Echoes From The Past: Schaffer’s influence on Truckee immense |

Echoes From The Past: Schaffer’s influence on Truckee immense

(The first part of this column, on Truckee pioneer George Schaffer, ran in the June 21 Sun.)

After the George Schaffer family had moved into Martis Valley, the boarding house for his employees became a hotel which still stands today. Now known as the Star Hotel, the rooms have been continually available for rent since 1871. Next door, to the west, the original Schaffer residence still stands, a proud Victorian reminder of its former owner.

Schaffer remained deeply involved in the Truckee community. The constant threat of fire brought forth a town meeting at Hurd’s Hall (the Capitol Building) to discuss the question of how to protect the town against the ravages of fire.

Schaffer was dispatched to Virginia City to look into the purchase of a “steamer” fire engine being offered for sale. Out of his negotiations, the town committee decided to buy the Washoe No. 4 and, on the morning of March 30, 1877, the little fire engine arrived by way of the Virginia and Truckee and Central Pacific Railroads, accompanied by several members of the Virginia City volunteer fire department. The town could now protect itself with its own first class fire department.

In 1885 Schaffer constructed a high elevation logging camp on the West Branch of Martis Creek in the base of a canyon below the “back side” of today’s Northstar and built a V-shaped flume three miles long which propelled the logs from the high country down to the valley where the logging teams hauled them to his mill pond, a large 50-acre reservoir filed with water from the creek. The pond had been formed by the erection of two dams in the level valley and was fed by water conducted into the flume from a mile above.

Huge native pines, some five feet in diameter, were hauled to the banks of the big pond and rolled into the water. One single tree of that size could produce 10,000 feet of lumber. From the pond the logs were drawn down to the mill by steam power. The water ran under the mill and led to another flume which carried the milled lumber to the yard in Truckee, eliminating the expense of hauling it.

At one time, Schaffer’s logging operation in Martis Valley had stockpiled 3,200 acres of timber enough to satisfy his mill’s capacity for 10 years. His annual cuts during the 1880s ran about 3 million feet with a record output of 8 million feet for 1887.

Logging activity continued through the winter. The mill pond was drained so logs would be hauled by teams of five yoke of oxen. The teams would be driven from the mill into the woods and back, breaking roads through the snow. The sturdy loggers were often compelled to unhitch their teams from the sleds, break a path through the deep snow and return to the sleds. Once the snow was firmly compacted harvesting continued as usual, until the next storm.

The Schaffer empire expanded into multiple mills and fields of interest. He became a very successful and wealthy man. In Truckee he owned many houses and lots. For one of his daughters, he built a large home on Church Street. This house is still in use today. He later built and operated the town’s first water system and eventually invested in some fine ranches and mining interests near Reno.

In 1888 the Schaffer family moved to Reno, where George purchased 40 acres of land on the east side of the city. The Martis Valley Mill continued operation unabated in the absence of its owner who made frequent visits to oversee the operation. In these same years he purchased a new locomotive plus four flat cars with which the logs were hauled from the logging camp to the mill.

George and Margaret Schaffer celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on June 14, 1902 at the ages of 74 and 68 respectively. At least 35 of those 50 years had been dedicated to the growth of Truckee. At the time of their anniversary, only eight of their 12 children were still living.

On January 20, 1903, after an illness of only 10 days, George Schaffer succumbed to pneumonia.

The Truckee Republican noted, “The physicians gave up hope some days ago, but the stout-hearted old man said that he was not going to die and it did seem that he might recover after his first serious attack, but age was too much against him.”

His funeral was the largest thus far held in Reno. As a member of the Masonic Lodge at Truckee for 40 years, his fellow Masons conducted the funeral. A large line of fine carriages from Truckee followed the procession to the Knights of Pythias Cemetery on Ralston street, near the university, where he was interred. Among the mourners and leading citizens from Truckee were C.F. McGlashan, William McDougald, Oscar Legault, Charles Ocker, William Englehart, I.F. Harvey, H.L. Moody, Joseph Marzen and their families.

George Schaffer was laid to rest next to his son, Henry who died in 1901. Henry had been his bookkeeper and manager of the lumber yard in Truckee.

Following his death, Schaffer was eulogized by the Truckee Republican with glowing praises.

“He hired many men and all who worked for him liked him,” said the reporter. “He was big hearted and sociable and enjoyed himself when he could be surrounded by a crowd of friends and he had them everywhere.”

Schaffer’s mill in Martis Valley continued in operation for a while but was eventually sold to the Taylor Brothers of Grass Valley. In September, 1905, while workers were moving some machinery the large sawdust pile caught fire and destroyed the mill and all of the buildings. The fire was left to burn until the winter snows fell.

Mrs. Margaret Schaffer assumed and maintained an active interest in the family businesses and made frequent trips to Truckee. She died at age 78 in her ranch home in Reno on June 28, 1912. The Truckee Republican reported that “most of her large family of prominent men and women who have figured large in the life of this section were at her bedside.”

A local Schaffer family grave site is located in the middle of the Ponderosa Palisades Townhouse development off Palisades Drive and Highway 267 on land which the family once owned. It is believed that five family members are buried in the plot, including George’s parents, William Schaffer, who died on June 17, 1874 at age 73 and Mary Schaffer, who died July 15, 1871 at age 63. Also buried in the 15′ x 25′ site is George’s granddaughter, “Caddie,” daughter of C.F. and Annie D. Byrne, who died July 7, 1872 age the age of four months. The two remaining graves are those of Margarita and Charlie Schaffer, George and Margaret’s last two children. In 1978 the gravesite was deeded to the Truckee Donner Historical Society.

The old mill site in Martis Valley is only a memory. Scarcely any evidence of it can be found. By 1910 the virgin forests of the Truckee Basin had been depleted. This brought about the demise of most of the local mills. Second growth forest has concealed most traces of the extreme logging activities that took place a hundred years ago. A mile up a steep valley below Northstar’s expert ski runs is an overgrown creek, where bits and pieces of Schaffer’s Camp and the decaying V-flume can still be found.

George Schaffer’s long lumbering career and pioneer spirit greatly impacted the town and earned him the respect of those who worked for him or knew him.

His name will be forever etched in Truckee’s history.

“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

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