George Schaffer: The ‘Noble Tree’ of Truckee
The “Father of Truckee” was George Schaffer. Schaffer co-founded the first sawmill on the Truckee River, built and owned the first water system and was a major booster of a civilized town. The Schaffer’s had a a small private graveyard for family members just southeast of downtown Truckee. The graveyard is now owned by the Truckee Donner Historical Society. It is in the middle of the Ponderosa Palisades Townhouses on Palisades Drive. Saturday June 12, at 10 a.m., Historical Society members will perform a cleanup of the small plot. Six known graves from George Schaffer’s relatives still remain. George Schaffer was born in Germany, and immigrated to America with his parents William(Wiegand) and Mary Schaffer, when he was a young man. He first settled in Pennsylvania, and later in Iowa, where he met and married his wife Margaret. George and his brother James moved to Carson City area in 1861.George built a sawmill in the upper watershed of Clear Creek and operated it until 1867, selling his lumber in Virginia City. With the approach of the Central Pacific Railroad, he saw a golden opportunity to move his operations to Coburn’s Station, along the Truckee River. In 1867, with early settler Joseph Gray, he built a sawmill on the south side of the Truckee River, possibly just west of the bridge, opposite what is now downtown Truckee. Another report puts it near the Hilltop resort area, further up the hill.Construction of the railroad spurred a huge demand for lumber, ties, timbers and wood. Lumber would make George Schaffer a wealthy man by Truckee standards. He began building the first bridge over the Truckee River in 1867, allowing easy transportation from his mill to the railroad. He charged a toll for wagon and horse traffic, adding to his income. Nevada County and Truckee residents bought the bridge in 1873.In the winter of 1868, Schaffer contracted with the Central Pacific Railroad to haul a small construction locomotive, the San Mateo, over the snow from Cisco to the Plaza in what was about to become downtown Truckee. He disassembled it, loaded it onto sleds and drove teams of snowshoe clad oxen over the drifts of Donner Pass. Once it was reassembled, the Central Pacific used it to build a section of track along the Truckee River from Coburn’s Station down the Truckee River Canyon.
In 1868 William Campbell, who built the original Truckee Hotel, built the first resort at Hot Springs on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. He teamed up with George Schaffer to build the first wagon and stage road over what is now Brockway Summit. When you drive state Route 267, you’re on a route Schaffer built. Schaffer also sold Campbell some of the lumber to build both hotels.”Uncle George” was a very well liked figure around Truckee, respected by his workers and admired by many. He was known for his honesty, generosity, and hospitality. He was avid card player and gambler.In the 1870s when Truckee was constantly threatened by fires and no one would step forward to build a fire protection system, George financed the construction. It would become one of the important water supply systems that was eventually taken over by the Truckee Donner Public Utilities District in the 1920s. Parts of the water system were in use up until the early 1990s.In 1869, when Truckee bought its first fire hose cart, Schaffer donated the lumber to build an engine house. Schaffer was invested in the early ice industry, as well. He sponsored ice skating parties at his second sawmill pond in Martis Valley.Schaffer valued families, and to encourage men to get married and settle down he offered to give any man who got married 1,000 board feet of lumber. George and Margaret had twelve children, proving he very much a family man.Schaffer had the building that is now the Star Hotel built as his residence and was later used as a boardinghouse for his employees. In 1878, he bought the Dr. William Curless house just to the west, remodeled it, raised it, added a verandah, and made it his winter residence. In the 1880s he built a house on Church Street for his daughter that still stands today.George Schaffer bought out Joe Gray and built his second sawmill three miles from Truckee at the edge of the Martis Valley in 1872. That mill closed most winters, but logging operations were carried out year round. He pioneered successful over-the-snow logging, a practice other Truckee area loggers followed. This second mill location was where the Lahontan Golf Course now has its second hole.
A three-mile wooden flume was built from the mill to his lumber yard on what is today East River Street. George’s son Henry was the lumberyard manager. Occasional glimpses of the route can still be found along with a few flume boards.In 1883 he built a third sawmill on the West Branch of Martis Creek, and installed the newest available machinery. He built a narrow gauge logging railroad to what is now the back side of Northstar-At-Tahoe to keep his mill supplied with logs. This third mill was located in what is proposed to be the Siller Ranch subdivision. The site still contains remnants of the dam, pond, railroad grade and village. George Schaffer also owned property in Reno, and wintered there in his later years. He died and was buried in Reno on January 20, 1903. The Truckee Republican headline read, “The Noble Tree Has Fallen! 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.” His widow, Margaret, closed the sawmill down in 1905. She continued to operate the Schaffer Water Company until her death in June of 1912. Through the years, very little was reported about her, mostly because she was very involved raising a family rather than being involved in community organizations.Schaffer family graveyard historyIn 1869, the existing Truckee Cemetery had not been created and burials were taking place all over the outskirts of Truckee. The Schaffer’s first internment in their private graveyard across the river was George Schaffer, son of George Schaffer’s brother James. He died on May 21, 1869, at six months of age. No headstone was located for young George.George Schaffer’s mother, Mary, died at age 63 on July 15, 1871, and was buried there. Her husband William died on June 17, 1874, at the Martis Valley sawmill of his son. He was 73 years old.
A double granite headstone was erected for Mary and William after his death. In later years this monument was damaged and the inscriptions on William’s were difficult to read.Caddie Byrne was the daughter of Charles and Annie Schaffer Byrne. Caddie died at four months old on July 7, 1872. She was the granddaughter of George Schaffer. The Truckee Republican reported that on Oct. 15, 1879, infant Frankie Byrne was also buried in the Schaffer cemetery, but no headstone was located for him. Charles Byrne was a lumber sales manager for Schaffer’s Reno lumberyard in the early 1870s. In the early 1880s, Byrne was a Justice of the Peace in Truckee. .The son of George and Margaret Schaffer, Charles, died at almost two years old on January 30, 1873. He shared a headstone with his sister Margarita. There is still research to be done on her death. They were the Schaffer’s last two children.Four of the six burials at the Schaffer plot were infants or very young children. This was not an unusual number of deaths for families in the 1870s. George Schaffer had a log hut built over the graves about 1900, but it burned about 1920.The graves were scheduled to be transferred to the Truckee cemetery when the development of the townhouses was proposed. Family members did not agree on the transfer of the graves, so the small plot was donated to the Truckee Donner Historical Society in 1978. The headstones themselves were removed because vandals had damaged them. The developers did name the street Schaffer Road to commemorate the Schaffer cemetery. Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://www.truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave a message at 582-0893.”George Schaffer was a leader in Truckee’s many community organizations, including the Fire Companies, the Masons, Knights of Pythias, and Odd Fellows.”