The Truckee River evolved through the ages
October 2, 2006
About 2 million years ago the Truckee River watershed from Lake Tahoe to Martis Valley looked somewhat different. From the outlet of Lake Tahoe the river flowed much as it does now, but at a higher elevation. The rim of Tahoe had not been cut down through the volcanic lava flows in the Tahoe City to Alpine Meadows area. The shoreline of Lake Tahoe stood several hundred feet higher than present.
The basin that underlies the Lake Tahoe through Sierra Valley region is a down-faulted block of earth that has dropped in relation to the surrounding eastern and western mountains that have risen higher in the last 10 million years. This descending block, still moving, led to the creation of Lake Tahoe, Martis Valley and the Truckee River.
As the block dropped, volcanoes sprung from cross faults, erupting to form the Martis Peak, Mount Pluto and Mount Watson chain. The mountain snows kept the waters forming the Truckee River flowing, eroding the landscape down.
Entering the Truckee area and the Martis Valley, the river encountered Lake Truckee. This lake had been formed by volcanic flows east of present day Glenshire 15 to 25 million years ago. This plugged up the river and backed up the waters at least 450 feet. Once past this intrusion, the river cascaded its way on down the lower canyon to present day Nevada over a series of volcanic flows.
At the eastern side of Martis Valley, The Truckee River slowly eroded its way through the volcanic flows, revealing a cinder cone on the north edge of Glenshire that remains today. By about 100,000 years ago, Lake Truckee had been drained on the eastern side and filled in by sediments and glacial debris on the western side. This left behind the current Martis Valley and its gentle topography.
Starting about 2 million years through 10,000 years ago, ice ages and their tools of erosion ” glaciers ” changed some of the features of the area. Down faulting continued to lower the floors of Lake Tahoe and Martis Valley. As the glaciers came and went, the level of Lake Tahoe lowered as the Truckee River continued to erode away at the rim.
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Watersheds leading from the Sierra crest had the greatest glacier action, and several of those creeks became full-blown valleys. Glaciers fed Lake Tahoe all along the West Shore, and Bear Creek and Squaw Creek glaciers fed directly into the river. Ice carved out the Cold Stream Valley and Donner Lake, depositing debris into the western edge of Martis Valley.
The ice-age glaciers enlarged Bear and Squaw Creeks, gouging out the U-shaped valleys that exist today. As each icy mass hit the mountain east of the river they dammed up the Truckee River. This caused Lake Tahoe to rise several hundred feet. However, water cannot be denied, and the river found its way through and over the ice plug, continuing its run north.
At the end of each ice age, these glaciers melted away quickly, both from the warming sun and the waters of Tahoe gnawing away at the ice. The massive collapse of the Squaw Creek glacier spawned a flood of mud, water, ice and rocks. House sized boulders were carried downstream as far as Verdi by a wall of water up to 40 feet high.
The debris floods left their mark on the Truckee River all the way to Nevada. Truckee Lake was filled in more with every event. Huge boulders known as erratics were stranded on the rim above the canyon, where they still remain.
In the interglacial period, the river continued to move dirt and rocks left behind by the glaciers, and rearrange the landscape in minor ways. Plants slowly pioneered the bare soil and forests grew to cover the scars of the glacial episodes.
The Nevada environment was completely different than today. Huge lakes such as Lake Lahontan covered greater than 8,500 square miles, fed in part by the glaciers and runoff from the Truckee River.
Climate swings also brought long-term periods of drought. Lake Tahoe and Truckee Lake dropped dramatically, ceasing all water flow to the Truckee River. Riparian species disappeared, and wildlife migrated elsewhere or died. Wetter climate returned and the river resumed its life-giving flow.
The last ice age peaked about 12,000 years ago, about the same period when wandering humans found suitable habitat in Nevada along the lower Truckee River. They found the Lahontan cutthroat trout up to four feet long and a the smaller cui-ui fish of the lower Truckee River near Pyramid Lake to satisfy their hunger. As the glaciers melted the nomadic humans expanded their range up into the mountains, following the Truckee River.
About 4,000 years ago the Martis Valley was the home of the Martis culture. They took advantage of the healthy watersheds of the Truckee River, which offered a bounty of plants and wildlife. They left their mark in the form of basalt spear points and tools.
The Truckee River was the lifeblood for later Native American Washoe and Paiute
cultures, providing the plants and animals to sustain themselves, though climate change altered their sources as time went on.
Climate change is constant, something humans have always had to deal with. From about 1350 to 1850, temperatures decreased moderately in the Tahoe to Southern Sierra region increased, glaciers returned and advanced in a period known as the Little Ice Age.
The overall flows of the river were increased as less evaporation occurred, and summers, being much cooler, prevented large scale lightning or human caused fires from sweeping through the watershed. As a result, thicker forests expanded into lower elevations, Truckee River water temperatures dropped, and summer river flows increased.
During the 1820s American mountain men explored Nevada, heard about the Truckee River from Paiutes, but only a few ventured far enough to drink in the cold water of the Truckee River.
The first Americans to set foot along the Truckee might have been the Joseph Walker party of 1833, which definitely found the nearby Carson River. One of the party, Stephen Meek told stories in saloons in Truckee in 1873 of the party’s exploration up the Truckee River as far as Donner Lake before being defeated by the snowy crest and being forced to return to Nevada. One member of this party was Baptiste Truckee, and Meek claimed the river was named after Baptiste. This group ended up being the first Americans to see Yosemite Valley.
The first known Americans to see and travel along the Truckee River were the men traveling the west with John Charles Fremont, “The Pathfinder.” He found and named Pyramid Lake, though the Washoe had always known and relied on the lake.
Fremont explored up the Truckee River, but never came up the Truckee River toward the Martis Valley area.
Finding the four-foot Lahontan cutthroat trout, Fremont named the river, the Salmon Trout River. He traded with the peaceful Paiutes, but didn’t explore the upper sections until he returned in December of 1845, when he led a horseback party through the oncoming winter.
The first emigrant wagon train traveled along the Truckee River in November of 1844. The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party met a Paiute chief near the Carson Sink. Using sign language mountain guides Elisha Stevens and “Old” Caleb Greenwood parlayed with the chief, who kept repeating the phrase “Tro-Kay.” There is some evidence that Chief Truckee’s Paiute name was Tro-ki-zo. Chief Truckee, as he became known, led the Stephens party to the Truckee River, named then in his honor.
The Stephens party followed the directions of Chief Truckee, bringing their wagons up the rough channel of the Truckee River from the Truckee Meadows through to the Martis Valley, and beyond to the confluence of Donner Creek. The party split up and a horseback party of seven, including one woman, continued following the Truckee River upstream. Eventually they crossed the crest west of Tahoe and stumbled through the rugged Sierra, finally making their way to Sutter’s Fort.
The remaining wagon party attempted to cross the Sierra at Donner Pass. They succeeded in getting half of their wagons over the crest, but foundered in the heavy snow near Big Bend along the Yuba River. One 17-year-old, Moses Schallenberger, remained for three months along, holed up at the foot of then named Truckee Lake.
Through 1851, the Truckee River route was the most popular, though not the easiest. Soon other emigrant trails such as the Carson, Johnson and Henness pass roads took most of the traffic. The Truckee River region endured a relatively quiet period until the opening of the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road in 1864 brought a stream of emigrants, stage coaches and freight wagons to travel the Truckee River route. Once The Central Pacific Railroad built along the Truckee River, the world of the Truckee River was changed again.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives.