The Capitol: Truckee building witness to local history
On a cold winter evening in February 1910, William Henry Hurd lay dying in his small first-floor apartment in the rear of his aging fireproof brick building.
As he closed his eyes, his thoughts carried him back to a day more than 40 years earlier when he stepped off the train in Truckee as a young saloonkeeper and observed the rubble of an 1869 fire that had consumed most of the wooden buildings on Truckee’s Front Street.
It didn’t take him long to learn that Truckee’s wooden buildings were subject to fire on a regular basis in the early days. He liked the people he met and decided he’d stick around and help them rebuild their town.
For nearly half a century, William Hurd achieved success beyond his dreams after building and operating what was then known as Hurd’s Saloon, restaurant and hall.
Today, Hurd’s historic building, renamed The Capitol, is one of downtown’s oldest buildings. It has been in continuous use since the early 1870s.
The outside walls of the two-story building are constructed of red bricks. Cast iron columns at the entrance adorn the fascia. The Columbia Foundry in San Francisco had specially cast them for Mr. Hurd.
A massive hand-carved, mirrored back bar, that won an award at the Chicago Exposition, was shipped “around the horn” to Virginia City, before being brought to Hurd’s Saloon in Truckee.
The unique back bar and long serving bar embellished the extravagant saloon and restaurant on the first floor. The restaurant gained fame as the finest in the territory, serving the best food between Sacramento and Ogden.
The large upstairs hall, with its raised stage, became the town’s central meeting place and center for nearly all the community’s social events. “Hurd’s Hall,” as it was called at the time, was widely known throughout the West.
In September 1872, Truckee’s first district court was held there, “with fines collected at the bar on adjournment,” as reported extensively in the Truckee Republican newspaper. Hence people began referring to the building the Capitol.
The Capitol’s upstairs hall was the center of entertainment in Truckee, featuring the appearances of popular entertainers of the time, such as the Templeton Theatrical Group, the Georgia Minstrels, and Piper’s Opera House Troupe of Virginia City.
Members of infamous groups such as the “Caucasian League” and the “American Workingmen’s Movement” also used the second-floor hall. It was even used as a chapel slumber room for the town’s funeral parlor and, at times, as a roller skating rink and boxing arena.
The capitol’s hall was the center for most of Truckee’s Grand Balls that were held at Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve, and other special occasions, such as the popular annual Oyster Festival.
In September 1891, Hurd’s Saloon was the scene of a violent gunfight between Constable Jacob Teeter and outlaw named Tillman.
Then, in November 1891, the famous gunfight between James Reed and Constable Teeter took place in Hurd’s, leaving Teeter mortally wounded.
Regular customers at Hurd’s while in Truckee filming movies included John Wayne, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Norma Talmadge.
Some say that famous silent film star Charlie Chaplin performed in the upstairs Capitol Hall, as implied by the outside wall mural on the west side of the building. Although his appearance has never been confirmed, it is likely that he at least visited the downstairs saloon during the filming of “The Gold Rush” in the 1920s.
In the 1920s and ’30s the hall was used as a silent movie theater during which Mrs. William Englehart played the piano. The theater ticket booth window is still in an alcove next to the door on the second floor.
In 1937, Humbert J. Ciardella and his wife, Julia, operated a bar and restaurant downstairs and offered various forms of gambling including “Truckee Rummy.”
During the Hobart Mills days, this was a popular hangout for loggers, woodchoppers and railroad maintenance workers.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the Lions, Masons, Oddfellows and other service and fraternal organizations used the hall for meetings.
In the 1960s, Martis Valley rancher Cal McKinley, Joseph Joerger’s grandson, serviced sumptuous banquets of steak, lobster and chicken. Later, in the ’70s, “Tiny” Mercer ran his “Pizza Movies” in the hall.
During the 1960s and into the ’70s the downstairs remained a bar, having food service in the rear. The second-floor hall was used for musical groups such as “The New Riders of the Purple Sage,” “Billy C. Farlow and the Moonlighters,” “Elvin Bishop,” “The Quicksilver Messenger Service,” “Norton Buffalo,” “Cedro Willie,” “Sutro” and “The Folsom Players Melodrama.”
Today the old first-floor saloon has been handsomely renovated into a retail store, currently occupied by The Pharmacy while other unique shops now occupy the historic upstairs hall.
The stage on the second floor has been preserved and could probably still be used for entertainment as intended by William Hurd.
Considered to be a monument to the memory of Truckee’s founders, the Capitol Building seems to hold the aura of old Truckee with Memories of more than 130 years.
Guy Coates is a Truckee resident and historian. This is the last edition of Echoes From the Past, as Guy Coates will be moving to Arizona. The Sierra Sun and Truckee wish him well in his new adventures.
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