Weather Window | Charles F. McGlashan: Truckee patriarch |

Weather Window | Charles F. McGlashan: Truckee patriarch

Pictured here in his Knights of Pythias uniform, Charles McGlashan was a driving force for winter sports.
Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society |

Editor’s note: This is the third and final of a three-part series about Charles McGlashan. For the first and second installments click here and click here.

This summer the town of Truckee is celebrating its founding 150 years ago. In honor of the event, this column is chronicling some of the historic people, events, and industries that have made an impact on the growth of this colorful Sierra town.

Joe Gray was the first pioneer to settle the Truckee area, but Charles Fayette McGlashan is considered the town patriarch. McGlashan left an indelible impact on Truckee, from his “History of the Donner Party” book and extensive research into that subject, to a world-class butterfly collection and his pivotal role in establishing the Truckee-Tahoe region as one of the nation’s first winter sports centers.

He owned a busy law practice, but for a few months during the winter of 1876 he took the job of editor at the Truckee Republican newspaper. McGlashan quickly realized he couldn’t run his own business and run a popular bi-weekly newspaper. But before he quit he published many articles about Truckee’s winter scenery and early winter sports such as tobogganing, sledding and ice skating. It was a harbinger of his later efforts in the early 1890s to help Truckee organize an annual winter carnival to promote sports and the local economy.

Science at Lake Tahoe

As an occasional feature writer for the Sacramento Record-Union, McGlashan delved into various historic and scientific topics about mountain life. He wrote one titled “Resources and Wonders of Lake Tahoe,” which discussed the lake’s commercial fishing and logging industries, and another called “Scientific Fun on Lake Tahoe.”

In August 1873 Joseph Le Conte, a physician, geologist, and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, along with Tahoe local John McKinney, went out in a boat to measure the physical metrics of Lake Tahoe. Equipped with a good sounding-line and a self-registering thermometer, the two men ascertained the correct maximum depth of the lake at 1,645 feet. They also determined temperature as related to depth and quantified that lake clarity was greater than 108 feet.

Two years later, on July 4, 1875, McGlashan and his friend Charlie Burckhalter did their own scientific survey of Lake Tahoe. They also compared temperature profiles at various depths and tested the lake’s purity which they found “very nearly as pure as distilled water.” Instead of a lead sounding-line the men used a champagne bottle to search for Tahoe’s maximum depth, and they too came up with 1,645 deep, the same figure as Le Conte. Their conclusions were proved correct years later after a modern Coast Guard Geodetic Survey.

Winter Fun Mecca

Arguably Charles McGlashan’s greatest accomplishment was his conviction the economic future for Truckee would be based on winter sports. In 1894 he constructed a 45-foot tall, cone-shaped wooden frame on the hill near his house above town. He wrapped the towering structure with chicken wire and at night when temperatures fell below freezing he sprayed water on it until it eventually resembled a gigantic icicle. His neighbors had no idea what McGlashan was up to and rumors abounded. McGlashan really sparked everyone’s interest when he rigged up a powerful arc light on a nearby flagpole that bathed the sparkling icicle in bright light. At night, no one could take their eyes off the magnificent, glittering tower of ice aglow above them. It certainly caught the attention of curious train passengers traveling through Truckee. At local meetings, he proposed that the town build a “spacious ice palace, illuminated during the day by a transparent roof of thin ice, but supported by thick walls of ice surrounding a large skating rink.”

It wasn’t long before McGlashan’s dream snowballed into what became Truckee’s famous Winter Carnival, a major tourist attraction for snow lovers in California and Nevada. It was the first ice carnival in the West with bands playing music, concessions and more. In the dead of winter the town staged dog sled races, toboggan runs, horse-drawn sleigh rides, ski races, and moonlight skating parties on Donner Lake. Three months before his death on Jan. 6, 1931, Charles McGlashan wrote a letter to the Truckee Chamber of Commerce: “Now, in my eighty-fourth year, I look back to quite a number of years when it is well known I was the acknowledged leader of Truckee Winter Sports. I have always believed that the vast snowfields of the Truckee Basin, situated on a transcontinental railroad in sunny California, would annually attract tens of thousands of visitors.”

The dream of the Truckee-Tahoe region as a Mecca for winter fun has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination, a vision that led directly to the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, an event that showcased Truckee and Lake Tahoe as an international destination for all seasons.

More information can be found in “Give Me a Mountain Meadow” by M. Nona McGlashan, 1981 and “From the Desk of Truckee’s C.F. McGlashan,” edited by M. Nona McGlashan and Betty H. McGlashan.

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:

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