Weather Window | A look at Truckee’s patriarch Charles F. McGlashan |

Weather Window | A look at Truckee’s patriarch Charles F. McGlashan

Courtesy Nevada Historical Society

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — This summer the communities of Truckee and Tahoe City are both celebrating the 150th anniversary of their founding in 1863. Over the next few months, it therefore seems appropriate to chronicle a few of the historic people, events, and industries that have made an impact on the growth of these two colorful Sierra towns.

Joseph Gray and his family are credited as the first Anglo Americans to settle near the present site of Truckee when he built a toll station during the summer of 1863, near the river where the current Highway 267 Bridge is located. For at least 8,000 years before Gray arrived, native peoples had traveled through and summered in the region. Resident archeologist Susan Lindstrom has reported that before downtown Truckee was built, the site was a Washoe Indian village named “K’ubuna detde’yi.”

A strange coincidence

Joe Gray may be considered the first pioneer to settle the Truckee Basin, but arguably the town patriarch is Charles Fayette McGlashan, whose noted accomplishments live on today, most importantly in winter sports. When McGlashan died Jan. 6, 1931, all major California newspapers mourned his passing with eulogies recognizing his life as “a pioneer historian, newspaperman, scientist, educator, and barrister.” His interests were diverse: during his criminal justice career he was known as one of the best defense attorneys on the West Coast. He was an accomplished scientist; fascinated with astronomy, but best known for his work in entomology (study of insects), specifically butterflies. (Did you know that Donner Summit boasts the greatest diversity of butterfly species north of the Mexican border, along with another location in Colorado?) As a lepidopterist, McGlashan and his daughter Ximena amassed a fantastic collection of more than 20,000 specimens of butterflies and moths, one of the largest and most extensive in the world. An amazing array of the insects were sealed and protected between glass panels for viewing; part of the collection is still on display at Donner Memorial State Park.

McGlashan’s 1879 book, “History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra,” about the 1847 event and its survivors is still a classic. It was his measurements of cut tree stumps from that winter that dictated the height of the pedestal for the monument at the state park. In a strange coincidence, Charles F. McGlashan was conceived in Wisconsin Territory during the harsh winter of 1847, when members of the ill-fated Donner Party were struggling to survive east of Donner Pass. Thirty years later McGlashan would meet many of the survivors and write the first true history of that tragic frontier episode. His pioneering efforts to develop a winter sports industry in the Truckee-Lake Tahoe area have had the greatest historic and economic impact of all.

Born into a poor family in the primitive settlement of Beaver Dam, Wisc. on Aug. 12, 1847, to Peter and Elizabeth McGlashan, Charles was raised the only boy among six sisters. When he was about two years old, Elizabeth died in childbirth at Christmas time. From then on Peter was sullen and morose much of time, a broken man. He now considered the religious holiday a period of mourning and forbade gifts or celebrations.

Off to Cali

But in 1851 Peter McGlashan suddenly broke the news they were leaving for California, and after two years preparation they headed west for Placerville, arriving in September 1854.

As a boy, “Fayette,” as Charles was called then, swept floors and did yard work to pay tuition at Sotoyome Institute in Healdsburg. He graduated in 1864 and after a short stint teaching students in a Mother Lode mining camp, was accepted to Williston Seminary, a progressive intermediary school in Massachusetts that specialized in science. “Mac” as his fellow students called him excelled scholastically and athletically. But in his final year of studies, he was expelled along with eight other seniors for protesting the disciplinary treatment of a classmate. He returned to California in the spring of 1871 as a 23-year-old man to take the position of principal position and teach at Placerville Academy.

By December, McGlashan had fallen in love and married a pretty, young local girl named Jennie Munson. In 1872, the newlyweds moved to Truckee where he accepted the school superintendent job. Neighbors in Placerville told the couple there are only three seasons in Truckee: July, August, and winter! But McGlashan had visited Truckee, and was captivated by clear skies for astronomy, and the spectacular beauty of Lake Tahoe. In July they stepped off the train at Truckee, a raucous, violent town that harbored transients, a large Chinese population, and a red light district. The wild and woolly town also held Charles F. McGlashan’s future.

More information can be found in “Give Me a Mountain Meadow” by M. Nona McGlashan, 1981.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at Mark can be reached at Check out his blog at

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