierra County approximately 6.5 miles off Highway 89.
Provided / Heidi Sproat

The first dam on the lake was built in 1879. NV Energy and its predecessor Sierra Pacific Power have held the property since the late 1930s. Although a wildfire in 1945 burned much of the forest around the lake, logging ensued and a new dam was built thereby increasing the lake’s water capacity. In 1947, Sierra Pacific Power Company bought the land around the lake, closing the area to most public access.

Interest in the Lake

Walt Disney fell in love with skiing in the late 1930s. At Badger Pass he met Austrian skiing champion Hannes Schroll, then head of the Yosemite Ski School, and they became good friends. Schroll wanted to build a ski resort in the mid Sierras, near Donner Summit and Truckee. Disney helped him to partially fund the purchase of the now Sugar Bowl Resort. To honor Disney’s support and partnership Schroll changed the name of Hemlock Peak to Mount Disney. Disney and his family truly enjoyed skiing there in 1941 which was the same year Disney released the Goofy movie short “The Art of Skiing”.

Walt went on to produce the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1960 Winter Olympics. At the time of his death, he was formulating plans for a family ski resort in Mineral King valley near Sequoia National Park. The planned resort faced fierce environmental opposition. The Disney Corporation wanted to fulfill Walt’s last dream and looked for another location. In December 1971, Disney Corporation and U.S. Forest Service officials met in San Francisco to discuss the problems at Mineral King and it being on public land. It was then that the Forest Service recommended Independence Lake as a promising alternative.

After an on-site inspection in 1973, Disney contacted the Southern Pacific Land Company and Sierra Pacific Power Company, the area’s two major owners of private property. That same year Southern Pacific made the first of several land exchange offers to the Forest Service to consolidate landholdings.

An artist perception of Independence Lake Village.
Provided / Disney

Disney’s proposal for the resort required 7300 acres from Southern Pacific Land Company, 2200 acres from Sierra Pacific Company and 10,000 acres from the U.S. Forest Service.

The business arrangement was set up with Disney being the general and operating partner, while Southern Pacific Land Company and the Sierra Pacific Power Company were limited partners. Basically, Disney wanted control and authority over the land used for the resort, a similar arrangement to what they had at Disneyworld in Orlando.

Disney’s Independence Lake project plan was announced on July 16, 1974. In the press release they stated “During the last century, the lands in this area have been extensively used for logging and mining activities. Every natural resource in the area has been utilized except for the recreational resource… It will be a village free of automobile traffic – uniquely American and based on the historical significance of the area…Visitor facilities, both winter and summer, will be concentrated at the northeast end of this magnificent two-and-one-half mile long lake. Here will be located a 21-acre pedestrian-oriented visitor village, lodging units, restaurants, guest services, campgrounds, and base operations for both winter and summer recreational programs. At full development, there will be accommodations on site for 2,900 guests during the winter and 3,400 during the summer. It is estimated that the project will ultimately host 1,800,000 visitor-days per year, with a maximum of 10,800 guests on site during a peak winter day.”

In 1975 Disney began working with the Forest Service for a land-swap plan and wanted it to be completed quickly. Disney hoped construction would begin in 1975 or 1976 but no later than summer of 1977.

Details of the planned resort started to leak out. The 21-acre village, in the first year of operation, was to feature: 150 lodge rooms, 150 cluster lodging units, 100 campground spaces, four merchandise shops with 12,700 square feet, 1,125 restaurant seats, 300 lounge seats, and 31,000 square feet of services. The services area would have a 100 square foot reception center, 800 square feet of kennels, a car care center, 150 seat employee cafeteria, and 100,000 sq. ft. of maintenance storage, administration and wardrobe. The recreation area, for the first year, would have a 33,000 square foot recreational center, theater-conference area, ice rink, spa and pool, six tennis courts (3 lighted), fish hatchery, two fishing lakes, a year-round swimming experience, boat dock and boats/equipment, snowmobiles, forest service information and conservation center, and hiking trails.

There were initially to be 10 ski lifts with Mount Lola having 8,000 acres of skiable terrain and 2,200 acres at the Summit (White Rock Lake and Lacey Valley) and would be 4.3 times larger than Squaw/Palisades Tahoe.

Future recreational facilities would have added 6 additional tennis courts, an equestrian center, and 4 more ski lifts. Total resort plans had 1,105 acres of ski trails, a 400-seat mountaintop restaurant, 100 acres of snowmaking, 275 lodge rooms, 325 condominiums, 200 campground spaces, and a funicular railroad.

Disney even projected the number of people who would stay at the resort. The first winter they opened was expected to have 3,870 skiers a day and 980 non-skiers. During the 12 peak days of winter, they expected 7,000 skiers and 1,750 non-skiers a day. In the summer they expected an average of 5,450 a day with 6,800 on peak summer days.

Disney planned to buy the Fibreboard lumber mill site just east of Truckee for a major transportation center. It would have a large depot linking the Southern Pacific Railroad line (now Union Pacific) with the new development.

Project costs were expected to be around $80 million but could be higher.

Initial response from Sierra County and the U.S. Forest Service was very positive. Local residents had a mixed reception, some in favor, some not. The lure of increased jobs and increased revenue was very tempting. Disney was given the green light to proceed with project planning.

Everything seemed to be in place…so what happened? Stay tuned for Part 2 of the article!

Judy DePuy is a volunteer with the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, Donner Summit Historical Society and a Board member for the Museum of Truckee History and the Truckee Donner Railroad Society. She resides in Tahoe Donner with her husband, Dave, with their black Belgian sheepdog, Morticia.

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