ECHOES FROM THE PAST: Truckee, a town full of colorful history
(Editor’s note: This week, we’re proud to present a new ongoing Truckee history column by local historian Guy Coates, vice president of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. “Echoes From The Past” will appear every other issue in our ‘People’ section.)
I remember driving into downtown Truckee for the first time on a beautiful December morning over two decades ago while returning from a ski trip to Lake Tahoe. I was unfamiliar with the area and decided to stop at Hilltop Lodge to stretch and enjoy an overview of the town. I followed a path in the snow to the edge of a small clearing directly behind today’s Cottonwood Restaurant.
Taking a deep breath, I turned and looked over downtown Truckee, as tiny snowflakes settled atop my ski cap and rims of my sunglasses. The air was clean and crisp and the winter breeze swept down from the summit through snow-topped trees, chilling my body.
What an incredible sight, I thought. I had never seen any area that offered a more diversified and endless selection of scenery. The town seemed small in relation my native Los Angeles, yet it suggested a larger-than-life, dreamlike quality difficult to define. It seemed that the town was frozen some kind of romantic time-warp, existing in the past and that its present reality was a mere figment of the imagination.
From my vantage point overlooking the center of town, I was enthralled by the town’s unique grandeur. I was moved by the charm and grace of the modest dwellings and the surrounding Sierra Nevada. I had to keep reminding that Truckee was real, but also sensing that I was standing in a very special place.
As I heard the whistle of an approaching train, I imagined the town’s crazy beginning when thousands of Chinese workers labored to complete the nation’s first transcontinental railroad over the summit through what was previously known as Coburn’s Station.
I could almost see the glow of lights and smell the whiskey emanating from the innumerable saloons where each night hundreds of thirsty men gathered to the mellifluous strains of musical instruments and click of coins at the faro tables.
I could hear the frantic excitement during the town fires and the shouts of the 601 vigilantes as they went about their business of tar and featherings under the cloak of darkness and the sound of gunshots in the Capitol Saloon that ended the life of Constable Jake Teeter who dared to defy them.
It wasn’t long after that first visit that I became a resident of Truckee and immediately felt as though somehow the town had become a part of me. I soon learned that Truckee was much more than a postcard reminder of the past.
It was here that the Donner Party faced starvation during an extremely vicious winter in 1846. It seems ironic that only sixty years later thousands of people would flock to the same area to play and frolic in the snow during the town’s first winter carnival.
I recall reading Joanne Meschery’s history, “Truckee,” for the first time during a four-day power outage in the winter of ’82-’83. After that I read every book I could buy or borrow that pertained to local history. I had truly become truly hooked, but I was not alone. I discovered that most of the local folks shared the same love for local history and many of them had wonderful stories to tell and were glad to have someone to tell them to.
Over the past 10 years I have had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing with many living and late “old-timers,” including Nona McGlashan, Azad McIver, Frank Titus, Earl Edmunds, Nelson Stone, Lawrence Kearnery, Carson White, Rex Reid, Thelma Meiss, Harry Digesti, Karl Kielhofer, Elden Tonini, Marge Zoebel, Bob Bowers, Red Rockholm, Reg Smart, Howard Snider, Gene Barton, Bill Gautsche, Nick Sassarini, Kate Ghirad, John Saibini, Fosten Wilson, Roy Waters, Alberta Nelson, Yvonne Joseph Ring, Geno Giovannoni, Dr. Robert Affeldt, Olga Owens, Barbara Barrett, Karl Kuttel and many others whose names may have slipped my mind over time.
During that time I was able to compile a huge amount of written information on local history that could not have been accomplished without the conscientious assistance of fellow historians including Sharon Pace Arnold, Ed McMills, Tom Macauley, Rick Stafford, Susan Lindstrom, Roy Baker, Dan and Laura Horman, Jim Smith, John Curtis, Slug Brown, Stefanie Olivieri, Bob Bosacki, Joan Hartwell, Joan Mensor, Lee Schegg, Duane Blume, Chelsea Walterscheid, Punky Englehart-Hlista, Barbara Barte and Jim Porter.
The story of Truckee is rich and filled with elements of importance for all who wish to enjoy it. Our town literally overflows with history and I believe it is one of the elements that binds us together as a community.
In future columns I hope to explore the town’s early development, share stories and photographs from the past as well as interviews with longtime residents. Life’s experiences tend to make historians of all of us and I would love to hear from anyone who has a story of historical interest that they would like to share.
Board meetings are held the second Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. (weather permitting) at the Gateway Cabin in Meadow Park. Regular meetings and/or programs are held the fourth Tuesday of each month (weather permitting). The Historical Society sells books and copies of historical photographs. For information, call 582-0893.
The Historic Jail Museum is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For information about volunteering or becoming a member of the Historical Society, call 582-0893.
The “Regulators” are a fun-loving group of local volunteers dedicated celebrating the spirit and heritage of the Old West by participating in private and public functions, parades, wild west stunt shows and living history events. For information about volunteering or becoming a regulator, call Dennis Cook at 587-7662.
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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