History: What makes Truckee a historic town?

Heidi Sproat / Special to the Sun

Most of us are familiar with the Donner Party and their struggle for survival at what was then known as Truckee Lake. Named in honor of the Donner Party, the lake was renamed Donner Lake and the snowy pass renamed Donner, after the ill-fated group’s elected leader.

Most of us also know that it was the Transcontinental Railroad completion in 1869 that helped make Truckee a convenient stop nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and a destination for travelers coming from both west and east venues.

The Veterans Hall overlooks Downtown Truckee.
Provided/Greg Zirbel

But did you also know that Truckee is really “historic” for reasons other than the Donner Party and the Railroad?

In 2004, Truckee was awarded the Governor’s Historic Preservation Award for a “comprehensive ‘system’ of historic preservation adopted by the Town of Truckee to firmly establish preservation as a planning element in this historic lumber and railroad town”.

Commercial Row – Brickelltown Historic District (NRHP #09000803, 2009) is located in the historic area of Downtown Truckee and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Signage pointing to ‘Historic Truckee’ would definitively recognize this remarkable designation which otherwise has not been officially recognized by any plaque in downtown Truckee except for a small sign. Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is an honorable, hard earned national designation which deserves appropriate recognition – even a formal NRHP plaque. 

Paul Lord, the Berkeley planner who performed the inventory of historic buildings in Truckee to support the initial 2009 NRHP Application who (with then Town Planner Duane Hall) appropriately noted that a representative from the Office of Historic Preservation visited Truckee and said that there is more in the Town of Truckee worth preserving per square foot than anything else he’s seen in California. This is certainly testament to preserving Historic Truckee.

Downtown Truckee is divided into nine geographic ‘character areas.’ Truckee Veterans Memorial Building and Rocking Stone Tower are located in the McGlashan Addition; the other areas are Brickelltown, Commercial District, Burkhaulter, River, Church Street, Railroad, South River, and Hilltop.  All of these “areas” are visible from every other area, each with their own unique history.

Truckee Freight Depot view from just below the Rocking Stone circa 1960s.
Provided/Truckee-Donner Historical Society

Besides Commercial Row–Brickelltown Historic District being on the National Register of Historic Places, the C.B. White (Kruger House, NRHP # 82002220, 1982) is also on the National Register and most recently, the Truckee Veterans Memorial Building and Rocking Stone Tower in 2021 (NRHP # 100006720). Of the 48 buildings in the Downtown Truckee Historic District, 32 of them are contributing to historic designation.

The Truckee-Donner Historical Society has requested the Town of Truckee to consider a NRHP Plaque for Commercial Row – Brickelltown Historic District.  More recently, in 2021, Truckee-Donner Historical Society installed the NRHP plaque after a well-deserved five-year effort to meet the stringent criteria for the Truckee Veterans Memorial Building and Rocking Stone Tower.  The plaque celebrates this historic recognition. We believe such a designation for Historic Truckee – Brickelltown would be testament acknowledging our celebrated roots.

Additionally, the Truckee Donner Railroad Society Caboose Museum is also “historic” in that itself ran on the Southern Pacific Railroad Lines and is a 1950s bay window caboose.

In June 2013, Truckee was awarded membership in the Union Pacific’s Train Town USA Registry because of its historical connection to the railroad.  In 2019, Union Pacific presented Truckee with a Golden Spike which is now displayed in the Museum of Truckee History. It’s all because of the railroad Truckee is Truckee.

Truckee is a destination in itself.  In its own 2013-2014 Visitor Profile Study, Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce tabulated results of inquiries about the reasons visitors come to Truckee. Seventy-two percent of visitors come because of the historic districts / downtown, behind only scenic beauty at 87%. Further, a 2017 town manager executive search report attested that Truckee’s economy is driven by tourism. The report states that Truckee shares a “passion for … the preservation of Truckee’s small town character and authenticity,” and the “community is dedicated to protecting its historic roots and authentic mountain town lifestyle.”

Birdseye View of Truckee Train Depot from the water tower circa 1913.
Provided/Truckee-Donner Historical Society

Besides Nevada City and Grass Valley, Truckee’s 1993 incorporation has definitely helped to preserve our historic integrity, but were it not for Truckee’s authentic history, incorporation would not have been possible:  incorporation came to be because of what came before – our history.’s TDMA, Truckee Downtown Merchants Association also honors Truckee’s Historic past. Their brochure’s title is TRUCKEE Historic Downtown. Although McIver Crossing roundabout currently has a small tan and white lettered wayfinding sign pointing to Historic Truckee, sprucing up this signage to a more robust dedicated installation like the proposed signage being discussed, Historic Truckee, or Welcome to Historic Truckee would be a more inviting draw to visitors. Google maps even marks the “Historic Downtown Truckee and Visitor Center.”

Additionally, there are five other venues that would also qualify on the National Register of Historic Places: Hilltop Area Rope (first in the United States), and Puma Tows, TDHS Joseph Research Library (original Gateway Motel Office), the Truckee Donner Railroad Museum Caboose, James McIver Jr. Rodeo Arena, and Jax at the Tracks. All of these sites have well over 50 years of history beneath their footprints.

We celebrate the present by acknowledging our past. Come get to know our historic downtown better. Check out the Old Jail Museum at the corner of Spring and Jibboom Streets, the Truckee Donner Railroad Society Caboose Museum, and new Museum of Truckee History, conveniently located in the Train Depot downtown Commercial Row. Come explore with us. You’ll learn there is lots more “history” to discover.

Heidi Sproat lives part time in Truckee. She is the Truckee-Donner Historical Society’s current webmaster for, and manages the Image Collection currently available for viewing on the Society’s website at .

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.