Truckees past residents faced winter head-on | SierraSun.com
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Truckees past residents faced winter head-on

Gordon Richards
The Schaffer and Barton families out for a winter sleigh ride. Teams of horses would pack the roads to make sleigh rides one of the favorite activities in winter.
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In the 1870s, winter was not a time for Truckee residents to hide inside. Instead, they liked to get outside for sleigh rides and other adventures, despite the cold weather. The Truckee Republican chronicled the events of winter travels on a regular basis.

In February of 1873 an impromptu sleigh ride was taken by a large group. Many of the towns leading citizens and their wives went along. Since sleigh rides were a common entertainment, everyone was happy to go along on short notice. The plan was a stealthy raid on Jones & Dickeys Hotel, located 12 miles northeast of Truckee where the road to Reno crossed the Little Truckee River, under what is now Stampede Reservoir. Jones & Dickey operated a small roadhouse that had been established in 1864 when the Central Pacific Railroad built the Dutch Flat and Donner Pass Wagon Road. They also had a cattle and hay ranch in the valley.Despite the last-minute plans, seven sleighs were gathered and warm clothes donned. They started out about 6 p.m., with three, four-horse teams leading the way to pack the road. Since it hadnt snowed in a while, the roads were open and fairly well packed out as far out as Russell Valley. It was a loud caravan, as all of the horses had a variety of sleigh bells on. A half moon provided enough light to navigate the route.At half past eight the party arrived at Jones & Dickeys Hotel. The owners had received a vague warning the day before that a Truckee group was intending to have a dance and party there sometime soon, but it was still a surprise that so many people would descend on the isolated outpost in the middle of winter. Still they were overjoyed to have company after weeks of seeing only the occasional freight sleigh going to Loyalton pass by.The invaders were made welcome, and the hotel was at their disposal. The dining hall was made ready for dancing and socializing. The party brought musicians and instruments in their sleighs, so in a very short time, they danced to waltzes, quadrilles and polkas.The first round of dancing continued until 11 p.m.

The room was then transformed back into a dining room and a feast of chicken, turkey, vegetables and pastries was served in grand style. Mrs. Dickey was well known for her cooking, and the night was no exception as all were well satisfied with the meal. The long ride in the sharp, frosty air and the lively dancing had given the Truckee crowd a good appetite.After a time, the hall was cleared again, and a second round of dancing ensued. This round was a little easier on the bodies, to allow the grand feast to settle. Good-byes were said, the horses were brought out of the stables and the party headed for Truckee at about 2 a.m.Then they reached the Prosser Valley area, they noticed an extreme drop in temperature and a layer of fog settled in on them, obscuring the moon and the road. The dense fog covered the valley bottom along Prosser Creek, which is where road went. Despite being warmly dressed, several of the people began to suffer the numbness of frostbite.The difference in temperature between the tops and sides of the hills and the valley floor was a full 20 degrees. Yet the party still managed to reach Truckee by 4 a.m. to crawl into a warm bed. A few ears and parts of faces were treated the next day for frostbite, but all said the were willing to do it again.

Other sleigh rides took place at various times to Lake Tahoe in the winter. The road to Tahoe City was usually not open to sleighs during the winter, despite the level route. The Truckee River and steep canyon made it difficult to keep a level path open, instead weekly mail trips were made on skis.The road to Hot Springs, located on Lake Tahoe near the Nevada-California border, was kept open. It followed the route that Highway 267 does today. It was a much easier and shorter route to keep open to sleighs despite the high pass and heavier snow. The Hot Springs Hotel was built by Truckee pioneer and hotel man William Campbell in 1869.Most winters, Campbell attempted to keep the road and hotel open to tourist traffic. Most of the people who traveled the 15 miles were hardy Truckee people. The route started out at the Truckee River Bridge, and many people went went as far as the old Peoples Ice Company pond, near where the Truckee River Regional Park is today. There ice skaters scraped the snow off of the pond, built bonfires to keep warm, a had a good time.Continuing on, the road was well packed out about 2.5 miles, to the turnoff to George Schaffers sawmill. Schaffer always had the road broken and packed right after storms, to keep supplies flowing to his logging teams that cut and hauled logs over the snow in the winter. On many moonlit evening sleigh trips went out as far as Schaffers and back.From there out across the Martis Valley, it was a little chancier. The wind would blow and drift and cover the road, making it difficult to find at times. Once across the valley, the route became more defined going up the middle fork of Martis Creek. As long as WilliamCampbell had done a good job packing the snow, the trip to the top of the summit was an easy, though slow, ride.Once over the top the view of magnificent Lake Tahoe was worth the trip, Scooting quickly down the hill, visitors reached the resort at Hot Springs. The horses were stabled and fed and the party began. Most trips to the Hot Springs Hotel were overnight trips as ample room was available in the winter.Campbell and later hotel operators spread out a splendid feast fit for a king and queen. The dance hall was quite a big attraction. All night balls were held throughout the 1870s and 80s. There were always plenty of spirits to keep the party warm and going strong.

The height of the trip was a long soak in the famous hot springs. The springs erupted at a scalding 108 degrees, too hot to bathe in directly. After the mineral laced water was mixed with colder water, the visitors could soak for hours, something not available in Truckee in winter.The hotel rooms were spacious and well furnished, kept warm by a wood stove in each room. Supplies were adequate though not excessive, as all freight was brought in by wagon before the snow fell, or hauled in by sleigh over the Hot Springs Road.If the party timed it right they could take a round the weekly lake trip on Campbells steamer Truckee that circumnavigated the beautiful lake to the various outposts around Tahoe. It brought mail, newspapers and fresh supplies to the very few hardy souls who stayed year-round in the wilderness. This became a long remembered part of Truckee life for those who were able to make the trip.After a hearty breakfast and another quick soak in the hot springs, the sleighs were loaded up. The trip back to Truckee was hopefully uneventful, though at times the sleighs might lose the road and flip over on the steep downgrade back into Martis Valley.Truckeeites certainly werent adverse to challenging winter, and sleigh rides were the best recipe to avoid cabin fever. Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com. Leave a message at 582-0893.


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