Real horse power got the job done in early Truckee |

Real horse power got the job done in early Truckee

Photo courtesy of Eastman Postcard, Truckee Donner Historical Society, Thomas-Frater Collection, Courtesy of Tom Macaulay Fourteen horses pull a wagon truck load of logs to a Sierra sawmill around 1895.

By Gordon RichardsTruckee’s success as a pioneer town can be credited to the coming of the iron horse, but without real four-legged horses the work would have been much harder. This weekend’s Truckee Championship Rodeo celebrates the hard working horses and the men and women who rode them.Before the railroad came, horses ruled the mountains. The first mountain men came from the east over the lofty Sierra Nevada summits using equine power. The first wagon trains were pulled over the Sierra with oxen, but horses were ridden alongside them.In 1864, when the Central Pacific was constructing the railroad, the company established the Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road to corner the freight and stage traffic from Sacramento to the mines of Nevada. The stagecoaches were pulled by six and eight horse teams, galloping along through the dust and mud. Slower freight wagons, many pulled by horses or mules, plodded along carrying supplies for the railroad, the mountain communities and on to Virginia City.The Central Pacific used hundreds of horses to move supplies forward from railheads to camps to continue construction miles from the railhead. The timber industry boomed with the coming of rails, and again hundreds of horses were needed to skid logs to landings. Logs were loaded on horse- or ox-drawn heavy trucks with solid wheels to haul logs to sawmills.Smaller sawmills loaded lumber onto freight wagons and horses hauled them to customers and to the railroad. They cut firewood using horse and wagon to haul the wood to the railroad and to town.Runaways

Runaway horses were an almost common event in the early days of Truckee. In March of 1869, two runaway incidents were reported by the Truckee Tribune.Eli Church, whom Church Street is named for, and S.O. Richardson were driving a team and loaded wagon down a hill near town when the wagon pushed so heavily against the horses that they turned out of the road into the snow. They had driven but a short distance when the wheel struck a log and the jar threw Mr. Church from the wagon onto the ground and the driver, Mr Richardson, fell on the tongue. The horses ran down the hill at a terrific rate, but Richardson managed to stay on the tongue. When the team reached the bottom of the hill, the wagon struck a stump, which turned it upside down, smashed the rear wheels all to pieces, and broke the tongue loose from the wagon, permitting the horses to make their escape.When Church reached the wreck, he found Richardson trapped under the wagon. He received no major injuries other a bruised leg.A week later a team of the Truckee Market, owned by Joseph Marzen and Israel Mann, was standing near the original Truckee Hotel. The horses got frightened by a passing locomotive and despite the best efforts of the driver, the team ran off down River Street. The horses ran down the river bank smashing up the wagon. Over the next two months several other runaways occurred that resulted in the wagons being destroyed. Two of these occurred to the team of the Truckee Market.Horsepower Once the Central Pacific rails reached Truckee in 1868, stage traffic picked up. By 1869 seven stages a day were coming and going from Truckee. Horsepower took passengers to Tahoe City and Brockway Hot Springs at Lake Tahoe. Many more took the stage north to Sierraville, Sierra City and Plumas County.

Freight was also hauled to and from the mines of Sierra County and Plumas County. Farm and ranch products were hauled to and from the Sierra Valley, making the roads north a busy, dusty transportation link.By 1870, Truckee had at least two wagonmaking shops, three harness making shops, and six livery stables. One of the wagon makers was Joe Gray, founder of the first settlement in the Truckee area. Huge quantities of hay and grain were shipped into town to feed the many horses.Horses were fitted with snowshoes and were then teamed up in bands of as many as 10. They were then driven on the roads, packing the snow into hardpack.When done, sleighs were hooked up for trips over the snow for freight and passengers. Sawmill operators did a lot of log hauling over the snow using horses. When the ice industry developed, horses were used on the ice to scrape the snow off and to score the ice into 22-inch square blocks so they could be cut by men with ice saws. Special ice cleats were nailed onto the hooves. The same horses that hauled logs in the summer were used for ice in the winter. As in many other parts of the West, horses were used to herd cows. The cowboys of the Truckee area were just as hard working as the riders of the trail drives of the Great Plains.They drove herds of beef cattle and dairy cows up from the Sacramento Valley every spring and early summer. The meadows and cutover timberlands provided pasture for numerous herds. Horse raising was also done along with the cattle ranching. Herds of young horses were also raised and grazed on the area meadows. In a 1872, a horse ranch was established on Sagehen Creek near Stampede Meadows.Every fall they made a trip down the mountain, usually just before the first snows. Some years the herds were temporarily trapped by early snows. Very few horses were kept up in the snow belt as the cost of feed was too expensive. Only those that could work for their feed were stabled here. Many horses were pastured and fed in the Sierra Valley as well.

Race tracksHorse racing was a popular pastime. An early racetrack was located one and one half miles east of Truckee in Martis Valley. It was built by William Campbell, builder and owner of the first hotel in Coburn’s Station. After that burned, he built the original Truckee Hotel. An October 1868, race series was sponsored by the Truckee Jockey Club. A purse of $1,000 was offered for all of the races. Three days of horse races were held with all comers invited. Races of one quarter, one half and a full mile were run.In the 1880s through 1910, Jim Burge was Truckee’s racetrack promoter and barbeque king. In 1883, he built a half-mile long racetrack that was 36 feet wide. It was fenced and had grandstands for spectators. Sundays were race day and locals were encouraged to enter. Purses ranged from $20 to more than $100. It was also in the Martis Valley near George Schaffer’s sawmill.Organized rodeos were not held in Truckee until the modern era. But informal Sunday races and riding contests were common.A racetrack was also built in 1901 on the southeast side of Donner Lake, as part of a picnic area.That site is part of Donner Memorial State Park now. Just east of downtown Truckee, there were cattle loading chutes and corrals. Informal rodeos were held by cowboys from area ranches while waiting for cattle trains.When autos began to replace horses, no one complained. The constant smell of horse manure, especially in the spring was one of the drawbacks to the original horsepower.Autos scared horses, sometimes to death, and injuries occurred when frightened horses ran away. However, horses were able to travel over the snow, something autos couldn’t do, so some were kept on.While the iron horse and horseless carriages ended up ruling the transportation field, horses certainly had their day. That day is celebrated with the Truckee Championship Rodeo.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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