Short Line To Paradise | SierraSun.com

Short Line To Paradise

Mark Mclaughlin
Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical SocietyTruckee-Tahoe train along Truckee River circa 1911.
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Between Tahoe City and the town of Truckee flows the Truckee River; one of the most beautiful stretches of water in California. For 43 years, the Lake Tahoe Railway andamp; Transportation Company operated a narrow gauge shortline along this picturesque mountain stream, an important railroad that made Lake Tahoe a popular resort, conveniently accessible to the rest of the world.From its formal opening on May 1, 1900, to its final abandonment in August 1943, the little shortline charmed early tourists and travelers who were enchanted by the majestic pine-cloaked mountains, soothed by the peaceful river winding alongside the tracks and awed by the stunning views upon arrival at Lake Tahoe. The scenic 15-mile-long railroad connected the busy transcontinental line at Truckee with Tahoe City, the primary hub for the sleek steamships that plied the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe. Once the train reached the elegant Tahoe Tavern hotel in Tahoe City, the engineer eased the locomotive and passenger coaches out onto the hotels sturdy pier that jutted into the lake. The commercial steamers docked right alongside the same wharf so disembarking train passengers could simply step down from their coach, and then step aboard one of the yacht-like steamers that traveled the lake in the summer season. The Lake Tahoe Railway andamp; Transportation Co. (L.T.R.andamp;T.C.) was the brainchild of Duane L. Bliss, a local timber baron who recognized the potential of Tahoe as a tourist destination even after his company had cut down many of the regions trees. During the 1870s and 1880s, the forests throughout the Tahoe and Truckee basins were logged to support the Comstock mining boom. When the dust finally settled, it was apparent the clear-cut logging operations had decimated much of the regions natural beauty and existing economy. At the south shore of Lake Tahoe, abandoned logging camps, empty flumes, rusting railroad equipment and silent mills haunted the denuded landscape. Parcels of land in Tahoe, eroded and choked with logging debris, sold for less than $1.50 an acre. At that point, Bliss decided to buy the old rails and rolling stock for the new shortline. He had made a lot of money in the logging industry, but now the savvy businessman anticipated an emerging tourist industry at Lake Tahoe. He realized the magnificent lake had everything a perfect summer climate, scenic alpine beauty (especially after the trees grew back), and a great location to support world-class tourism. But to transport tourists in large numbers, Bliss would need a train. Until that time, transportation to the lake along the Truckee River meant a dusty, five-hour journey by stagecoach. A railroad line from the Southern Pacific railhead at Truckee to Tahoe City had first been proposed in 1879. Two surveys were carried out during the 1880s, but it was decided that the lack of tourist traffic didnt warrant the investment. Twenty years later, Bliss believed the time was right and in 1898, he and his relatives formed the L.T.R.andamp;T.C. to build a rail line from Tahoe City to the Southern Pacific main line at Truckee. Three locomotives and about 60 or 70 logging flatcars, plus 555 tons of used narrow gauge track were barged across the lake and unloaded at Tahoe City. Many of the buildings at Glenbrook and Bijou, including machine shops, employee housing, and even one of the large sawmills were also floated across the lake. Bliss had a solid business plan to go along with his vision for developing Tahoe tourism. Unlike previous railroads in the region, the Lake Tahoe Railway was designed specifically for tourists. It operated from May 15 to Nov. 15 and visitors comprised the bulk of its passengers. One of the biggest tourist draws to the region was the opportunity to enjoy Lake Tahoe from the deck of a steamer. As soon as visitors arrived in Tahoe City, they usually hurried to board one of the steamships docked at the pier. To capitalize on the expected throngs who would need food, lodging and transportation, the Bliss family operated many business enterprises. Besides the all-important railroad, their local holdings included the world-famous Tahoe Tavern, a luxury lakefront hotel in Tahoe City; a large general store called the Tahoe Mercantile (the Merc); and a small fleet of commercial pleasure boats, which included the legendary steamship SS Tahoe. Bliss hired his son, William Seth, to survey the railroad route from Truckee to Tahoe City. Educated at MIT, William proved remarkably capable as a civil engineer so well done was his work that the narrow gauge line never needed realignment. Grading and construction on the Truckee Tahoe railroad began in 1898 and took two years to complete. To avoid sharp curves, Williams survey included numerous river crossings that required the construction of many bridges. In one mile of track the river was crossed five times. The railroad had an average grade of 90 feet to the mile and cost an estimated $500,000 to complete. The Truckee Tahoe railroad enjoyed very busy passenger traffic during the summer months and soon earned a reputation for friendly service, sublime scenery and traveling convenience. The Bliss family corporation took care of everything; rail service, food and lodging, and a trip on the steamer Tahoe if so desired. The fare on the train was 10 cents per mile, or about a dollar and a half from Truckee to the lake. By the mid 1920s, however, economic trouble began to plague the railroad. One major problem was that the Truckee Tahoe railway was a narrow gauge, which meant that all freight from Southern Pacific had to be re-handled in Truckee. In 1925, the family agreed to sell the Tahoe Tavern to a hotel subsidy of the Southern Pacific, but with the proviso the railroad and steamers had to be included in the package. William S. Bliss offered to lease the railroad to SP for 99 years at an annual rate of $1 per year, if they would standardize the road and establish through Pullman service from Oakland to the Tahoe Tavern. Bliss added that when Southern Pacific performed all the provisions in the contract, the Bliss family would sell them title to the Lake Tahoe Railway for one dollar. Within a year Southern Pacific had replaced the entire narrow gauge track with standard gauge. After the deed and bill of sale were delivered to Southern Pacifics acting attorney, Evan J. Foulds, the lawyer turned to William Bliss and handed him one shiny silver dollar. Like many other railroads, paved roads and highways signaled the end for the Truckee-Tahoe narrow gauge. When the state highway department began plowing the road to Lake Tahoe and keeping it open year round, the public switched from railroads to the family sedan and train traffic quickly declined. The shortline to paradise ceased operations in 1941 and on Nov. 10, 1943, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved Southern Pacifics request to abandon the Lake Tahoe branch of the railroad. The State of California acquired the right-of-way and constructed State Route 89 after World War II. For more than four decades the Lake Tahoe Railway comfortably conveyed thousands of delighted people through the Truckee River Canyon to the glorious steamers that once sailed the Lake of the Sky. Today a visitor to Lake Tahoe will find neither railroads nor steamships, but the railroad and maritime history of the area is evident everywhere. Part of the original roadbed of the charming Lake Tahoe Railway has been paved smooth, and now visitors can walk or ride bicycles for miles on the same narrow gauge pathway along the scenic Truckee River. Mark McLaughlin is a Tahoe resident and nationally published author and photographer. His award winning books are available at local bookstores or at http://www.thestormking.com