Sierra history: The first commercial watercraft on Lake Tahoe |

Sierra history: The first commercial watercraft on Lake Tahoe

Three steamers can be seen off Tahoe Tavern pier, from left: the Tahoe, the Nevada, and a pleasure craft named Mi Duena.
Courtesy Library of Congress |

Editor’s Note

This is the first in a two-part series of stories.

LAKE TAHOE — The annual 2015 Concours d’Elegance will be held in early August at Obexer’s Boat Company on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore.

This internationally acclaimed wooden boat exhibit gathers together some of the world’s most beautiful watercraft in a celebration that reminds us of how maritime vessels have shaped the Tahoe Basin’s earliest history.

Many notable sailboats and steamers plied the waters of Lake Tahoe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it appears that the first vessel on the lake (other than dug-out canoes crafted by Washoe and Paiute Indians) was a whaleboat forced over the Sierra by a man named Walton.

He was an avid fisherman, but little else is known of him. The first commercial watercraft on Big Blue was the “Iron Duke,” a sailboat captained by Thomas Jackson.

From 1860 to 1870, Jackson delivered mail around the lake. It took him about a week to make the trip as he sailed to each isolated settlement around the perimeter of the lake.


In the spring of 1864 the first steam-powered vessel was launched on Lake Tahoe. The “Governor Blaisdel” was named after Nevada’s first governor H.G. Blasdel, but spelled incorrectly.

The 42-foot-long side-wheeler was hand-built by Captain Augustus W. Pray, an early pioneer in the basin who settled in Glenbrook, Nevada, in 1860.

An experienced seaman who had sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Capt. Pray constructed the boat from scratch. He laid out the keel, steam-bent the wooden ribs, and milled side boards for the hull.

The boiler hardware and steam engine were acquired in San Francisco and the parts shipped to Glenbrook via freight wagons.

After its launch, parties were held around the lake celebrating the “opening of steam navigation on Lake Tahoe.”

Finally, travelers upon Big Blue did not have to rely on the erratic and capricious winds the area is known for.

Powered by wood-fueled boilers, the Governor Blaisdel hauled visiting tourists as well as entrepreneurs and businessmen looking for opportunity in the rapidly developing Tahoe Basin.


The ship transported freight around the lake and was sometimes pressed into service towing large rafts of harvested timber from logging camps around the lake to the commercial sawmill that Capt. Pray operated at Glenbrook.

There, the logs were cut into lumber and transported over the Carson Range to be used in Comstock mining operations near Virginia City.

The Governor Blaisdel operated reliably for more than 12 years until 1877 when the hard-working little steamer broke up in a storm and its debris washed up onto the Glenbrook beach.

Between 1865 and 1900 at least a dozen steamships worked commercially on Big Blue.

In the early 1860s the first year-round residents of what was to become Tahoe City settled the area. These men were frustrated miners who decided to get into the fishing business.

Other entrepreneurs spent summers cutting hay that grew in the nearby meadows that are now occupied by the Tahoe City Golf Course. Sailboats delivered the bales of hay to the south end of the lake where horse-drawn wagons transported it to Virginia City.

There the hay helped feed the thousands of draft animals that labored on the Comstock.


The first steamer launched at Tahoe City was the Emerald, which fired its boilers in July 1869. At 92 feet it was more than twice as long as the Governor Blaisdel and at full steam reached 12 mph.

Unlike the Governor Blaisdel, which Capt. Pray built himself, the Emerald was fabricated at a San Francisco ship building plant.

The steamship was loaded onto Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) flatcars and delivered to Truckee on the recently completed transcontinental railroad.

From there it took 24 burly oxen six days to haul the empty hull and superstructure to Tahoe City.

The engines and other operating machinery were carried in separate freight wagons.

A stage-line operator named Ben Holladay paid for the construction of the Emerald as an investment.

Known as The Stagecoach King, Holladay owned and operated an overland mail and freight service built upon an extensive network of main and branch stagecoach lines from Kansas to California.

At the time Holladay also owned all of Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, where he probably got the inspiration for the name of his boat.


During her work life, the Emerald primarily towed rafts of logged tree trunks to Glenbrook for processing. The steamship made steady money for Holladay until its boiler was condemned in 1881.

The extraordinary demand for lumber and cordwood for Nevada mines inspired other entrepreneurs to introduce their own steam-powered tug boats.

In 1870, Captain Howland and B.F. McCoy deployed the Truckee, a 40-foot-long wood burner capable of about nine mph.

For its first year, it was used exclusively to haul log booms, but in 1871, it was purchased by William Campbell, a Truckee businessman and owner of the new Hot Springs Resort near the north shore state line.

He promoted his vessel as the best passenger boat cruising Lake Tahoe, but tourism was still in its infancy in the region and few tickets were sold.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. Find Mark’s books at stores or You can reach him at Follow Mark’s blog:

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