James Cardwell: King of the Sierra Hotel | SierraSun.com

James Cardwell: King of the Sierra Hotel

With the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 came the need to serve the area’s infant tourist industry. While the common traveler used the rails for basic travel, the well-to-do began using the rails for vacations to the mountains in the summer.The need for a hotel at Donner Pass, then known as the railroad station of Summit, was recognized by experienced hotelman James Cardwell. In 1870 he constructed the Summit Hotel right next to the tracks a few hundred yards west of tunnel six, the longest on the railroad’s line in the Sierra and where the snow was at its deepest. Cardwell offered his guests many ways to pass their pleasant summer vacations. He rented out more than 15 carriages that allowed passengers to travel to Soda Springs, the resort about 10 miles south of the railroad on the North Fork of the American River. Guests also rode his stages to Donner Lake and Lake Tahoe. His dining room was noted in 1872 as being the largest on the railroad between San Francisco and Ogden. Overland trains would stop for a quick breakfast on the top of the Sierra. Cardwell was described as being a humorous man, lively and vivacious with the nickname of “Jolly Jim.” However, when a Truckee man refused to pay for his dinner and bar tab, Cardwell punched him in the face.Judge CardwellIn November of 1873, the Truckee Republican reported on a humorous “trial” that occurred at the hotel. One guest, Desmond, a wild Irishman, fond of drinking, believed he was being conspired against by other hotel patrons and filed a criminal complaint against one of them. Desmond thought that Cardwell was a justice of the peace and had Cardwell issue a warrant for the arrest of one of the conspirators. Rather than ignore the intoxicated man, the hotel proprietor decided to follow through with a sham arrest.Once the arrest was accomplished, a trial followed that day, with Cardwell acting as a judge. “Attorneys” were hired, a “jury” was summoned and the trial began. All of the witnesses contradicted each other and made up wild stories of the depths of the conspiracy, all coached by Cardwell. The witnesses and jury members were sworn on a copy of The Great Register (Nevada County Voters Registration Book), and agreed to tell “anything but the truth.”Everyone but the Irishman was in on the joke and played their parts well – fines were levied, motions made and objected to, and general courtroom chaos ensued. The recess was held in the bar, the wine and champagne flowing freely. The closing arguments followed, and the jury went into deliberations. A few minutes later the verdict was issued. The defendant was “fined” $100, but Desmond was fined $1,000 and told to stay sober for six months. The sham trial was then adjourned to the Cardwell’s bar. Dealing in deep driftsDuring the winter, when snowdrifts up to 30 feet buried the Summit Hotel, Cardwell opened the rooms to railroad engineers stationed there as well as track walkers and snow shovelers. In the worst winters the third story windows would have to be dug out to allow light into the rooms, with the lower two stories encased in ice. As spring came Cardwell hired snow shovelers to open the summit road down to Donner Lake and Truckee. Since Nevada County would not maintain the old Summit road, Cardwell constantly paid for the work himself, keeping the road to Truckee in good shape, while the road west became almost impassable. On the rare occasion that the county put out a road maintenance contract, Cardwell would win the contract at a reduced price.In April of 1873, Cardwell chased away the winter doldrums by holding a grand ball. Popular musicians Church & Jones were brought up from Sacramento, along with 35 couples from Sacramento through Colfax. Another 22 couples from Boca and Truckee attended the “Ball in the Snow.” The altitude and lively dancing caused most partygoers to take ample breaks. The banquet table was a feast to be remembered. Fortunately, no surprise blizzard crashed the party.To celebrate the opening of a 50-room addition in June of 1874, Cardwell put on another ball, attracting people from Reno to Sacramento on special excursion trains. Forty couples from Truckee attended, in awe of the new dining room with a capacity of 200 people. This all-night affair of dancing and feasting was a great success for Cardwell and the participants. Cardwell’s bearTo attract and amuse visitors Cardwell kept many pet animals. The most noted was a cinnamon bear that he acquired in 1873. He raised the bear from a cub, training it to become used to being fed by humans by hand. He kept it chained up in the corridor between the railroad snowsheds and the hotel entrance. The male bear preferred fruit, but would accept any food, including doughnuts, pies, cakes, or bread. The bear was thought to not want to bite humans but would give a not-so-loving bear hug to those who had food to part with. On one occasion, he collected the coat tails of three New York travelers in the space of 15 minutes as they got off the train for a breakfast stop at Cardwell’s dining room. He also took a sack of apples, a cup of milk and a doughnut from other passengers as toll to enter the hotel. While these instances were not always welcome by travelers, they were quite amusing to knowing bystanders and locals. When the “all aboard” call came the bear laid down, whined, covered its face with its paws, showing its displeasure that the feeding frenzy had ended until the next passenger train arrived. Railroad magnates Jay Gould and Grenville Dodge stopped at the hotel for bear wrestling experience on their tour of the Central Pacific in 1874. Army General Phil Sheridan made a point of stopping to see the bear in his much publicized tour of the area in 1875.The bear was not always kind to humans. One incident occurred in 1875, where traveling editors from the east got the bear to drink a glass of whiskey at the bar. After lapping up the first drink, a second was placed in front of it, and after giving it a taste, was pulled away by the bartender. The bear apparently liked the whiskey enough that he chomped down on the bartenders hand, badly lacerating it. The editors in the bar quickly beat a retreat to the train, believing that the bear would eat all of them. Since Cardwell would not kill the bear, the bartender quit.The bear was content with life on the Summit, but when Cardwell moved to more populous Truckee to run the Cardwell House, the bear was not happy. He was kept in Gray’s Bridge Street stable, but was mistreated by his handlers and local boys. After causing several disturbances among the horse population, Cardwell wanted to release the animal back into the wild.He was aware, however, that the bear was so accustomed to humans and human food that it could not survive in the wilds. He was afraid that as the bear became more savage, it would injure or kill someone. James Cardwell sadly shot his own bear in June of 1876.Cardwell tried other animals as well, for a short time keeping a pair of monkeys around the hotel, but they wandered away into the Sierra wilderness. Deer, raccoons, mountain sheep and a rare red bat was also on display in a darkened cage that amazed visitors.An expanded empire Cardwell was not content with his single, top-of-the-mountain resort. In October of 1873, Cardwell partnered with A.C. Gordon to purchase the Tahoe City Hotel, renaming it the Grand Central Hotel. To concentrate on his other properties, he sold the Grand Central Hotel at a great profit to Truckee hotel owner John Moody in 1876, but he kept the stage line to Tahoe CityIn October of 1875, Cardwell bought the Keiser House on Front Street in Truckee, renaming that The Cardwell House. He built an addition on the rear, expanding pioneer John Keiser’s popular Truckee institution greatly. Cardwell brought the governor of California and members of the Legislature to both Donner Summit and Truckee in February of 1876 to view the Sierra in the magnificent winter splendor. He sold the Cardwell House to Stewart McKay in 1877.By 1878, the Summit Hotel was not doing well financially, and James Cardwell had his mortgage foreclosed on by the Bank of California. Sadly, he moved out of the Truckee-Donner area. But he remained a “king of hosts,” opening a successful hotel in Virginia City, and later Hawthorne, Nevada, but forever missed his Sierra mountains.The hotel building was bought by the Goulden brothers who made a living by catering to mostly railroad maintenance men and families. The hotel burned in February of 1892, but was rebuilt on a smaller scale a few years later. Today the site, across from Donner Ski Ranch, shows no signs of the once busy Summit Hotel.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com. You may leave a message at 582-0893.

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.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User