Steaming the day away on early Lake Tahoe
The tourist industry at Lake Tahoe started with the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad over the Sierra in 1868. Tahoe City had existed since 1860, but most tourists didn’t seek out the village that existed to transfer hay cut in local meadows to sailboats taking it to the south end of Tahoe where it was freighted to Virginia City.The railroad brought an easy way over the Sierra and from Truckee, wagon roads were quickly built to Lake Tahoe. The first Tahoe commercial vessel, the Iron Duke, sailed the lake from 1860 to 1870. Quickly, the early small sailing boats on Tahoe were replaced by the first crude steamboats.
The first steamer on Tahoe, the Governor Blaisdel, named for the first elected governor of Nevada, was launched from Glenbrook in December of 1863. The Blaisdel carried freight, passengers and towed log rafts on the lake until it broke up in a storm in 1877.The first steamboat launched in Tahoe City was the Emerald. In 1869 it was brought from San Francisco by rail, and lashed to two logging wagons in Truckee. It took six arduous days for 24 oxen to haul it to Tahoe City along the rough road. The machinery was hauled separately and installed at the new boat works in Tahoe City.The Emerald, built for stage-line owner Ben Holladay, who owned Emerald Bay in the 1870s, was primarily used to tow log rafts from the logging camps along the shore to the sawmills of Glenbrook. It also made regular trips carrying passengers and small freight around Tahoe. It was in service until being condemned in 1881.
William Campbell came to Truckee in the days when it was still called Coburn’s Station. After it burned, it was rebuilt as Truckee, and Campbell was in the forefront of businessmen. He built the Truckee Hotel on the south side of the railroad tracks, later selling it to John Moody. The Truckee Hotel was also used as the railroad passenger depot.Campbell partnered with lumberman George Schaffer in 1869 to build the first wagon road through the Martis Valley, over the current Brockway Summit and down to the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. At the time, the lake was still officially known as Lake Bigler after the third California governor.Campbell’s reason for constructing this road was that he was building a resort hotel at Hot Springs on the shoreline near the Nevada state line. The Hot Springs Hotel soon became the hub of the North Shore. All of the boats plying Tahoe stopped at the Hot Springs wharf.Campbell expanded his empire in 1871 by buying the third steamer launched on Lake Tahoe. The Truckee had been built and launched on the south end of the lake in 1870, next to the outlet of the Upper Truckee River.The boat was 40 feet long, seven feet wide and had its wood burning steam engine located in the middle of the hull. It was capable of doing eight knots. Campbell made substantial improvements, including having Truckee millwright Charles Roberson install a new boiler, and advertised it as being the top passenger boat on the lake.One of the favorite locations for visitors to the lake, then as now, was Emerald Bay. With the mountains that rise from the lake, the rugged mountains and the blue-green waters, the run through the bay was always too short. In the 1870s steamers didn’t stop at Ben Holladay’s summer place, nor at Captain Dick Barter’s legendary cabin on Coquette (Fannette) Island.The Truckee continued to haul freight, tow logs to Glenbrook and any other work he could find for it. The Truckee also towed other sail-powered schooners around the lake in the late 1870s. In 1881 it was removed from service and broken up for firewood, a victim of more modern steamboats.
The tourism business was picking up well enough that W.H. Lapham of South Tahoe built a double decked steamer in 1872. The Governor Stanford was named after Central Pacific director turned politician Leland Stanford. This steamboat was 92 feet long, 15 feet wide and drew four feet when fully loaded. Her base was, as many steamers that came to be in the 1870s, Tahoe City.Up to 125 passengers could be carried, making her the first large scale steamer on Tahoe. It took a crew of six to man the $15,000 vessel, Lapham himself being the captain. The size made the Governor Stanford a slow ride, only running at 6 knots at full boiler pressure.An 1873 newspaper reporter complained about the slow speed, poor seating accommodations, a short smokestack that spewed cinders and ash on the deck passengers and the lack of an awning to keep the sun off the passengers who sat on the upper deck. Meals had to be taken standing up in the saloon, and the alcohol was not of a high quality. Still the scenery made the trip worthwhile.In mid-1873 Lapham installed a new steam boiler, increasing her speed to an advertised 14 knots, but it was still considered barely faster than a sailboat.The Governor Stanford was fast enough to make a complete trip around Lake Tahoe in a day quite comfortably. It would leave Tahoe City at 8 a.m., reaching Emerald Bay at 10 a.m., Lapham’s on the South Shore at Noon, then back north to Glenbrook on the east shore at 2 p.m., then steaming to Hot Springs on the North Shore before returning to Tahoe City by 5 p.m.Stage connections allowed a visitor to leave Truckee at 6 a.m., meet the steamer, travel around the lake and take a return stage to Truckee in the evening. More leisurely travelers would stop at one of several lakeside resorts for a day or two and enjoy the scenery. Another stage connection from Glenbrook would take passengers to Carson City, where they met the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.The Governor Stanford steamed her way around Tahoe until 1883, when the machinery was removed and she broke up in a winter storm.
Competition was always high among the Lake Tahoe steamboats and their captains. In August of 1873, the Truckee, under Campbell’s command, and the Governor Stanford, under Capt. Lapham, decided to find out who which the fastest boat on the lake. The boats were loaded with wood, water and passengers at Tahoe City as a large crowd gathered. Bets were placed on both boats.With both boats at their moorings, a flag was dropped and the steam whistles of both boats sounded. Steam pressure was raised, the valves opened and the race was on. From Tahoe City the boats headed southeast towards Glenbrook. The calm waters allowed the boats to run at their highest speeds. The Truckee started pulling away slowly soon after passing Observatory (Dollar) Point.By the time Glenbrook came in sight, the passengers on the Truckee were jubilant as their boat was well ahead of the wallowing Governor Stanford. By the time the Truckee reached Glenbrook, it was apparent that the Truckee had won by two to three miles. Bragging rights and more passenger traffic went to the victor.Other steamboats would be built for towing log rafts and passenger duties. Most would operate during the summer only. The two bases, Glenbrook and Tahoe City, would continue to have a maritime history through the early 1900s. The largest and most elegant vessel, The Tahoe, would rule the lake from 1896 to 1939.Gordon Richards is the Research Historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is email@example.com. You may leave a message at 530-582-0893. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives.
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