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Rise of the lift: The story of California’s first chairlift

The Union Pacific Railroad Company engineer who invented the chairlift was inspired by the system that carried bananas on to boats.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

In 1939, California welcomed its first chairlift — the second in the country — and ushered in a new era in alpine skiing that would grow the sport by leaps and bounds. Its location? Sugar Bowl Resort near Donner Summit.

It all started one year earlier when Austrian Hannes Schroll, formerly the director of Badger Pass Ski Area School near Yosemite, purchased the land that would become Sugar Bowl for $6,750 and began developing a resort modeled after his hometown of Kitsbuhel, Austria with the help of investors like Walt Disney and ice skating champion George Stiles.

With an investment of $2,500 from the animation entrepreneur, Schroll renamed Hemlock Peak Mt. Disney, the very peak where the game-changing chairlift would soon be installed. The lift was 3,200 feet long with a 1,000 foot rise and 13 steel towers that could be adjusted according to snow depth.

“The first year that it was in operation, the lift cost 25 cents for a ride and $2 to ski,” says Jon Slaughter, executive director of marketing and sales at Sugar Bowl.

Skiers arrived at the train station where they were carted by horse-drawn sleighs to the resort. Eventually, the equines were replaced by tractors, and finally, in 1953, the West Coast’s first gondola — once again, the second in the country — was constructed at Sugar Bowl. The 30-minute ride to the base was cut down to just seven minutes.

Today, resort guests can still see one of the original chairlift towers as they swiftly make their way up the modern-day Disney lift — a marker of history and human ingenuity.

The invention of the chairlift made it possible for more people — and less athletic people — to enter into the sport of alpine skiing.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

Earn your turns

Backcountry skiers and boarders may still be trekking up slopes to earn their turns, but prior to the creation of the chairlift, it was often your only option.

As early as the 1850s, miners from the California Gold Rush crafted skis out of wood — sometimes as long as 15 feet — hiked up the mountains near Tahoe, and used a pole as a rudder to race each other down.

“The first uphill transportation for skiers began with railways in the Tahoe area once the railroad was complete across Donner Pass in 1867,” explains Seth Masai, president of the International Skiing Association.

The country’s first toboggan lift was installed in 1910 at the snow sports arena, Hilltop, in Truckee. A stationary steam engine hauled a cable up the toboggan slide to bring the sleds to the top, and skiers often jumped on for a ride as well.

In 1931, Canadian skier Alex Foster developed the rope tow, a continuously moving rope that skiers held on to to catch a ride up the hill, and by 1934, the concept made its way across the border from Quebec to Vermont. That same year in Switzerland, Ernst Constam created the single-passenger J-bar, which hooked behind the rider and pulled them up the hill with their skis still on the ground. The following year, Constam debuted the two-person T-bar, which quickly spread stateside.

All of these inventions paved the way for the chairlift, which would help popularize skiing like no invention before.

The original chairlift design carried one rider and did not slow down to load or unload the skier.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

Need a lift?

The drive to develop an easier uphill mode of transportation for skiers was spearheaded, interestingly enough, by the Union Pacific Railroad Company. The son of a railroad baron, Averell Harriman saw the success of European ski resorts and believed that a similar concept in the states would promote rail travel.

Though the first ski area in the U.S. opened in 1915 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, — with dozens more cropping up in the following years — Harriman’s vision was for an all-inclusive resort that combined lodging, upscale dining and other wintertime activities including ice skating. In 1936, Union Pacific opened Sun Valley Resort in Ketchum, Idaho complete with the first-ever overhead cable-tow chairlifts developed by Omaha-based engineer James Curran.

“The chairlift was a revolutionary development for skiing as a tourism phenomenon because it was much much easier for less athletic people to use the chairlift than to hang on to a rope tow or balance on a T-bar,” explains Masai. “It was not revolutionary technology because there had been overhead cable transports in the mining business and in the banana-handling business and even in uphill passenger transportation for centuries going back.”

Inspired by the conveyor belt system used to cart large bundles of bananas onto ships in Central America, Curran — who never skied a day in his life — drafted plans for the first iteration of the chairlift that would be used at Sun Valley.

“There was nothing new about the cable system or the motor or the drive system. The innovation was the chair itself,” notes Masai. The single chairs were fixed to an overhead cable so the chairs did not slow down to load or deposit riders, as was later achieved with the detachable chairs, and riders were given blankets to stay warm during the slow ride to the top.

The invention of steel edges and cable binding to hold down the heel helped popularize alpine skiing in the late 1920s, and companies specializing in warmer technical ski wear emerged in the 30s. Previously, you’d see men skiing in ties and women in skirts.

Expensive maintenance and the U.S.’s entry into World War II in 1945 hindered early adoption of the chairlift by other ski areas, but following the war, downhill skiing took off in America.

“Ski lift construction began in earnest in the late 40s, and by the mid-50s, there were probably two to three dozen lifts around the country. By 1962, there were hundreds and hundreds of lifts,” says Masai. “It was critical to the rapid growth of skiing after World War II. The skier population went from a few hundred thousand before the war to two to three million by 1960. None of that would have happened if people had been confined to rope tows and T-bars.”

The number of skiers visiting Sugar Bowl in the early days far exceeded expectations.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

Powder days

On Jan. 4, 1940, soon after the completion of Sugar Bowl’s Disney lift, a blizzard hit the Tahoe region and skiing was underway at the new resort. Trainloads of skiers disembarked, took the sleigh to the resort and rode California’s first chairlift nearly to the top of the peak.

“We’ve heard fun anecdotes that on a powder day back then, if you wanted to get over to the actual Sugar Bowl it was a mad dash up the last 100 feet of the hill to get up into those fall lines where the modern chairlift takes you,” says Slaughter. “The whole resort concept was built around the lift and this snowbound lodge was kind of a Tyrolean experience that offered tremendous access. This was Hannes Schroll’s dream come to life.”

Today, skiers and boarders can hop on the four-person Disney Express and ride the high-speed lift to the top of Mt. Disney in roughly 3.5 minutes. Though the technology has certainly changed, the soul of the Sugar Bowl experience remains alongside the steel tower of the original lift.

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2021-22 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine.

Claire McArthur is a staff writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.

Installed in 1953, Sugar Bowl was also home to the West Coast’s first gondola and only the second of its kind in North America.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

History: The true story of Truckee’s turkey fiasco

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, it is appropriate to share the real story about the turkey truck that went off Highway 40 just above Donner Lake. There are many different versions of the story, probably because it is a good story to tell. And as the story gets passed around, diverging from the truth, it undeniably makes the story more interesting.

The true account of the turkey story per Norm Sayler, longtime resident of Donner Summit for over 65 years, takes place around Thanksgiving, 1955.

On Nov. 5, 1955, very early in the morning, a large tractor-trailer truck had trouble negotiating the steep downhill on Old Highway 40 which in those days was a fairly middle-aged highway. Interstate 80 would not come along for another nine years.

As the truck came down the hill, its air brakes failed, it went over the edge of the road and plunged down a 200 foot cliff taking 30,000 pounds of frozen turkeys with it. The 19-year-old driver, Robert Rotnow of Whittier, jumped safely from the cab as the truck finally stopped 175 feet from the roadway. As the truck fell it split open scattering the cellophane wrapped birds everywhere. “There were frozen turkeys roosting in every tree when I arrived at the scene at 7 o’clock yesterday morning,” said CHP officer Carroll Maynard.

People soon found out about the scattered turkeys and more than two thousand people converged on the site to pick up some for dinner. Highway patrolmen were called to the scene to protect the cargo and even deputized help to prevent the looting but to no avail. The bombardment of people looking for free turkeys was more than they could control. One spokesman for the CHP said what the people did was the “most disgusting, degrading thing I have ever seen. It made me almost ashamed to be a human.” When the cargo was released to a Reno insurance adjuster, they found that only 1,200 pounds of turkey had been collected. Since the truck was heading to Nevada it was interstate commerce and the turkey thieves could be prosecuted under federal law.

That’s the real story and it agrees with Norm Sayler’s version. Norm said he was traveling up the highway when he saw the truck go over the side. He immediately grabbed two turkeys and headed for Donner Ski Ranch to put them in the freezer. He then began calling friends to tell them of the turkey bonanza. Friends told friends and apparently most of Truckee and people passing by helped themselves despite the presence of law enforcement.

Follow up rumors stated that the turkeys were government property and that law enforcement went door to door in Truckee to recover the stolen turkeys. Supposedly they took the confiscated frozen turkeys but did not keep them cold so all the ones they retrieved were spoiled. There is no follow-on information on whether anyone was prosecuted but it does add additional color to the story.

Based on Truckee’s history of being turkey lovers, maybe we should do a turkey give-away. With our exploded population, that could require giving away an entire tractor trailer’s contents.

Enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday and gobble gobble.

Judy DePuy is a member of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society and Donner Summit Historical Society. She is also a board member of the Museum of Truckee History and Truckee Donner Railroad Society. Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than forty years.  He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits the Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, leads hikes, and more

“There were frozen turkeys roosting in every tree when I arrived at the scene at 7 o’clock yesterday morning,” said CHP officer Carroll Maynard.
Provided photo
On Nov. 5, 1955, very early in the morning, a large tractor-trailer truck had trouble negotiating the steep downhill on Old Highway 40 which in those days was a fairly middle-aged highway. Interstate 80 would not come along for another nine years. As the truck came down the hill, its air brakes failed, it went over the edge of the road and plunged down a 200 foot cliff taking 30,000 pounds of frozen turkeys with it.
Provided photo

History: Railroad checkerboard on the Tahoe National Forest

 

Have you noticed the checkerboard effect on the Tahoe National Forest map? It is the result of one of the most important, effective and little-known aspects of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Before his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln had been an attorney practicing law for railroads. He represented the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad when it built the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River in the early 1850’s, and consequently had considerable knowledge of railroading’s ability to move large amounts of passengers and freight. As President, he signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which provided major U.S. government incentives for building the first transcontinental railroad line. Both government bonds and land grants were offered. This was the first time the government had offered land grants directly to corporations.

Section 2 of the Act granted each Company contiguous rights-of-way for their rail lines as well as all public lands within 100 feet on either side of the track. Section 3 granted an additional 10 square miles of public land for every mile of grade except where railroads ran through cities or crossed rivers. This allotment was specified as “five alternate sections per mile on each side of said railroad, on the line thereof, and within the limits of ten miles on each side.“ A “section” is one square mile, so the 10 sections per mile gave the Central Pacific 6,400 acres for each mile of railroad built, allocated in the checker-board pattern we still see on Forest Service maps. In 1864 the Act was modified to increase the grants. From 1850 to 1871, the railroads received more than 175 million acres of public land – an area more than one tenth of the whole United States, and larger in area than Texas!

Railroad expansion provided new avenues of migration into the American interior. In some areas, the railroads were able to sell portions of their land to arriving settlers at a handsome profit. Lands closest to the tracks drew the highest prices, because farmers and ranchers wanted to locate near railway stations.

In the Truckee/Donner Summit area, most of the railroad land was mountainous and heavily forested. Sections with accessible timber were sold to logging operations such as the Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Company, which was based about 6 miles north of Truckee in Hobart Mills. Logging on railroad lands was especially profitable because the railroad also provided ready access to distant markets.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Yuba Forest Preserve and greatly enlarged the existing Tahoe Forest Preserve, encompassing most of the remaining federal land in the Donner Summit checkerboard. In 1906, the two preserves were combined to form the Tahoe National Forest, and in 1910, portions of the Tahoe National Forest were reallocated to the new El Dorado and Toiyabe national forests.

Once the lumber companies had harvested the wood, they in many cases donated the cutover sections to the national forest to avoid paying property taxes on the now-unproductive land. That is why there is more contiguous national forest in the heavily logged area north of Truckee, while the checkerboard pattern remains intact in the more rugged, more sparsely forested land along the Sierra crest.

Today, we understand that checkerboard ownership has fragmented wild areas, increasing the risk of environmental destruction through development and wildfires, and blocking wildlife migration corridors. In recent years, the Truckee Donner Land Trust has acquired many of these checkerboard inholdings, preserved them from future development, and opened them for low-impact public recreation. Frog Lake and Carpenter Valley, both recent acquisitions of the Trust, were originally railroad land grants that were purchased by wealthy businessmen and used for many decades as private retreats for family and friends.

Nelson Van Gundy is co-founder and historian for the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and 40+ year resident of Truckee. He is also a longtime garden railroader. Daniel Cobb is a railroad modeler, amateur historian, and volunteer with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and an avid historian of our railroad history. He lives in Tahoe Vista

Frog Lake and Carpenter Valley, both recent acquisitions of the Trust, were originally railroad land grants that were purchased by wealthy businessmen and used for many decades as private retreats for family and friends.
Photo by Daniel Cobb
Frog Lake.
Photo by Daniel Cobb

 

Railroad expansion provided new avenues of migration into the American interior. In some areas, the railroads were able to sell portions of their land to arriving settlers at a handsome profit. Lands closest to the tracks drew the highest prices, because farmers and ranchers wanted to locate near railway stations.
U.S. Forest Service Forest Visitor Map for Tahoe National Forest

The lost history of Camp Talawanda

Group photo of Talawanda campers. Believed to be the first all-girls camp in Lake Tahoe, it closed in 1970.
Courtesy of Ed Hodges

Ed Hodges, a self-proclaimed history sleuth and retired teacher in San Jose, went to visit Lake Tahoe with his wife, and his sister, Vicki Carruthers, in 2009 while on vacation.

When there, his sister reminisced about a camp she had attended as a young girl with their sister, Susan Hodges, in the 1950s. This all-girls camp was named Camp Talawanda — notably one of, and possibly the first, all-female camp in Lake Tahoe, according to Carruthers.

In Hodges’ personal blog about Talawanda, he states that his sister had encouraged him to track down the old camp. After asking around, the two were directed to the Gatekeeper Museum in Tahoe City. After their visit to the museum, they were directed to a golf course in Kings Beach where they were told to meet “Captain Beck … Not only did he know where the old camp was located, he told us that his wife also attended it as a girl,” writes Hodges.

He and his sister were finally able to locate the camp. Unfortunately, there were no remnants of the once thriving summertime destination.

“We expected to see a housing development, but to our pleasant surprise the camp property was still empty land,” Hodges writes. “According to (a) neighbor, the land is under Forest Service control.”

They were also told by a local that the old Camp Talawanda sign was being held in a home nearby.

“Just at dusk, we located the house with the sign, but alas, (the home) had just sold… during the sale, another neighbor had acquired the sign.” writes Hodges. “Throughout the search, my sister and I got the feeling that there is a story waiting to be told, the story of Camp Talawanda.”

Eager to find more about the camp’s history, Ed Hodges began to scour the internet for any details of Talawanda. Over years of researching, Hodges found that the camp had been owned by an inspiring woman named Wilma McFarland, affectionately known as “Birch” by the girls at the camp. According to a 1941 Modesto Bee article that Hodges had found, McFarland had moved west from Iowa in 1918 to teach at Modesto High School and then went on to establish the first-ever Girl Scout group in Stanislaus County. This experience in leading young girls peaked an interest in owning her own camp, where she could continue to empower young girls in the outdoors, and so she finally established Camp Talawanda in 1932 in North Lake Tahoe.

In another article entitled “Directing Girls’ Summer Camp Yields Satisfaction,” McFarland was interviewed about her ownership over the camp and what it meant to her. In the article, she stated that the name Talawanda “… means wind in the pines,” and goes on to tell the interviewer how she found the location for her beloved girls camp.

“We looked at many places, and the Forest Service offered us the site near Lake Tahoe where the camp is,” she said.

Many campers, including Carruthers, have stated that the camp was a place free of stress, and that others seldom ever felt homesick. When McFarland was asked about homesickness by the Modesto Bee, she said, “Once a little girl went home for the final two weeks of the six week term, (but) on the other hand — many of the girls when they arrive at camp say simply, ‘Well, I’m home.’”

Modesto Bee article.
Courtesy of Ed Hodges

MAKING CONTACT

Hodges was also able to get in contact with several campers over the years, one of them being Jackie Foret, who was a camper and camp counselor at Talawanda. In a letter to Hodges sent Feb. 2, 2009, she helped Hodges get into contact with several other campers, and even recalled two girls who were sent to the camp to escape war zones in England during World War II.

Wilma McFarland’s granddaughter, Leslie Helms-Joost, is the daughter of McFarland’s adopted son Jim Helms.

“My grandmother started it and then my mom and dad took it over until we closed it up.” said Helms-Joost. “I remember going up there from the time I was 5 until we closed it in 1970. I spent every summer up there. It was great, we had horseback riding, tennis, we’d go to Lake Tahoe and go swimming, go on trips to Virginia City, ice skating … in the summers we would go into desolation for a week on horses. We would take all of our food on a mule and go in for a whole week. We had people come from the Bay Area that had no idea how to sleep outside in a tent or anything.”

Group photo of Talawanda campers, Helms-Joost at bottom center.
Courtesy of Leslie Helms-Joost

Helms-Joost said her grandmother started the camp for women to be able to spend more time outdoors and believes it to be the first ever all-girls camp in Lake Tahoe.

“Over in Tahoe City there was a boys camp, and we would play baseball against the boys every summer. We won every time,” said Helms-Joost. Asked about her grandmother, she said, “She was a wonderful woman. Very smart, intelligent lady. She passed away when I was 25. We were very close.”

She also explained that as houses began to develop around the area, neighbors would complain about the noisiness of the girls camp, as well as other problems, such as horses escaping from the camp and running around on the nearby golf course and tearing up the turf.

“They didn’t want to hear people having fun,” she said.

According to Helms-Joost, her parents decided to close up the camp after the noise complaints began to file in. The exact circumstances of its closure are unknown. After the camp was closed, Helms-Joost said that the Forest Service tore down its structures.

According to Helms-Joost, the camp had ended “because of all of the houses around the area. They said that the camp was too noisy for the homes and people wanted to come to relax. One person spoils the pie. One time our horses got out and ripped up the golf course from running around.”

Family scrapbook photos of Camp Talawanda.
Courtesy of Leslie Helms-Joost

Ed Hodges is now seeking to revive the memory of Talawanda by establishing a commemorative plaque where the camp used to lie.

“Camp Talawanda was the iconic example of a well run girls summer camp – safe, fun, nurturing,” said Hodges. “Wilma McFarland’s kindly spirit and effective management were the reasons for success. This camp should be honored with an informational plaque reminding people of its place in history.”

Camp Talawanda brochure.
Courtesy of Leslie Helms-Joost

Hodges said he currently has an endorsement from the North Lake Tahoe Historical society, and the support of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. If all goes well, the plaque will be installed by next spring.

Helms-Joost believes that her mother, father, and grandmother, all of whom have since died, would be proud to have a commemorative plaque placed where the camp once lay.

“I think it would be wonderful,” she added. “I know my mom and dad and grandma would look down on that and be very happy. And I would like to be there. I wish it was still going.”

Elizabeth White is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at ewhite@sierrasun.com

History: Stanford of the Sierra

 

We all know that Stanford is an institution of higher learning near San Francisco. But did you know that the Truckee’s own Stanford is just 6 miles from downtown? That’s right. Towards the end of Coldstream Canyon, you’ll find a tribute to Stanford older than Stanford University.

 The first tribute is still visible as a sweeping “horseshoe curve” along the railroad that brings west bound trains from the south side of the canyon to the north side. By the time a west bound train exits Coldstream Canyon, it’s gained 400 feet in elevation. Trains still have to gain 300 in elevation until they disappear into the tunnel under the summit and under part of the Sugar Bowl ski resort.

The Stanford Curve is noteworthy not only because it’s part of the original transcontinental railroad. It’s also only one of four locations for railroad horseshoe curves in California, the others being the Cantara loop near Dunsmuir, the Cuesta Grade near San Luis Obispo, and a collection of five curves near Fort Bragg on the California Western Railroad.

Unlike many horseshoe curves, the view from one side to the other side of the Stanford Curve is obstructed by trees so you have to imagine how grand and magnificent it is.

 If you visit the canyon, you’ll notice that the shape of the canyon seems perfectly suited for railroad construction techniques of the 1860s. It provides ample distance for gentle elevation gain towards Donner Summit and plenty of space for a wide right-of-way. In fact, there’s so much space, that there was room enough for Stanford Station.

Stanford Station may very well be the first building to bear the Stanford name.

 Just before a west bound train enters the big curve, there’s a long and flat and straight section of roadbed often sometimes called Stanford Flats. It was in this area that you would have found our Stanford of the Sierra or what was once better known as Stanford Station. One of the records of the area dates back to 1874. In 1879, the area was called Stanford’s Mill. Log flumes carried lumber a mile and half to the station from a mill site even farther up the canyon.

Stanford Station is first mentioned in the Truckee Republican on June 10, 1911 when “Great Excitement” resulted from a false alarm about a landslide. The event was big enough news to be included on the front page. A whopping four sentences summarize the false alarm, the scramble to assemble a work train and the phone call to stop the train from leaving Truckee. The alarm was sent on a “Jerry machine.” I’ve tried to learn what a Jerry machine is, but I have not been successful.

From what I can surmise, the phone call was made from another small station between Coldstream Canyon and Truckee called “Champions” about two miles east of the Stanford Station.

 It always amazes me that these small stations were destinations that people visited frequently. Between Truckee and Norden on the other side of the summit, a traveler would have passed through 10 small stations including Champion, Stanford Station, Andover high above the mouth of the canyon and near the double tunnels, Eder, and Summit stations. There is little evidence today that these stations ever existed, but the Truckee Republican newspaper includes many short stories about the comings and goings of people to and from Stanford Station. The paper reports the activities like a society page more than anything else.

1920 was a notable year with three departures from Stanford Station making the news. In October 1920, “Mr. and Mrs. Martin, who have been spending the summer at Stanford Station, have returned to their home here for the winter.” I suspect the Martins wanted to get out of the area before the snows started.

 Another departure from Stanford Station was reported just a few weeks later in 1920 when “Mrs. G. McFarland, who was block operator at Stanford Station, returned to her home in San Francisco last week.”

In December of 1920, Mrs. F. Tong and family have moved down from Stanford Station camp for the winter. This is the only reference to Stanford Station as a “camp.” Judging by the photo, the station itself wasn’t very big, so I wonder if there were other buildings in the area. I don’t think Mrs. F. Tong and family would have been camping in tents in December, but you never know. This is the third report of people leaving the station in three months. What was the reason? A corporate shakeup? A departmental reorganization? I have to wonder about the details that aren’t being reported.

In July, 1921, J.O. Palmanter was reported to have left Stanford Station to go to Live Oak signal tower for the duration of the summer.

In January of 1921, “G. Munson, staff operator at Stanford Station,” was “spending his vacation in Sacramento and Carson.” I imagine he was eager to go to warmer and less snowier locations than the back of Coldstream Canyon. And quite a vacation he must have had! It wasn’t until two months later on March 3 that “George Munson, the well-known staff operator at Stanford Station, returned home from his vacation spent at Carson.” This report is notable since it is one of the only reports that somebody returns to Stanford Station. All other reports tell stories about people leaving the station, not returning. 

In April of 1922, George Munson is in the news again as the Truckee Republican reports that he visited Sacramento.

Is there more to learn about George Munson? Who was he and why was he “well known?” Interestingly enough, Munson and Palmanter (also printed as Polmanteer, Polmanter) are both listed in the Lodge Directory of the October 3, 1918 Truckee Republican and for many years before and after that.

 Munson is in the news again in 1918 in the middle of World War I where we learn that he had traveled to Nevada for a draft examination and that, “After a narrow examination he was exempted by the Board for the reason that they did not deem it advisable to rob the country of a man of his qualifications and good looks.” So now we know he was apparently “well known,” maybe handsome and unable to participate in WW I. As if to provide a snapshot in time about where Truckee was on the path to becoming a modern town, the same article notes that the platform of the Truckee station received new lights providing “daylight illumination.” I can imagine Truckee residents heading to the station at night just to look at the lights. I know I would have.

 Munson and Palmanter again appear in the news together in September of 1920 where it’s noted that, “Mr. Polmanteer and family and George Munson, block operators, have been transferred from Champion station to Stanford station.” Just a few months later we see the reports of three different sets of people leaving the station.

I’ve taken a few adventures down Coldstream Canyon myself and have seen the Stanford Curve. There’s a culvert underneath the tracks that usually has water flowing through it, but it also serves as an access point to properties even farther up the canyon. The first time I ventured into the canyon was sometime in the late 70s on a guided horseback trip. We probably ended that day with dinner at Pejo’s that was located at Donner Gate and was famous (at least in my mind) for its curiously named “Donner Burger.” I walked back to the curve once with my brothers and saw no one else in the canyon at that time. I’ve even driven back there a few times. The original Emigrant Trail runs down the canyon near the creek in places, so if you want to experience what the pioneers may have experienced, walk along the dirt road by the creek. In my experience access to the canyon wasn’t always guaranteed as the gate at the mouth of the canyon was never reliably open or unlocked.
​
If you want to visit our Stanford of the Sierras, be cautious. Trains fly up and down the canyon with amazing speed. However, when the trains are gone, it’s easy to forget that the hustle and bustle in Truckee is just a few miles away. You can easily feel isolated and alone near Stanford Station now, but hopefully you can imagine and wonder the lives, the personalities, and the activity at the Stanford of the Sierra.

Thomas Viano is a freelance writer working in the technology field in the Bay Area. His love of Truckee goes back to his childhood days exploring the area

Stanford station.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Stanford curve with a train.
Photo courtesy Jeff Bagley
Horseshoe bend with no train.
Photo courtesy of Greg Zirbel
Stanford Station may very well be the first building to bear the Stanford name.


Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Stanford siding.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

History: Rails to Trails and beyond — Truckee River bike path

 

Thank the Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company for making a space for the present bike path from Tahoe City to River Ranch. The Bliss family built and operated the railroad between Truckee and Tahoe City from 1900 until 1923. Then the Southern Pacific railroad took it over and operated it until World War II. Little did Duane L. Bliss and his family know that their roadbed would help build a bicycle trail from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake.

You can enjoy this trail and travel from the Sierra’s cool forest to Nevada’s warmer high desert. Some of the trail is on pavement suitable for road bikes and some is on more rugged mountain biking trails. So, get your bikes and be ready for fun!

The Tahoe-Pyramid Trail follows much of the route of the old Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company railroad to the Town of Truckee and then parallels the Union Pacific Railroad tracks all the way to Wadsworth, Nevada.

Construction of the 114-mile trail consists of many sections and has a total elevation drop of approximately 2,400 feet. Some sections are completed, some are being changed and some have obstacles to overcome.

Lake Tahoe to Truckee

This first section began thirty years after the Lake Tahoe railroad closed. The Tahoe City Public Utility District proposed a plan to turn the old railroad roadbed along California Highway 89 into a bicycle path. That became the first part of the Tahoe City to Truckee bike path.

If you want to start at the top of the trail, drive to the Tahoe City Transit Center and park your car there. (Alternatively, you can put your bike on the free Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transportation (TART) bus to the Transit Center.) Then take the trail down the Truckee River all the way to the Squaw Valley turnoff. This beautiful section is a fun bicycle ride or walk along the path shaded by pine trees and cooled by the river.

Some of this bike path was completed when Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson was general manager of the Tahoe City Public Utility. Cindy says the first Class 1 bike trails project began in the 1970’s at the public utility and was the vision of then General Manager Bill Briner. The trail was phased in over a number of years first to Alpine Meadows and then to Squaw Valley.

The extension to Truckee was being discussed by Placer County while Cindy was working on the trail segment connecting to Squaw Valley. The path from Squaw Valley Road to West River Street descends slowly toward Truckee and it’s currently more challenging because it’s on the shoulder of California Highway 89. A safer, off-highway route is being developed by Placer County.

To improve the trail, the County is currently working on the Truckee River Recreational Access plan. The plan covers eight miles from the Squaw Valley Road to the Placer County line near West River Street in the Town of Truckee. The path will roughly trace the route of the old railroad.

While still in the planning stage, project manager Kansas McGahan said several options to avoid private property are being considered. The new trail could go on either the west or east side of the river and the plan includes more than the bike path. It also includes corridor restoration and areas for the general public. The implementation of the five different parts of this section will depend on availability of funds.

Truckee

The section from the Placer County line to the current Legacy trail is being redesigned by the Town of Truckee. A paved bike trail and bike lane is being planned on the south side of the Truckee River from the county border through Truckee Springs to Brockway Road and up to Palisades Drive. The bike lane along South River Street and up Brockway Road is currently under construction. The trail crosses Brockway Road at Palisades Drive and finally connects with the Legacy trail at the Truckee River Regional Park.

The Truckee Town Council has approved much of this route in cooperation with the Truckee Donner Land Trust. The Land Trust has acquired Truckee Springs and plans to make it a natural open space for public enjoyment. The new extension of the Legacy trail will be along the river, in the woods, and away from automobile traffic.

Today the bike path travels West River Street on the north side of the Truckee River. Once you’ve reached the end of West River Street, turn right at Brockway Road and go across the bridge and up the hill to the Palisades Drive intersection.

The Legacy Trail east along the Truckee River was started by the Truckee Rotary Club in 1998 when a foundation was organized to build the trail. They began construction in 2001 building a bike path along the river toward Truckee’s Glenshire neighborhood. The first portion was completed in 2004. The Town of Truckee supported much of the work until 2015. At that time, Dan Wilkens – the Town’s Public Works Director said the Town helped build the pedestrian bridge from West River Street across the Truckee River to the Legacy trail. The Town of Truckee then took over the trail’s further development and maintenance. The Town is now highly involved in making it an important trail within the Town limits.

From the Palisades intersection you can cross at the signal and follow the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail signs through the Truckee River Regional Park to the Legacy trail. You’ll enjoy this pleasant trail shaded by trees along the Truckee River.

After about ten miles you’ll reach the bottom of a hill. There the trail leaves the river and goes up to the Truckee neighborhood of Glenshire. At the top of the hill, follow the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail signs to Glenshire Drive. Continue on Glenshire Drive to its east end. At the bottom of Glenshire drive and turn right on Hirschdale Road.

Building the Rest of the Trail

The trail continues from the lower Truckee River canyon to Verdi, Sparks and finally Pyramid Lake. Portions are mountain bike trails which are great in the winter since it is usually snow free. There are a couple of unconnected sections where the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail organization is involved in delicate negotiations with both land owners and the Union Pacific. The Tahoe-Pyramid Trail organization has a website with detailed maps and travel information for all the completed sections (https://tahoepyramidtrail.org). Signs mark the trail so pick your section, get a bike and explore our beautiful area!

Jerry Blackwill is president of the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and chairman of the new Museum of Truckee History. He also likes to hike and bike old railroad roadbeds

Bikers on shoulder of SR 89. The path from Squaw Valley Road to West River Street descends slowly toward Truckee and it’s currently more challenging because it’s on the shoulder of California Highway 89. A safer, off-highway route is being developed by Placer County.
Provided
Farad trail marker.
Provided photo
Brockway Road construction.
Provided photo
Leaving Sparks for Wadsworth along the bike trail.
Provided photo
Old Highway 40 bridge on Hirsdale Road.
Provided photo
A trail marker.
Provided photo

History: Truckee Ice and the Pacific Fruit Express

 

With the influx of fortune-seekers and settlers to California in the mid-1800s, a vigorous farming industry grew up in the inland valleys. The production capacity of the farms and orchards, especially for citrus and other fruit, soon exceeded the local demand. Export markets were needed if the industry was to continue growing.

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 promised access to Midwest and Eastern markets, but the railroad technology of the day was not up to the task of keeping fruit fresh across the hot expanse of the Great Basin. Agricultural products were shipped in “ventilated boxcars,” which provided some movement of air, but little cooling, so were useless in hot weather and for long distances.

The Solution Was … Ice

Railroads and shipping entrepreneurs had experimented with using ice to cool perishable loads as early as 1851. In that year the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad (O&LC) began shipping butter from Vermont to Boston in purpose-built ice-cooled freight cars. A later experiment in shipping Midwest beef featured a layer of ice on the freight car floor and carcasses hung from the ceiling. Unfortunately, the load was prone to shifting as the cars went around curves, and many derailments resulted.

Railroad refrigerator cars quickly improved. In 1875, Samuel Rumph, a Georgia peach grower, invented a refrigerated railcar and crate system that allowed him to ship peaches in volume to distant markets. In 1890, a California fruit rancher named Edwin Tobias Earl designed a refrigerator car to transport fruits to the East Coast and established the Continental Fruit Express Company.

Armour and Swift Dominate Refrigerated Shipping

Most railroads were initially uninterested in owning and maintaining refrigerator cars or the infrastructure and workforce needed to keep them filled with ice. This allowed private car lines to enter the business. Shipping of meat became a huge business, and two meat shippers, Swift and Armour, soon dominated the refrigerated shipping industry. Armour negotiated an exclusive contract with Southern Pacific to ship California fruit and vegetables to the East. Unfortunately, Armour quickly developed a reputation for squeezing the growers, the ice producers, and the railroads by forcing exclusive contracts, controlling the price of icing, and dictating schedules and shipment routes that maximized their profits at the expense of their customers.

An Ice Industry Grows in Truckee

A small market for Truckee ice had developed soon after the completion of the railroad, when restaurants and grocers in San Francisco discovered that they could get cheaper and cleaner ice by rail from the Sierra than by ship from their existing sources up the Pacific coast. Demand for ice to cool the geothermally heated mines of the Comstock Lode soon exceeded that of San Francisco and the coast. By 1872, the Comstock mines were using 10,000 tons of ice annually, mostly from Donner Pass and the Truckee basin.

A winter ice industry quickly grew, first on the “Ice Lakes” just west of Donner Pass, and later on ice ponds made by damming the Truckee River tributaries. Remnants of the earth and rock dams that formed the ice ponds can still be seen from the Legacy Trail on the main Truckee River about three miles east of town and on Martis Creek just above its confluence with the Truckee River.

Truckee was ideal for the ice industry — it had cold temperatures in winter for rapid ice formation, ready labor in the form of lumbermen idled by the cold weather, and an ample supply of sawdust for insulating the ice to keep it frozen over the warm months. By the 1880s, there were more than 20 ice companies in the Truckee Donner area producing 60,000 tons of ice annually.

The Truckee ice industry was also well-positioned to take advantage of the growing business of refrigerated shipping. In particular, Armour and Continental Fruit Express contracted for the entire production of the Donner Ice Company, which harvested ice from man-made ponds along Donner Creek between Donner Lake and present-day highway 89.

Union Ice Company and the Consolidation of the Truckee Ice Industry

Competition among the many Truckee ice producers was fierce. In 1882, many of the Truckee ice companies joined together to create the Union Ice Company. Initially, Union Ice handled the distribution of ice and negotiated uniform prices, but it soon took over much of the production as well. By the early 1900s, Union Ice controlled the entire ice industry in Truckee and was shipping ice to contract icing facilities in the Central Valley.

Founding and Growth of the Pacific Fruit Express Company (PFE)

In 1901, Edward Henry Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific, had acquired a majority interest in the Southern Pacific Company, thereby bringing the two railroads under joint control. Harriman recognized an opportunity in the growing California fruit industry, and in 1906 announced the termination of the Armour contract and the founding of the Pacific Fruit Express Company (PFE), jointly owned by SP and UP.

The growth of PFE was phenomenal. Harriman started the company with the purchase of 6600 refrigerator cars, and by 1930 the “Great Yellow Fleet” had grown to over 40,000 cars, more than 20% of the refrigerated cars operated in the U.S.

PFE quickly replaced Armour as the main customer for Truckee ice, and financed the expansion of ice ponds and storage facilities. Annual production increased to over 100,000 tons. PFE also built a 21-car icing platform in Truckee for re-icing both eastbound and westbound shipments.

Decline of Truckee Ice and Pacific Fruit Express

The Truckee ice industry was vital to PFE for shipments over Donner Pass, but didn’t have the capacity or reliability to meet the demand for ice. In 1907, PFE built a huge mechanical ice manufacturing plant in Roseville that soon produced more ice in a day than Truckee could harvest in a season. Truckee ice was still used to “re-ice” or top-up cars until 1920, when PFE built a second ice manufacturing plant in Sparks. The Truckee ice industry declined sharply from that point, but ice harvests continued, particularly in Boca, until 1927.

PFE’s fruit shipping business continued at a high level until the 1950s, when refrigerated trucking began to take market share from the railroads. PFE was shut down in 1978 and its remaining assets were divided between SP and UP.

Sources: “Pacific Fruit Express,” by Thompson, Church and Jones, “Sunset Limited,” by Richard J. Orsi, and Donner Ice Supplied the California Agriculture Industry by Gordon Richards in the Sierra Sun, Dec. 11, 2006.

Daniel Cobb is a railroad modeler, amateur historian, and volunteer with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society. He lives in Tahoe Vista

Boca Ice Harvest. Notice that there is no snow on the hill but it is cold. There are at least 37 men participating/working the harvest and the train on the tracks in the background to transport the ice.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society.
Horses are used to score the ice during Trout Creek Ice Company harvest.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Loading ice into the reefer train cars.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society
A former Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator car on display in Sebastopol.
Provided photo
Loading ice at Boca onto train cars.
Courtesy of Truckee-Donner Historical Society.

Hidden history at Old Greenwood

The PGA Barracuda tournament is back for the second time at Truckee’s Old Greenwood golf course this year. Competitors at this full-on PGA tour stop are playing for points to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoff championship, and all proceeds are going to charity. This is the first year spectators will be allowed to visit the tournament as COVID-19 restrictions loosen, and it’s a great opportunity for audiences to acknowledge Old Greenwood’s entertaining backstory as a historic location while visiting.

Who traveled here?

Thousands and thousands of American pioneers. Today’s exit from Interstate 80 to Old Greenwood is named Overland Trail. This commemorates the original path pioneers traveled on the California/Emigrant Trail, which passed near the vicinity of the present location of the golf course as currently located.

Census data and traveler records tell that thousands of Americans traveling to California- including the 1846 Donner Party — followed this route on their way from the Midwest to the Sacramento Valley and coast beyond. The route was most popular after the 1844 Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party became the first group to successfully ride wagons across the Sierra until more convenient mountain passes gained popularity later in the decade.

Even after more efficient pioneer traveling routes like the Carson Trail were developed in following years, the Truckee route remained a go-to as the approximate route for the transcontinental railroad after 1867, and much later for the Lincoln Highway (Donner Pass Road) and eventually Interstate 80. There is no concrete archeological evidence that the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy party camped on land currently owned by today’s golf course but the former nearby Emigrant Trail Museum maintains that the historically relevant group absolutely did navigate in the vicinity.

Who was Caleb Greenwood?

Caleb Greenwood was an old man who navigated the mountains. The Stevens-Townsend-Murphy party which pioneered wagon travel through the Sierra in 1844 was partially guided by Caleb Greenwood.

A group of emigrants led by Captain Stevens, Dr. Townsend and Martin Murphy needed a guide who not only knew the route to California but also how to interact with native peoples they would encounter along the way. Greenwood had vast knowledge due to his background and marriage to a native woman. This was a capstone but nevertheless late event in Greenwood’s career. Greenwood claimed that for almost 40 years beforehand he had navigated the American West involved in fur trapping, trading and exploration.

Author Charles Kelly tells that Greenwood moved from Virginia to St. Louis in present day Missouri and entered the fur trading industry. This work led Greenwood to frequently travel from Missouri across modern Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and other frontier territories between the 1810s and 1840s. By the time he helped blaze the Steven-Townsend-Murphy party’s route which became the hazardous Truckee section of the California Trail, he was in very old age. His dramatic age difference with contemporary young explorers earned him the “Old” Greenwood nickname which today’s golf course commemorates.

What’s hidden behind Hole 12?

Decades after Caleb Greenwood navigated the vicinity, Chinese workers operated the land near today’s golf course. Archeologists who excavated Old Greenwood in 2002 speculate that charcoal for railroads, mines and local furnaces was manufactured at the site during the 1870s and 1880s. Beneath today’s golf course they uncovered rice bowls, opium, and Chinese coins which indicate coal was produced by Chinese laborers looking for work after gold mining and local railroad construction dwindled. A marker behind Old Greenwood’s hole 12 commemorates where almost 150 of these ovens were located and one still remains buried. The marker ironically indicates that fresh, green logs — or “green wood” — formed the base of the ovens because they resisted burning despite high temperatures from charcoal burning.

Two other nearby golf courses are named for early Truckee history. George Shaffer’s sawmill, located in the vicinity of today’s Schaffer’s Mill, Lahontan and Northstar golf courses, catalyzed Truckee’s early lumber economy and road access to Truckee in the 1860s. Joseph Gray opened a rest stop along the 1860s wagon trail near today’s downtown Truckee, which is reflected in nearby golf course Gray’s Crossing’s name. Both these early pioneers benefited from Caleb Greenwood’s early trailblazing and interacted with Truckee’s early Chinese labor force. Old Greenwood Golf Course’s name similarly connects it to a historic backstory worth appreciating at the Barracuda tournament this year.

Conor Villines is a volunteer for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He holds a BA in History and an MA in Journalism from the University of Arizona, and enjoys learning as much as possible about Truckee and California history

A plaque at Truckee’s Old Greenwood golf course indicates where the Chinese ovens once were.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Wagons over the Sierra.
Courtesy California State Library
A map of the area.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

 

History: Joseph Gray – Early Pioneer and leader in Truckee

 

In 1863 the town of Truckee did not exist. All that was visible along the banks of the Truckee River were rocks, virgin forest and one solitary log house build by pioneer Joseph Gray.

A small early settler’s settlement near the head of Donner Lake served the many coaches and their teamsters and passengers who passed daily along the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road, enroute to Virginia City and the booming Comstock Lode.

Near this spot, transportation routes converged – the Henness Pass route from the upper North Fork of the Yuba (today’s Highway 89 north), and the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road (today’s Donner Pass Road). Five years later the Central Pacific would choose the same area as the focal point for its mountain train operations.

Joseph Henry Gray was born in 1826 in Middleton County, Durham, England. Gray’s parents emigrated to Tumockwa, Pennsylvania in the late 1820s. Then in 1833 the entire family, including Joseph and his nine brothers and sisters, moved to Dubuque, Iowa, “the heart of the Indian country.” The family moved again in 1834 to Galina, Illinois where they settled and farmed.

Bored and restless with farming, young Joseph and two of his brothers went West in 1849 seeking adventure and fortune. It was not the prospect of gold and mining that lured Gray to head West but rather business opportunities. He first went to Texas where he purchased a herd of cattle, drove them to California and sold them at a high profit. He settled in present day Citrus Heights with his wife, Ann, and three daughters.

Gray became friends with Charles Crocker, one of the railroad’s “Big Four,” whom he considered “his partner.” It may have been through Crocker that he learned the proposed route of the Central Pacific railroad over Donner Pass and decided better opportunities might await him down the hill past Donner Lake.

Joseph Gray believed that the Truckee area would be a good place for a tavern and way station for weary travelers. By c. 1863 Gray had constructed a log station along the wagon road at the intersection of today’s Jibboom and Bridge streets where he provided provisions to the endless stream of freight wagons. He also kept his corral full of cattle to provide fresh beef to teamsters and stored plenty of feed for their horses.

Gray ran the frontier hostelry, which served travelers arriving on the six-horse Concords of the California Stage Company. Twenty- and thirty-horse freight wagons rolled past the cabin day and night. Gray’s establishment was a place where travelers and teamsters could rest and enjoy all the comforts and hospitality of a friendly roadside inn, purchase supplies, and obtain directions or information.

Gray became a successful business man and was associated with the lumber, freight and cattle industries, and also entertained travelers. Truckee’s biggest commodity at the time was lumber and wood, which was shipped heavily to the Comstock Mining District in Virginia City, Nevada up until 1877-78 when the silver and gold ore played out. He owned several freight teams, sixteen or eighteen mules, four to six horses and a number of wagons. Huge supplies were stored near his cabin for winter consumption.

Gray’s Station, as it existed at the time, encompassed the entirety of the present downtown district of Truckee. Next to his cabin, Gray built a horse stable and blacksmith shop. The stable was located where Truckee’s downtown post office currently resides.

As the railroad approached, a man named S.S. Coburn purchased land to the west of Gray’s Station and built another depot which grew into a larger settlement called Coburn’s Station. When Coburn’s Station burned down in August 1868, Gray sold portions of his land along the railroad to a number of entrepreneurs who built the town, now called Truckee.

Prosperity created recognition for the ambitious pioneer; Gray became a familiar face in town and was affectionately called Uncle Joe. By 1870 he was recorded as a hotelkeeper alongside Ann and their four children, Annie (12), Isabella (9), Alizence (5), and Joseph (1). As his children grew the family moved to a larger residence on Church Street.

Always seeking new opportunities, Gray sold his interest in his lumber mill to his partner, George Schaffer. He hired Chinese workers to cut cordwood for the railroads and to fuel the stoves of the growing town. Gray’s business ventures continued to branch out. In 1875 he opened the American House Hotel and became president of the Peoples Ice Company located at Camp 20 east of town where he also owned and operated a sawmill. (Camp 20 was also called “Cuba,” 13 miles below Truckee where Gray Creek enters the Truckee River).

By the early 1880s the cold, difficult winters in Truckee may have finally gotten to him so he moved to Sacramento with his family. Joseph Gray remained in Sacramento, making frequent visits to Truckee, until he passed away on August 6, 1897 at the age of seventy-one. His widow, Ann, lived until 1909. They are both interred at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Sacramento.

Despite the many fires which razed the town, the ceaseless construction of roads, freeways and commercial developments, winter storms and a continuous barrage of occupants, Joseph Gray’s original log cabin still stands reflecting the tenacity of Truckee’s early founders. The structure exemplifies a memorial to Joseph Gray’s accurate, prophetic vision. It is a tribute not only to Truckee’s past but also to the future of a town steeped in history and to its citizens who have accepted progress while still embracing the pioneer spirit and determination of the town’s founder, Joseph Gray.

Source: Truckee-Donner Historical Society

GRAY’S CABIN

Gray’s Cabin, built c. 1858, is Truckee’s earliest standing structure. The building’s horizontal logs are hand-hewn, cut with an adz in squaring the logs and pre-dates circular sawn lumber that was best seen in sawmills. The logs were typically chinked with hair or lime mortar to prevent cold Truckee winds from coming into the building. Prior to the lumber industries that lined the river, small buildings like Gray’s Cabin were typical structures.

In 1909, D.J. Smith donated the cabin to the Donner Parlor No. 162 of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Gray’s Cabin used to sit on the corner of Jibboom and Bridge Streets. It was completely disassembled and rebuilt in the current location on Church Street, less than 50 feet away.

In 1863 the town of Truckee did not exist. All that was visible along the banks of the Truckee River were rocks, virgin forest and one solitary log house build by pioneer Joseph Gray.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Joseph and Ann Gray
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Joseph Henry Gray was born in 1826 in Middleton County, Durham, England. Gray’s parents emigrated to Tumockwa, Pennsylvania in the late 1820s.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

 

The Truckee Hotel: Surviving the times

 

This article started as an overview of the Truckee Hotel but I realized that the story was much bigger than that. It is about Truckee being a Historic Mountain Town that has been able to adapt and survive.

The original “Truckee Hotel” was located across Commercial Row/Front Street on the other side of the railroad tracks near today’s Truckee Diner (Jax). When the hotel burnt down in 1900 the proprietors did not want to have the train master station in the same building as the hotel (Note: Central Pacific owned the land and it was required by the lease to have the train station office in the hotel. Visit the new Museum of Truckee History in the train depot to see what the Train Master office would have looked like).

The Bridge Street land section, on the east between Front and Church streets appears to have had hotels since the early years of Truckee’s history. It is difficult to figure out which of the earlier structures are still part of the current Truckee Hotel but we do know that the first record of a hotel opening on this spot was on August 27, 1873 and was called the American House. The hotel supported guests who frequented the numerous saloons on Front Street (now Donner Pass Road) as well as the red-light district’s dance halls and boarding houses on Jibboom Street.

The hotel changed hands numerous times. In 1875 Stuart McKay purchased the hotel for $2,364.71. McKay did an extensive remodel in 1877 turning it into a three story building. The hotel was very successful as inexpensive accommodations where he charged $6 per week for board and lodging and meals were $0.25. In March 1878 the hotel burned in the Bridge Street fire. McKay rebuilt the hotel and called it the Pacific House.

The current four-story Italianate hotel was built in c. 1889 and was named the Whitney House after its new owner, Thomas Whitney. The Whitney House was also a stage coach stop during the 19th century. A devastating fire gutted most of the hotel on August 15, 1909. Whitney luckily had enough lumber on-site to rebuild the hotel immediately and renamed it to the New Whitney House. It boasted electric lights, hot and cold running water, and steam heat. Whitney even had Truckee’s first billboard painted on a massive granite rock next to the Dutch Flat – Donner Lake Wagon Road near Donner Summit advertising his hotel. After over 100 years the sign is still visible.

During the combined railroad and automobile heyday of the 1920s, Truckee had approximately 1,380 residents with 287 of these individuals listed as “boarders” or “lodgers” where they stayed in hotels, boarding houses or rented rooms in private homes.

Mrs. Minnie Coleman and Mrs. Ruth Notley bought the hotel on October 12, 1944. It was then called the Riverside Hotel where Bill Notley, great-grandson of Coleman, lived as a boy. The hotel was also a Greyhound bus depot. Bill remembers when the City of San Francisco train was stranded on Donner Summit due to an avalanche in 1952. Many of the passengers, once they were rescued, stayed at the Riverside. Bill still has the front desk bell that was used to get hotel staff’s attention when guests arrived.

Mary Anne Boice had her real estate office in a lean-to next to the hotel and wanted to expand her office and place it in the ground floor of the hotel. In 1977 Boice and Stefanie Olivieri/Erber and Adolf Erber bought the hotel and once again did extensive work restoring the hotel to what it looked like in the late 1800s as the Old Whitney Hotel. Stefanie wanted to keep the hotels historic charm and bought out Boice renaming the hotel the Truckee Hotel. The hotel reopened in November 1977 with the old radiators and sinks still in the rooms. She also remembers a couple that had moved into the bridal suite for their honeymoon (shortly after she had completed the major remodels) where they had left the water running in the bathtub. The ceiling collapsed onto a party of 12 people eating in the restaurant, covering them in water and plaster. On another occasion, after they had put period furniture in the rooms, a select group of guests left in the middle of the night taking everything that was not nailed down.

The hotel has been able to keep its name since 1977. When asked “Why did this hotel survive?” everyone has said “location, location, location”. The hotel was a hub for travelers coming in on the train and was conveniently situated within easy walking distance. Hotels and lodging establishments were vital places for individuals to live and vacation, offering weekly and monthly deals that included both a warm bed and a meal in a community dining hall. The site/building has been used as a hotel and as a restaurant for over 145 years.

In 2012 the hotel went through another series of renovations. The current proprietors of the Truckee Hotel (Truckee Hotel Partners LLC, a small group of investors from across the state) had to close its doors on March 16, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To stay afloat, Moody’s restaurant on the ground floor took to-go food orders and expanded to the street. Currently eight rooms have a private bath with the remaining 28 rooms sharing bathroom facilities.

Many mountain towns have disappeared into obscurity, however the tenacity of the Truckee community’s residents has fostered an environment to encourage rebuilding and reinventing to keep Truckee alive. The Truckee Hotel is a great example of how Truckee has kept to its roots and stayed relevant. Much of the hotel retains its original charm with the large mirror in the lobby that survived the 1909 fire and the stairwell that leads to its period bedrooms.

Judy DePuy is a member of Truckee-Donner Historical Society and on the board for the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and Museum of Truckee History. She resides in Tahoe Donner with her husband, Dave, and their dog, Morticia

MANY NAMES

The current Truckee Hotel site has had several names including:

American House (1873-1878)

The Pacific House (1880-1882)

The American Hotel (1885-1886)

The Whitney House (1887-1909)

The New Whitney House (1909-1918)

Blume Hotel (1920s-1933)

Riverside Hotel (1934-1943)

Alpine Riverside Hotel (1956-1977)

The Truckee Hotel (1977 to today)

— Judy DePuy

The current four-story Italianate hotel was built in c. 1889 and was named the Whitney House after its new owner, Thomas Whitney. The Whitney House was also a stage coach stop during the 19th century.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
A sign hangs in front of the Truckee Hotel.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
The New Whitney House, 1887-1909.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
The U.S. Army Reserve Pipes & Drums band marches in front of the Truckee Hotel during the Fourth of July parade in 1985.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society