Hot on the trail of Truckee’s historic pathways |

Hot on the trail of Truckee’s historic pathways

One of many events occurring in Truckee this weekend is the opening Sunday of the next phase of Truckee’s Legacy Trail along the Truckee River corridor. The legacy of Truckee area history is directly tied to the Truckee River. Any walk along the river corridor is also a walk through history, but most people are unaware of it’s importance.Native American people used the Truckee River extensively. The most important food source of the summer residents was the Lahontan cutthroat trout, which grew up to four feet long. The wetlands along the river supported a large amount of wildlife that the Washoe and Paiute used for food and clothing. The plant life along the river was a source of materials for everyday necessities of life, such as baskets, matting and shelter.The first pioneer wagon train that passed through the Truckee area was the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, which traveled the torturous path up the Truckee River in 1844. They drove their wagons along the banks of the river in the area of the Legacy Trail. Later emigrant parties used the Caleb Greenwood discovered route through Dog Valley and Stampede Valley rather than use the river route. A branch of the Emigrant Trail went through the Prosser Creek area and came to the Truckee River about where the 267 bridge is now. This area is visible across the river from the Legacy Trail. The Truckee branch of the California Trail had extensive use up until about 1852, when easier routes over the Sierra Nevada were improved.Legacy rails Across the river from the Legacy Trail is the railroad. This stretch of the Central Pacific Railroad was constructed as an independent piece of track before the Donner Pass tunnels were completed. By early 1867, the grading crews, made up primarily of Chinese laborers, were already scraping out the route along the north side of the river. During that summer a small engine, the San Mateo, was hauled over the mountains along with the rails for forty miles of track. The rails were laid along the river in October of 1867. It wasn’t until June of 1868, that the railroad was completed through the Donner Pass tunnels and the isolated stretch of track was connected to the rest of the railroad from Sacramento. Since that time the railroad and the river have been inseparably linked.Ending the isolationThe Central Pacific Railroad ended the isolation of the Truckee area. Men from all over the United States and some from other countries were attracted to the area because of the economic opportunity to be found in the region. Truckee’s forests were the first and greatest attraction to men of vision. The combination of the railroad and the river allowed sawmills to be built so that the demands of settlers, farmers, townspeople, miners, railroaders, and their families could be met.In the immediate area of the existing Legacy Trail, several small lumber operations could be found by 1869. The most notable of the landmarks in the Truckee Regional Park area was the river crossing of George Schaffer’s lumber flume. This trestle was some 50 feet high and carried lumber from his two sawmills three miles from Truckee near Martis Creek from 1872 to 1904. The lumber was deposited in a large lumber yard between the railroad and East River Street.The Truckee River was used for another important industrial use, that being log driving. During the late summer and most often in the winter, logs were cut and hauled to the banks of the Truckee River. When the spring runoff came, the logs were pushed into the river and were floated downstream to sawmills. Some were only driven a few miles, some were driven more than 20 miles. A log drive was even tried once all the way to Reno. The dam at Lake Tahoe stored enough water that log driving could be done through the early summer months.One site, many uses Across the river from Truckee River Regional Park on East River Street is another important river industrial site that had several uses. In 1872, a small dam was built to supply water power to the Truckee Smelter. The Truckee area itself did not have a lot of mining activity, but Nevada did. What Nevada lacked was fuel to melt the silver ore enough to extract silver bullion.Truckee had the water in the river and vast forests that could produce the needed charcoal to fuel the boilers. The railroad brought in silver ore from the Tecoma mine syndicate in Eastern Nevada on a sporadic basis from 1872 to 1874.The building that housed the smelter was out of use for about a decade until James Lowden and C. R. McLellan opened a box factory there in 1882. The Richardson Brothers, who had a sawmill in the Martis Valley, took it over in 1886 and operated it until about 1900. In the late 1890s the Truckee Light & Power Company turned the dam into Truckee’s first electric light power plant. This plant was in operation until the 1930s. The legacy of the Truckee economy was directly tied to the Truckee River for many decades in this location.Truckee’s abundant water and railroad connections allowed another industry to develop along the river. The cold temperatures of the late fall and early winter, some as low as 40 below zero, allowed for natural ice to be made. Ponds were built along the creeks and the Truckee River and once the first ice formed, water was flooded onto the surface nightly to freeze into twenty inch thick layers of ice. This ice was cut into blocks, loaded into warehouses and stored until summertime. This ice was used to cool Virginia City mines, drinks in San Francisco bars and to keep food cool all over the west. The main use of the ice in the early 1900s was to cool California’s agriculture products in railroad cars on their way east. When the Legacy Trail is completed, it will eventually pass close by two historic ice ponds, but for now, a small uncompleted dam is all that remains along this stretch of the Truckee River. All Truckee area trails have historic components to them, some are still identifiable, some obscure.As Truckee protects open space, the historic component of these lands can be an enjoyable and educational part of our community. The connection of the river from the past to the present is part of the goal of the Truckee Trails Foundation. Join them in the opening of the Truckee Legacy Trail at the Regional Park on Sunday.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society web site at The e-mail address is You may leave a message at 582-0893.

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