Patrolling the Truckee beat | SierraSun.com
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Patrolling the Truckee beat

Guy H. Coates

When Officer Bill Gautsche came to Truckee in 1943, he had to contend with speeding drivers, drunks, chain runners and law violators of all kinds. For a while, he was the only California Highway Patrol officer in town.

“The main thoroughfare was Old Highway 40, a two-lane highway which was often snowbound and impassable for a week or longer,” he says. “The local substation was located across from Truckee High School in a three-room building,which has since been torn down.”

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1910, Gautsche’s parents immigrated to this country from Switzerland and settled in Galveston. They later moved to San Antonio where his father worked as a night watchman for a department store and later as a logger and cabinet-maker. Eventually moving to California, Bill lived in the small town of Lotus, then Placerville and, finally, Los Angeles.

“I attended Franklin High School in Los Angeles, but also had to work and couldn’t finish school,” he says. “I went to night school and took correspondence courses for credit to qualify for the Highway Patrol. I became a patrolman on Feb. 2, 1942, and was transferred to Truckee from Colfax.

“When the other officers found out I was transferring to Truckee, they said, ‘Have you lost your mind? What’s the matter with you? They just send the goons up there!'”

But Gautsche had already visited the area and was attracted to the unending beauty of the High Sierra, reminiscent of his parent’s homeland in Switzerland.

“All the business was downtown,” he recalls. “Most of the bars and restaurants had slot machines. They had girls working on the ‘back street.’ Truckee River Bank was Coffey’s Garage and I lived in a duplex across the street. There were no two-way radios in the patrol cars. The telephone office was in the red brick building on the corner of Spring Street and Commercial Row. The telephone operators acted as dispatchers. When an operator got a call, a red light on top of the old Riverside Hotel (now the Truckee Hotel) was activated. That was the signal for me to call in.

“One day Dick Joseph’s pick-up truck, loaded with slot machines, overturned,” says Gautsche. “When I arrived, he was bleeding very badly and I administered first aid and probably saved his life. He never forgot it. He sold me three lots in Gateway for $800 and loaned my son, Ron, $2,000 to help him start his service station downtown.”

The organization that is now the Highway Patrol began in 1929 when a bill was passed creating an enforcement division within the Department of Motor Vehicles. Before that, local law enforcement was handled by the sheriff or by an elected constable. In 1947, the department broke away and became the California Highway Patrol.

Truckee was a much smaller town than it is today. There was no freeway and no hospital. Accident victims had to be transported to Auburn for treatment. CHP officers had to rely on “roadside sobriety tests” in the arrest of an accused drunken driver, since the blood alcohol test had to be performed at a hospital.

“There were a lot of Italian people in town then,” he recalls. “Dave Cabona was like the mayor. Walt Barrett had the newspaper office. Along with Dick Joseph and Tom Dolley, they ran the entire town. The old newspaper had a lot more local news than they do now.”

The old downtown jail on Jibboom and Spring streets (now a museum) was the only place to hold prisoners at the time. It was in use for 100 years. Infamous criminals, such as Baby Face Nelson, Ma Spinnelli and Machine Gun Kelly reportedly all spent a day or two in the local “slammer.”

During bad weather, people frequently requested a night’s lodging at the jail and would be booked in as “sleepers.” Of course, criminals usually used fictitious names.

“Tom Dolley, the town’s constable, was always there to back us up,” he says. “He was a big man. He had an office in the old jail. They used the upstairs part of the jail to put women. Dolley and his deputy, Roy Waters, did a good job maintaining law and order in town.”

In 1950, the local Highway Patrol office was relocated to the building which today is the Christian Science building on Donner Pass Road. By 1951 the Truckee Squad had grown to five members.

“There was a ‘Y’ in the road where the Bank of America is today,” says Gautsche. “One leg of the ‘Y’ went to Lake Tahoe and the other to Truckee. There was nothing but trees in the middle of the ‘Y.'”

One of the earliest patrol officers in this area was Hobart Mills resident Charles E. McKeen, who was widely and favorably known in Truckee. He was followed by Bob Fowler, Paul Narbor, Gautsche and others, including Roy Stallard, Tom Sheehan and later Carroll Maynard, Martin Sturkey, Melvin Peterson, Glenn Virus, Bill Carlson and Ben Short.

Before 1929, officers used their own vehicles with a siren and red light on the roof as the only distinguishing features. Only inspectors and captains were allowed cars. Later, cars were issued to night patrolmen. Each car was painted white with red sirens on the roof. None of the early vehicles had heaters or other comforts.

“My first patrol car was a 1942 Pontiac,” says Gautsche. ” Later, I drove a Plymouth and a Packard. We also had Chryslers. There was no window defroster and the windows constantly iced up. We had to buy our own uniforms, our own gun and our own handcuffs.

“We didn’t have snow tires,” he says. “They gave us re-caps with ground up walnut shells and pieces of metal embedded in the rubber. We always had to put on our own chains.

“During the war, most violations were for speeding, especially on Donner grade,” he recalls.

“The tankers had chain drive and came down the hill in a very low gear. A long line of cars would line up behind. There were few turnouts and people were always in a hurry to get to Reno to gamble. Cars would make bad passes and, if a car was coming up the grade, they would end up getting run off the road near the Old Highway 40 bridge.”

Many spots on the Old Highway 40 grade earned nicknames among patrolmen. There was Iceland Hill, Deadman’s Curve and Big Shot. During the severe winter of 1952, the old road had to be closed when several semi-trucks were buried under 15 feet of snow.

“During that winter we had to escort cars through a hole in the snow,” he says. “There were avalanches all over the road. People would still argue at the chain controls and try to get through with no chains on their tires.”

By the late 1950s, things began to change. With the decision to hold the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley Ski Resort, state and local officials began the design and construction of an interstate highway over Donner Summit. Worldwide attention was focused on Squaw Valley and many people began to dream of living in the mountains. It didn’t take long for developers to realize the potential for building and selling second homes.

With the completion of Interstate 80 in 1964, traffic began to flow over Donner Summit and more problems were created for the CHP.

Perhaps the most vividly remembered incident in Gautsche’s career was the tragic murder of fellow officer Glenn Carlson, who was killed by three bank robbers after they had stolen more than $44,000 from a Bank of America in Sacramento and were trying to escape to Reno in a stolen Cadillac.

On Nov. 15, 1963, Officer Carlson, who was riding alone, observed the vehicle as it approached Donner Lake Gate at well over the speed limit for a chain control area. He promptly stopped the three for a traffic violation, gave them a ticket and let them go. At the same time, he also called in for a license plate check. A few minutes later, he learned who they were and set off in renewed pursuit.

After stopping the Cadillac again along Donner Lake, the three men emerged from the car, one of them with a German Luger in hand, and Carlson was shot and killed.

The officers later found Carlson’s body in the snow across the roadway and a manhunt for his murderers began.

Within six hours, all three suspects had been apprehended, two at the Sacramento Airport and one at a Truckee motel. All three were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The shooting made national headlines and brought recommendations from a state assemblyman for expanded use of two-man cars and resulted in the hiring of 150 additional officers.

In 1968, the new California Highway Patrol office on Highway 89 was built, but local officers were given orders from the Auburn Department.

Today, the Truckee office has a staff of 23 officers, three sergeants, nine radio dispatchers, a captain and several clerical and maintenance staff members. Gautsche’s son, Ron, works at the Truckee CHP scales as one of 15 civilian inspectors.

Gautsche retired from the California Highway Patrol in 1965 at age 55. Now at age 87, he enjoys sharing his large scrapbook containing photographs and newspaper articles and recalling his 22 years as a patrolman.

“Things are much different today,” says Gautsche. “There was no uniform allowance. There were very few nights when I didn’t have to get out of bed two or three times. The officers get much better pay and have more to work with. My starting pay was only $190 per month. When I retired, I made $840 per month.

“At least we didn’t have to buy our own gasoline,” he says with a laugh. “Nowadays you need a four-year college degree to be accepted. If you don’t have a degree you’re not going very far.

“People always used to help each other out in Truckee,” he says. “It was a closely knit town. I made a lot of good friends in Truckee,” he says. “I have no regrets.”


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