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GeWithin 20 years of its discovery in the virgin wilderness by John C. Fremont in 1844 Lake Tahoe was a major western vacation destination.


The Nevada
Travel Network
Description and History of
Lake Tahoe
by David W. Toll

Tahoe Queen
From The Complete Nevada Traveler, the Affectionate and Intimately Detailed Guidebook to the Most Interesting State in America. Buy the Book Here

Tahoe lies at the back of California's neck, just where Nevada's elbow juts into it, a bright blue eye staring upward from its granite socket like an outsized parody of Picasso. At an elevation of 6,229 feet it is an alpine sea ranking with the most spectacular mountain lakes in the world. The lake encompasses nearly two hundred square miles in this mountain grandeur well over a mile above the level of the ocean. To the west of Tahoe the peaks of the Sierra Nevada rise up to 4,000 feet above the lake, and to the east
the craggy summits of the Carson Range soar even higher. Tahoe is cupped between them, nearly forty cubic miles of water, in a pine-blanketed setting of such compelling majesty that within twenty years of its discovery in the virgin wilderness (by John C. Fremont in 1844) the lake had become one of the West's leading vacation spots.
Today, after more than a century of development, Tahoe and its basin rank as one of the finest all-season recreation areas in the world, but the matchless scenic beauty of the region has been exploited at such a pace that the sight of the lake through the pines is as likely to inspire depression as exhilaration.
Lake Tahoe's modern history began in 1844 when Fremont spied it from a pinnacle in the Carson Range to the east. It accelerated four years later when John Calhoun "Cock-Eye" Johnson connected Placerville, California, with the Carson Valley by a looping trail across the Sierra that skirted Tahoe's south shore. Mart Smith arrived in 1851 to open a small trading post at the present site of Meyers, California, and became Tahoe's first permanent settler -- excluding the peaceful Washo Indians whose claim to the region was considered no better than that of the other forms of wildlife.
When the first trans-Sierra stagecoach run was made in 1857, it followed the Johnson Cutoff trail with a stop at Smith's Station. Two years later, with the discovery of the Comstock Lode drastically swelling traffic over the road, two competing stagecoach lines maintained regular schedules with Tahoe stops, and when the Pony Express was inaugurated in 1860, it took the old Johnson Cutoff route as well.
By 1861 the Comstock's voracious need for timbers and fuel had prompted the beginning of a logging industry in the Tahoe Basin. One of the early prospectors for productive timberland at Tahoe was young Sam Clemens, who hiked the twelve miles up to the east shore of the lake from Carson City in 1861. After locating what seemed to be a goodly stand of trees, Clemens and his companions spent several memorable days vacationing.
"So singularly clear was the water," he wrote years later in Roughing It, "that where it was only twenty or thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat seemed floating in the air! Yes, where it was even eighty feet deep. Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand's-breadth of sand. Often, as we lay on our faces, a granite boulder, as large as a village church, would start out of the bottom apparently, and seem climbing up rapidly to the surface, till presently it threatened to touch our faces, and we could not resist the impulse to seize an oar and avert the danger. But the boat would float on, and the boulder descend again, and then we could see that when we had been exactly above it, it must still have been twenty or thirty feet below the surface. Down through the transparency of these great depths, the water was not merely transparent, but dazzling, brilliantly so. All objects seen through it had bright, strong vividness, not only of outline, but of every minute detail, which they would not have had when seen simply through the same depth of atmosphere. So empty and airy did all spaces seem below us, and so strong was the sense of floating high aloft in mid-nothingness that we called these boat excursions 'balloon-voyages.'" Clemens left Tahoe to more business-like developers after inadvertently starting a raging forest fire in his camp, and rowing out into the lake for dear life.
By the middle 1860s, few Tahoe visitors took much time to admire the scenery. Comstock-bound traffic past the lake from the central valley of California had become incessant, and a string of hotels, corrals, stores, and businesses had been established along the lake's south shore to cater to the travelers. In a single three-month period in 1864, 6,667 men afoot, 883 more on horseback, and another 3,164 in stagecoaches paraded past the lakeshore. Plodding along with them were 5,000 pack animals and nearly that many cattle. A daily average of 320 tons of freight was drayed past by 2,564 teams. One entrepreneur even drove a flock of turkeys from California to Virginia City by way of Lake Tahoe. Hay to feed this endless stream of beasts was grown, harvested, and hand-baled at the west shore of the lake for delivery by two-masted schooner to the docks on the south shore where it sold for as much as $250 a ton.
Tahoe's first resort was built in 1863, at Glenbrook, to provide the leisured aristocracy of the booming Comstock with a vacation spot conveniently located at the head of the new turnpike to Carson City. It was a spa which could compare with the celebrated Saratoga in New York for elegance, gaiety, and the beauty of its surroundings. The first privately owned vacation "³cottage" was built at the lake that same year at Emerald Bay, for stagecoach magnate Ben Holladay.
The phenomenal lakeshore traffic slowed to a trickle with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the lake settled down to a dreamy existence of summer frolics and winter hibernation. There was a prodigious logging industry, centered at Glenbrook, but with crews working everywhere in the basin. Commercial fishermen shipped trout by rail from Truckee to the coast and to the Comstock at fifteen cents a pound. Otherwise all was idyllic calm.
These activities went largely unreported in San Francisco and Sacramento, and as far as the outside world was concerned, Tahoe was for play. The elegant new Grand Central Hotel, erected at Tahoe City in 1871, with walnut furniture, Brussels carpets, and an ornate cast iron kitchen range that cost $800, eclipsed Glenbrook House as Tahoe's toniest resort the day it opened. The Grand Central was superceded in its turn by Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin's Tallac House farther down the beach.
As early as 1879, when Baldwin purchased "Yank" Clement's hotel, the property was one of the few which had not been logged by timber cruisers, and by the early 1880s, Tahoe folk were remarking on the obvious decline in native trout. They were affected both by the efficiency of the market fishermen (commercial fishing was not outlawed until 1917) and by the effect of the logging and sawmill operations on the spawning creeks, which became choked with sawdust, slash, and other debris.
The first tangible demonstration of what the future held in store for Tahoe did not arrive until 1900, but when it came it was right on schedule, shrieking and clicking and belching smoke: a narrow-gauge railroad that connected Tahoe City with the transcontinental railroad at Truckee. The arrival of the railroad prompted construction of the marvelously gabled four-story Tahoe Tavern a little south of town to set a new standard of elegance at the lake, and increasingly more people enjoyed Tahoe excursions and vacations. The lake steamers glided across the smooth summer surface of the lake as before, trailing languid plumes of black smoke. Logging at the east shore had largely ended with the decline of the Comstock mines, and conversion of the railroads to coal.
Just then, enterprising eyes began to focus on Tahoe's water. In 1900 A. W. Von Schmidt, president of the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works, proposed to furnish the city of San Franicisco with a water system capable of delivering thirty million gallons of Lake Tahoe water a day in return for $17,690,000. As a matter of fact, he was agreeable to building a system which could deliver up to a hundred million gallons a day, at a proportional increase in price. The San Francisco County Board of Supervisors went so far as to visit the proposed site of his diversion dam on the Truckee before allowing the idea to lapse. Three years later a San Francisco attorney named Waymire proposed a tunnel through the side of the Tahoe basin to drain the lake into the Rubicon branch of the American River and thus supply limitless power and water to San Francisco. The Waymire project made even less headway than Von Schmidt's.
A third attempt to drain Tahoe was backed by the Department of the Interior, and it nearly succeeded. The U.S. Reclamation Service, discovering it had made massive miscalculations in estimating the amount of water required to make the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District in Nevada a success, moved to acquire the outlet dam and control gates in 1903. With control of the outlet, Reclamation Service engineers could release whatever amounts of water were needed downriver, and thereby wash the egg from their chins.
The Truckee Electric Company refused $40,000 for the property on which the dam was located but made a counter-proposal. The company would present the Reclamation Service with the dam and gates gratis, in return for rights to a guaranteed flow of four hundred cubic feet of Tahoe water a second. The anxious Reclamation Service engineers agreed at once.
Negotiations dragged, however, and it was not until after Taft's election to the presidency in 1908 that an amended contract was agreed upon. In it, further concessions were granted to the utility company. The company could locate pipes and reservoirs anywhere it might choose on public land. Most important, it was granted the right to locate another outlet diversion at any depth below the lake¹s surface. This concession amounted to blanket permission from the federal government to drain Lake Tahoe into the Nevada desert for the purpose of generating electricity for sale.
The chief forester for the Department of Agriculture got wind of the contract before it could be signed, however, and waged a vigorous delaying battle against it. In 1912, property owners at the lake succeeded in getting an injunction against the power company to prevent it from cutting into the rim of the lake.
One side effect of the affair was to raise again the question of ownership of Tahoe's water. Not until 1935 was an agreement finally reached which provided that the level of the lake was to be maintained at a minimum elevation of 6,223 feet above sea level and allowed to fluctuate upward to as high as 6,229.1 feet. Thus the top six feet of Tahoe are in essence reserved for the downriver farmers in Nevada -- less the million and a half tons a day that are lost to evaporation.
An even more portentous herald of the future arrived at Tallac House in 1905 in the person of Mrs. Joseph Chanslor, a merry woman of almost oppressive determination who had clattered and churned up over the summits from Sacramento, all alone, in her chain-driven Simplex. She made the trip in the remarkably fast time of eight hours. The automobile had come to Lake Tahoe. When Mrs. Chanslor sputtered off toward Sacramento again, no one quite realized the significance of her visit.
Still another hint of the future was dropped in 1911 when lots were subdivided at Tahoe Vista on California's north shore. But to the horror of the developers, the first purchaser of property turned out to be a notorious Sacramento madam named Cherry de St. Maurice, and a pall fell over further sales in the "exclusive" subdivision.
Nevertheless, by 1927 Tahoe land was being subdivided in earnest. Forty thousand lots were carved out of Robert Sherman's holdings at King's Beach, Tahoe Vista, and Brockway, not for the Crockers, Yeringtons, and Birdsalls who had purchased spacious lots at Idlewild in the 1880s, but for citizens of more modest means who could afford $500 for a smaller slice of paradise. A hundred and five salesmen were selling those lots, most of them never laying eyes on the property itself but selling from maps set up in San Francisco hotel suites. By the time the stock market fell to pieces two years later, seventeen thousand lots had been sold. Most of them reverted to the subdivider when the new owners could not meet their small payments during the Depression. In an awkward, painful way, the Depression had saved the lake from wholesale exploitation, at least temporarily.

As early as 1900, bills had been introduced in Congress to create a national park at the lake in order to preserve it forever, but not until the middle 1930s did the proposal reach even the investigative stage. In 1935 an inspector for the national park system reported his conclusions in Washington: ". . . in its pristine state, the proposed Lake Tahoe National Park area was worthy of recognition as a national park; however, under the present conditions, I do not feel justified in recommending this area for future considerations as a national park." The inspector cited as reasons the facts that: 1) more than 90 percent of the proposed park area, slightly less than two hundred square miles along the lakeshore, was already in the private hands of about two thousand individual owners; 2) the speculative prices on lake frontage made acquisition costs prohibitive; 3) "ruthless commercial enterprises...have destroyed to a great extent the natural character and charm of the most valuable portion of the proposed national park site -- the land immediately adjacent to the lake." Despite the urgings of other Park Service personnel, notably wildlife technician Robert T. Orr, who saw in the Tahoe basin a unique and relatively pristine alpine habitat "which might well be considered as of National Park merit," the recommendations of the inspector were accepted and the proposal for a Lake Tahoe National Park was shelved for good.
Still, at the end of World War II Tahoe still had only about a thousand permanent residents in the villages and hamlets rimming the lake. After the War the 20th century began to arrive at Tahoe with such rapidity and with such impact that conditions at the lake went rapidly out of control.
By the late 1940s Tahoe vacation resorts were turning away customers, and new ones were being built to accommodate the overflow. Skiing, never popular on the West Coast except as a countrified pastime in isolated mountain communities, became the fashionable wintertime equivalent of tennis. In the early 1950s Tahoe's recreation potential had caught the attention of everyone on the Pacific Coast -- including that of the Nevada gamblers. In 1956 Harvey Gross tore down the little cafe-cum-slot machines he had been operating at the state line on the South Shore and erected a gambling hall and hotel. The next year, Bill Harrah built a big casino across the street, with its gambling rooms in Nevada and its parking lot in California. At once the character of the adjoining California shore began to change. With new weekend visitors driving to the lake from California's coastal and valley towns to gamble, hundreds of Tahoe property owners began a scramble to provide them with the other services they required for a comfortable visit: motels, stores, restaurants, and auto garages.
Logged-over land at Bijou, on California's south shore, had sold for less than two dollars an acre in the late nineteenth century. By the end of World War II it brought as much as $150 per front foot, and by the early and middle 1950s had leapt in value to $500 per front foot. A vacant lot which sold for $3,800 in 1954 increased in value to $18,000 by 1957, inspiring a San Francisco newspaperman to write, "If you have some money in the bank, run -- don't walk -- to the south end of Lake Tahoe. More is waiting if you know what you are doing."
At about the same time, ski developments began to multiply, gradually transforming Tahoe's "season" from a busy four-month summer to a brawling year-round affair. When the 1960 Winter Olympics were held at nearby Squaw Valley, Tahoe's commercial exploitation accelerated in quantum jumps.
One consequence of this profitable activity has been the degradation of the lake's famous clarity.
But despite the development, despite the traffic, despite the drought, despite the algae, despite everything, Lake Tahoe is still one of the most pleasant and beautiful places on earth.


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