Windows on history: From glaciers to fire |

Windows on history: From glaciers to fire

Courtesy photo Most of the buildings of Truckee and all western towns were built of wood. Even those fireproof buildings contained wooden interiors, and were vulnerable to fire. The No. 1 cause of fires was stovepipes, since wood heat was the only way to heat buildings.

The mountains

Where does Truckee history start? It depends on your point of view. The mountains around Truckee are millions of years old. Various volcanic episodes have occurred over the last 60 million years or so, with the last episodes occurring in the Glenshire area about 2 million years ago.

The present Sierra Nevada rose over the last million years with the valleys that contain Tahoe, Martis Valley and the Sierra Valley forming as large blocks of land dropped in relation to the mountains rising.

Ice ages came and went, creating glaciers that carved out valleys such as Independence Lake, Donner Lake, Cold Stream Valley, Squaw Valley and many others. The last glacier episode ended about 10,000 years ago. The Coldstream and Donner combined glacier flowed as far east as Martis Creek. A large lake filled the Truckee Basin concurrent with melting of the glacier.

The people arrive

The first humans that visited the Truckee area after the glaciers melted left their mark on the rocks. Those links to the past can be found in various places, now known as petroglyphs or more recently rock art. The Martis culture lived in the area seasonally about 2000 years ago, depending on which historian you listen to.

The Washoe and Paiute people frequented the area the last several centuries, seeking relief from the heat of summer. They hunted, fished, gathered plants and seeds and then left before the snows of winter. California native people also frequented the area from Donner Summit to the west. Please remember that remnants of these ancient cultures are protected by federal law that prohibits collecting.

The name Truckee comes from Paiute leader Chief (or Captain) Truckee, who is credited with guiding the first wagon train over the Sierra crest using Truckee (Donner) Pass. Chief Truckee guided the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy party through the Truckee area in the fall of 1844.

The Stevens party wagon train guide was “Old” Caleb Greenwood, then in his seventies. The wagon train arrived too late to bring all of their wagons over the pass. One member of the party, 17-year-old Moses Schallenberger, stayed most of the winter of 1844-45 at Mountain (Donner) Lake, surviving on foxes and coyotes that he trapped.

Wagon trains began to use what was known as the Truckee Route of the California Trail on a regular basis in 1845. Many groups of immigrants traveled safely over the Caleb Greenwood-pioneered route that ran through Stampede Valley, present-day Truckee, then through Coldstream Pass. History remembers the one party that didn’t succeed.

The Donner Party and beyond

The Donner-Reed-Murphy wagon train arrived in the Truckee area in late October of 1846. An early heavy winter prevented them from crossing the pass. Heroes and villains, starvation and cannibalism, failure and success mark the Donner Party story.

Of the 81 who camped at Donner Lake and Alder Creek, only 45 survived, mostly women and children. The rescue of the survivors was completed in April of 1847. Many places use the Donner name to commemorate the fateful episode of Truckee history.

Wagon trains continued to travel through the area along the Emigrant Trail until other routes became more popular in the early 1850’s. One of the easier routes skirted the Truckee area to the north. The Henness Pass Road went through Dog Valley, Sardine Valley, Kyburz Flat, then heading west along the Little Truckee River to Webber Lake, through Henness Pass, to Jackson Meadows and on down the mountain to Marysville. Road houses and campsites dotted the route for travelers going to California.

Silver was discovered at Virginia City in late 1858, and the Henness Pass Road saw a major increase in eastbound traffic. Freight and stage traffic required construction of stage stops and resorts, including one at Webber Lake, which still exists today. The route was in use until 1864 when the Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road was built through Truckee.

Silver was also discovered 1863 near Squaw Valley and along the middle fork of Martis Creek, but there was not enough ore to pursue full scale mining and the booms died. Gold was discovered at Meadow Lake, 20 miles northwest of Truckee in 1863 by Henry Hartley, who lived at Meadow Lake from 1860 to 1892. At its peak in 1866, some 3,000 people were living at the 7,000 foot elevation lake, but by 1869 only a handful remained.

To the north the Sierra Valley, first settled in 1852, was being developed with farms and ranches. Ranchers and sheepherders began to summer their stock in the Truckee River basin. Sawmills were built and the lumber was hauled to Virginia City via Sardine Valley.

The mining at Virginia City created a large demand for lumber and sawmills sprang up, cutting the forests of Lake Tahoe, Dog Valley and the Sardine Valley. People began to travel through the Truckee Valley and look at its favorable location for ranching and lumber production. All that was missing was a decent transportation link.

Settlers arrive and a town is born

That link arrived in 1864 with the Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road. It was built by the Central Pacific Railroad to corner the market on transporting supplies from Sacramento to Virginia City. Stage stations were built along the route, including Mineral Spring House near Donner Pass, William Mac’s stage stop above Donner Lake, Pollards Station at the west end of Donner Lake, the Donner Lake House at the east end of Donner Lake and Coburn’s station at today’s upper end of Brickeltown.

Joseph Gray established a stage stop at the current intersection of Bridge and Jibboom Streets. This pioneer building is still standing, now relocated to Church Street. Other road houses were built along the road through Stampede Valley and to Verdi.

The Central Pacific Railroad started construction in the Truckee area in 1867. While the tunnels were being built by 4,000 workers – 3,000 of them Chinese laborers – track construction continued east of Truckee to the Nevada state line. Coburn’s and Gray’s Stations became boomtowns.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad put the Truckee River Basin on the map. Soon, people nationwide were reading about Truckee, Donner Lake, Donner Pass and Lake Tahoe. Truckee became a tourist attraction.

In June of 1868, Coburn’s Station burned in the first of many fires that would mark the history of many structures in the area. The citizens built a new town surrounding Gray’ Station and the railroad named it Truckee. This brand new town had about 270 residences, a church, a school, a railroad roundhouse and many saloons to serve the thousands of workmen attracted to Truckee’s industries.

Trees, mills and lumber

The Truckee region attracted businessmen – and most importantly, lumbermen. The pine and fir grew up to five feet in diameter, and with abundant water, more than 30 sawmills were quickly built. The lumber was used to construct buildings along the railroad as far east as Salt Lake City.

Millions of board feet of lumber and timbers were used to construct the snowsheds needed to keep the railroad open in severe Sierra winters. Timbers were shipped to the Virginia City mines and to mines all over Nevada. Steam engines required millions of cords of wood. Truckee supplied it employing many men. Truckee lumbermen built miles of “V” flume to transport the lumber from remote mills down to the railroad.

Wood was turned into charcoal, which was shipped as far east as Utah. A silver smelter was in built in Truckee to take advantage of the ample charcoal supply. Like many mining ventures, it didn’t last long or make a profit.

The lumbermen were community leaders. Men such as George Schaffer, Warren and George Richardson, Edward Brickell and William Kruger, Elle Ellen, and Oliver Lonkey all were successful in their business and contributed to Truckee as the town grew.

The rough-and-tumble western town

The town was a magnet for the rough and tough men of the west: miners, loggers, railroad men, gamblers, criminals, and adventurers, all came to Truckee to try their luck and find a place to make a living.

Crime was rampant at times in the early days when money flowed freely. While murders did occur, the more prevalent problems were robberies, theft, burglaries, fighting, beatings, and knifings.

Truckee was a saloon town; the hard-working men demanding alcohol to ease their pains and to pass the time. The saloons were the social club of the day, providing music, entertainment and displays of local collectibles and artifacts. As many as 25 saloons were operating in the 1870s. The free flow of alcohol caused problems for local law enforcement officers.

Jack Teeter was Truckee’s first constable in 1868. Between the constable and a deputy sheriff of Nevada County, law enforcement was well represented, but still couldn’t control crime. A vigilante committee of leading citizens was formed in 1871, but it ended with the death of D.B. Frink, the Truckee Republican newspaper editor in 1874. The 601 organized as late as 1901.

Truckee’s law enforcement officers were men like James Reed, who was a constable in the 1870s and 1880s. Reed was on both sides of the law at times, but more popular in elections than Jake Teeter, who he shot and killed in 1891. Teeter was a deputy sheriff for a decade in the 1870s and 1880s. Jake Cross was a well-known and effective lawman in the 1870s.

The local justice of the peace for many years was John Keiser, who was also a local businessman. After he retired in 1876, the popular judge J.J.L. Peel held the office for a decade.

The Central Pacific Railroad had its share of crime and sent famous detective Len Harris to Truckee on a regular basis to stop railroad thefts and vandalism.

The legend is that there were only a few escapes from the Truckee jail, but recent detailed research in the Truckee Republican newspaper reveal that there may be as many as a half dozen. But the jailers didn’t want the public to know about it.

Burning buildings

Most of the buildings of Truckee and all western towns were built of wood. Even those fireproof buildings contained wooden interiors, and were vulnerable to fire. Coburn’s Station burned in 1868, clearing the way for the creation of Truckee. The first railroad roundhouse burned in 1869, most likely caused by arson. The response by the railroad was to station the fire locomotive “Sampson” in Truckee. Over the years, it and later engines saved Truckee from destruction many times.

Truckee’s first attempt at forming a volunteer fire department occurred in 1869. The No. 1 cause of fires was stovepipes, since wood heat was the only way to heat buildings. The first water system for fire protection was also built in 1869 by George Schaffer.

In 1871 there were three fires. A January fire burned 17 buildings, an April fire burned 100 buildings and killed one man, and in July 68 buildings burned, some of which had just been rebuilt from the previous fires. Still the tough townspeople rebuilt the town, adding more brick and stone buildings, including the Capitol Building which still stands today.

Smaller fires occurred on regular basis for a decade, and Chinatown burned several times in the 1870s. In June of 1877, the first steam-powered fire engine arrived. It was the “Washoe”, purchased from Virginia City. The town suffered major fires in 1881 and 1882, the first fire burning almost everything on Front and Jibboom Streets, including the interior of the Capitol Building, the American House (now Truckee Hotel) and the roof of the jail.

Later fires burned smaller portions of town, including one in 1909 that burned the Whitney House (now Truckee Hotel). The old Truckee Hotel, which was located between the railroad depot and Andy’s Diner, was one the finest hotels on the railroad line. It burned in 1900.

Structure fires did damage well into the 1900s, with the last destructive fire occurring in 1935, when the C.F. McGlashen mansion on High Street burned.

In the Friday edition, we’ll continue this whirlwind tour of early Truckee history and some of the notable people who made Truckee a community.

Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at The e-mail address is You may leave a message at 582-0893.

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