Tahoe City 1873: not a booming metropolis
Echoes From the Past
A visitor to Tahoe City in 1873 would have found a small lakeside village, with the beginnings of the resort era in place. While it was more than a dozen years old, there still wasn’t much to the place.
Only a handful of hardy men spent the winter, but summertime, just as it is now, was a time of many visitors. The route to Tahoe City was through Truckee via a 15-mile stagecoach ride.
Residents or tourists had a choice of three different daily stages that met the passenger trains in Truckee. William Campbell, owner of the Truckee Hotel, which was also the Central Pacific passenger depot, had the inside track on the passenger trade. Campbell also had the daily mail contract in the summer.
Others, such as Tom Bittancourt, handled the ribbons on his four-horse coach. The stage road, first constructed by John Huntington in 1860, was a toll road that was poorly maintained in rough, dusty, but passable shape.
The route along the banks of the “clear, bold, dashing mountain river” had no peer on the Pacific Coast. The scenery was picturesque, truly magnificent, with the rocky points rising from 1,200 to 1,500 feet above the river.
Most stages on the two-and-a-half-hour trip stopped at A.J. Bayley’s Tahoe City House, the largest in town. The 84-room hotel had been built in 1869, by M.L. King, and being 50 feet up the bluff, had a splendid view of the Lake. In 1873, Bayley’s was overflowing with guests most of the summer.
A few doors east, pioneer settler William Pomine had the Tahoe House, built in 1868. He had been the first businessman savvy enough to see the demand for a small hotel, and more importantly a saloon, to feed the needs of the locals and the growing tourist trade. With the coming of the Central Pacific through Truckee, visitors now had a much easier time getting to the Tahoe.
A Truckee reporter found the village with an abundance of room to grow, green grass slopes extending back up the hill into the forest, the hills full of dense pine trees, plenty of fresh water, a fine summer climate, and delightful scenery.
All Tahoe City lacked was a city. Few people actually lived in town. As a summer residence to people of means, leisure and cultivated tastes, it offered substantial attractions that could not be found in any state, Pacific or Atlantic.
Down on the lake, on the wharf, sat the new steamer, the Governor Stanford, waiting for passengers to board for trips around the lake and to Glenbrook, (Brockway) Hot Springs, Lapham’s and Yank Clements on the South Shore, and of course, the gem of Tahoe, Emerald Bay.
Creeping offshore was a small fleet of fishing boats. These mostly Italian and Portuguese men were fishing for Tahoe’s famous Silver Trout. The lake variety Lahontan cutthroat trout that grew up to 30 pounds and three feet in length. Freshly caught fish were iced and boxed up and shipped on the stagecoach to Truckee where they were placed on the Central Pacific and sent to the finest restaurants in San Francisco.
It seemed that almost everyone had a boat, as there were few roads, so the water was the easiest way to get around the lake.
At the outlet stood Alexis Von Schmidt’s log and stone crib dam that was used to raise Tahoe up to six feet, with the stored water being released in summer to float logs down the river to the sawmill of the Truckee Lumber Company. Just below that Billy Pringle, Johnny Hurley and Prentiss Pringle had their fish hatchery. They raised silver trout, charging visitors a small fee to catch small fish, so they wouldn’t have to spend hours on the lake chasing the wild trout and catching nothing.
In the heart of the “City,” the log crib stone filled wharf was built in 1872 to replace to earlier wooden wharf that had served shipping interests since the early 1860s. Tahoe City’s first commercial enterprise, hay cutting from the natural meadows in the area, used this wharf to ship the bales south to feed the huge volume of wagon traffic supplying the Comstock Lode in Virginia City.
The hills surrounding the outlet of Lake Tahoe echoed with the sound of loggers falling three foot diameter pines, cedars and firs. These were skidded by oxen to the lake and formed into rafts. Steamboats, such as William Campbell’s “Truckee,” towed these rafts over to Glenbrook where the largest mills on the Lake were taken. This was milled into lumber and timbers that was then hauled Virginia City.
Other small mills were located along the west shore, such as Augustus Saxton’s water powered sawmill near Ward Creek. Lumbering dominated the Tahoe economy in 1873 and on through the 1890’s.
A side trip along the North Shore took you over to Burton’s Island where Homer Burton had his Island Farm. He had found this spot two miles from Tahoe City, that was an island during normal high water, a neck of land connecting it when water levels were low, and flooded when the lake rose to extreme levels.
Burton’s boarding house and residence were on the mainland, where he grew garden vegetables. He found the soil and climate ideal for growing potatoes, tomatoes, and hay.
Another heralded improvement that had everyone talking in 1873 was the completion of a telegraph line from Tahoe City to Truckee. The single wire was strung from trees along the stage road. The Tahoe City office was at Bayley’s Tahoe House as he, along with partners A.A. Bayley and A.R Schively, were the owners. It took 10 days for three men to string the wire up and connect it to keys at either end.
On the outskirts of Tahoe City and in the meadows along the West Shore were hundreds of dairy cows. These cows were milked daily and produced some of the finest mountain butter, that was shipped by steamboat to Glenbrook then by stagecoach over to Virginia City.
Another curiosity was noted that summer when a seagull, rarely seen at Tahoe was shot and killed by I.O. Forbes. The wingspan was measured at seven feet, and the bird was stuffed and displayed in the saloon of the Truckee Hotel.
Alf Doten, a noted Gold Hill journalist, caught the largest Silver Trout ever known, that being a 30 pounder from the middle of the lake. Another large animal was also shot and killed that summer. Lou Huntington tracked and killed a 600-pound grizzly bear in the mountains near Tahoe City.
There were no doctors at the lake, so when people got sick or were injured, they had to be taken to Truckee. One such incident occurred in September when a sheepman named Murray, who was herding near Blackwood Canyon, became very ill. He went to Tahoe City, got some medicine, stayed a few days and feeling better went back to the herd.
After walking six miles, he came to George Conor’s ranch, where became ill again. He lingered there a day, getting worse again. Friends and acquaintances donated enough money to the now broke Murray to have a lumber wagon take him back to Tahoe City. Upon arriving there it was advised that he needed to be taken to Truckee to the nearest doctor. Murray by then was in agony and some thought he should not have been moved at all.
A son of a local rancher, Page, agreed to take Murray on to Truckee right away. After wrapping him in a thin blanket, the trip continued. Dark came on soon after Page left, but he pressed slowly on. When the wagon arrived in Truckee at 9 p.m., a commotion ensued. It was unsure whether Murray had a contagious disease, so he was not taken into any of the hotels there. Both Truckee doctors Curless and Goss were called, and pronounced Murray beyond help. The wagon ride did Murray no good, they assured the Page boy. A half hour after arriving, Murray was dead. It would be several decades before Tahoe City would have enough people to warrant a regular doctor.
As winter came on to Tahoe City, most people left, the hotels closed, the fishing boats were put up, the steamers pulled up onto shore, and life slowed down. The dairy and sheep herds were driven below, the wildlife fled down the mountains, and wagon loads of supplies were brought down from Truckee. Only about 15 men were left to spend the winter of 1873-74 in the “City.”
Gordon Richards is the president and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 582-0893. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.
Truckee Donner Historical Society Field Trip: All are invited to join the Historical Society for a history oriented field trip on Alder Creek on Tuesday, July 11. Meet at 6 p.m. along Alder Creek Road, one-third of a mile west of Highway 89, where the Commemorative Emigrant Trail crosses Alder Creek Road. Call 582-0893.
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Jaime Alessio took this video of a bobcat wandering around Kings Beach in broad daylight.