Echoes from the past: George Schaffer – Legendary figure helped to shape Truckee’s growth in the 1800s
“The noble tree has fallen!” exclaimed the Truckee Republican in reporting the death of George Schaffer in 1903. “His death closes the career of a man whose history has been inseparably interwoven with the history of Truckee. No figure had been more conspicuous in town since its inception.”George Schaffer was born to William and Elizabeth Schaffer Nov. 26, 1828, in the little town of Hessen, Germany. Educated in his native land, he pursued a career as a carpenter and a millwright. At 20, young Schaffer and his parents and brother, James, immigrated to the United States.Aboard ship he met his soon-to-be wife, Margaret Hershman. The family settled in Pennsylvania, eventually moving to Muscatine, Iowa, where he and Margaret married. While in Muscatine, their first four children were born: Annie, Willie, Mary Elizabeth and Henry. Schaffer became a U.S. citizen and worked hard, becoming a successful businessman and property owner. In 1861, after learning of the great wealth and opportunities of the Comstock Lode, he decided to pull up stakes and joined the western migration.While expecting their fifth child, they traveled by covered wagon for five months, arriving in Nevada Territory, where Schaffer erected a shingle mill on Clear Creek in today’s Douglas County. Susie Elizabeth Schaffer was born in Carson City soon after their arrival.Business prospered. Towns sprung up overnight and shingles were scarce. Schaffer explored the vast virgin forests around Lake Tahoe seeking a lumber supply for his mill.One day he ventured into present-day Truckee and became acquainted with an Englishman named Joseph Gray. Gray was living in a solitary log cabin while operating a hostelry serving travelers along the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road.Schaffer and Gray struck up an immediate friendship. Gray knew that soon the Central Pacific Railroad would be laying tracks through the area and the demand for lumber would present a tremendous opportunity. In 1866, the two men shook hands and became partners, establishing the first lumber mill across the river from Gray’s cabin.The handshake of these two immigrants marked the beginning of Truckee’s history. There soon would come a remarkable transformation. The buzzing of sawmills, the roar of heavy trains and the sounds of civilization would reverberate throughout the Truckee Basin.With a successful mill, Schaffer moved his family to the small settlement soon to be named Coburn’s Station. He built his home on what is now West River Street as well as a lodging house for his employees. He constructed the first bridge across the Truckee River, for which he charged a toll.The original Schaffer & Grays mill was located west of the bridge on what is now South River Street. It wouldn’t be long before construction of the railroad toward Donner Summit would demand massive amounts of lumber.The Central Pacific had completed the railroad line as far east as Cisco and thousands of workers were hired to chisel and blast tunnels through the granite Sierra Nevada. Advance crews had already arrived at Coburn’s. Contracts were drawn for large amounts of lumber from the new mill to build snowsheds.By 1868 there were a number of new mills in the area, including the Richardson Brothers’, Elle Ellen’s and George Geisandorffer’s. But Schaffer & Gray’s was the busiest, producing five million board feet of lumber – mostly in railroad ties, telegraph poles and snow shed timbers.In order to facilitate construction from both sides of the summit, a contractor was sought to bring a locomotive from Cisco to Coburn’s, some 21 miles over the same formidable barrier that 22 years earlier had entrapped the Donner Party. George Schaffer was contracted for this task. While working during winter with 5 to 10 feet of snow on the summit, he hauled the locomotive “San Mateo” over the pass and into Truckee Basin. The locomotive had to be disassembled, loaded on to sleighs and skidded over the snow using 30 yoke of oxen. Upon arriving in town, he set up shop and reassembled it at the east end of the town’s central plaza. His contract was completed.On June 19, 1868, all work ceased in town while cheering and waving townspeople lined the riverbank as the first train chugged and whistled its way down the newly laid track.Three years after the Central Pacific had commenced work through the mountains, the Sierra Nevada had been crossed.In August of that same year, the small settlement at Coburn’s Station burned to the ground and a new town – Truckee – sprung up slightly east, opposite the railroad tracks.On Sept. 30, 1868, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise proclaimed that the new town had 30 first class sawmills, a population of 3,000 (a fifth of which were Chinese), 25 saloons and 16 Chinese Shops. The newspaper reported, “It is probably the liveliest settlement on the Pacific Coast!”Schaffer became a popular figure in town, respected by his workers and admired by all. He was known for his honesty, generosity and hospitality. As the town grew, so did his family. George Schaffer Jr. had been born in 1864 and Flora Schaffer in 1866. They were soon joined by Emma, Minnie, Margarita and Charlie. In all, George and Margaret Schaffer’s family included 11 children.In July 1869, Schaffer, along with stage-line operator Billy Campbell, privately financed a road between Truckee and the north end of Tahoe, through Martis Valley and over Brockway Summit. With a crew of laborers, mule and horse-drawn graders and wagons, the job was done in a month. Schaffer had established the route for today’s Highway 267.The partnership of Schaffer and Gray lasted until 1871 when Schaffer bought out Gray’s interest and each set up mills of their own. By then, the land around Truckee had already been cleared of its valuable timber. Schaffer decided it was easier to relocate his mill rather than haul logs for long distances, so he purchased 640 acres of land from the Central Pacific Railroad and constructed his second mill in Martis Valley three miles south of Truckee. There, he built a comfortable summer residence for his family and a number of houses to accommodate his employees.In 1873, he purchased the water rights to the west branch of Martis Creek from Sisson, Wallace & Co. and constructed a large mill pond. The new mill had a daily capacity of 50,000 feet. There were more than 100 million feet of virgin timber in the nearby mountains to draw from.Around the new mill there rose a large settlement centered around the Schaffer’s residence. Here, Schaffer kept a herd of cattle, grew vegetables and raised poultry for the table of his boarding employees. Visitors were always welcome and treated with royal courtesy.A writer for the Truckee Republican once noted, “Here is a community representing about all the branches of the business which are necessary to the welfare of society, from poultry raising to the manufacture of lumber on a large scale, all controlled by one man, a modern representative of the feudal baron.”(To Be Continued)”Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at email@example.com.
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