Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part V – Railroads in the Basin

Part of Bliss' Glenbrook Railroad

Part of Bliss’ Glenbrook Railroad

Always looking for better and faster ways to move the logs and lumber from the Tahoe Basin to Virginia City, the owners of the mills started building railroads – all kinds of railroads!

It appeared to some that an immense amount of money was being spent by these companies, however, many believe that more money was made by the lumber and freight companies than was ever made at the Virginia City mines. After all, the mines were not their only customers, there were lots of towns being built nearby and the transcontinental railroad needed ties for their tracks, along with cords and cords of firewood to power its many steam locomotives.

At the southwest end of the lake, near Yank Clement’s station, Matthew Gardner leased 1000 acres of timber rights in 1872. There he split fir and cedar for cordwood and shakes and cut pine logs. He had a contract with Bliss, Yerington and Company that called for sixty million board feet of lumber, so he decided to build a standard-gauge railroad to haul it to the lake for transport to their facility at Glenbrook.

The line ran from the west side of Lake Valley to Gardner’s Camp (Camp Richardson). His equipment consisted of the Virginia & Truckee’s “Ormsby” engine and nine flat cars that had been hauled up and over the Sierra to Glenbrook and then ferried across the lake.

Gardner harvested the trees as far south as Meyers and then went west into the mountains. When the trees in one area were used up, he simply picked up the track and moved it to a new area.

Gardner was sued by Bliss and Yerington for cheating on the amount of lumber he said he shipped to them. Gardner, who believed they were trying to get his railroad, won in court and then sold the entire operation to one of their competitors. However, Bliss and Yerington would ultimately end up owning it.

In March of 1875, at about the same time that newspapers began to comment on the devastation being caused in the Tahoe Basin by the lumber industry, Bliss, Yerington and Company announced the start of construction of a new, narrow-gauge railroad from Glenbrook to the summit, where their flume to Carson City began.

It was quite an engineering feat, requiring nine miles of track in a complex switch-back pattern, ten trestles and a 270 foot tunnel to complete a rise of only 1200 feet. Once completed, it took a tender-load of two-foot logs to feed the engine for just one trip.

By 1876 there were four engines and forty-five logging cars carrying the lumber from the east side of the lake at Glenbrook.

Glenbrook had become the most important lumber town in the Tahoe Basin and even Nevada. In 1898, when the need for lumber in the Comstock ended, the railroad equipment was moved across the lake to Tahoe City and Glenbrook became just a quiet tourist resort.

George Washington Chubbuck’s railroad was built in 1884. It connected a long ramp at Taylor’s Landing, near what is now the Bijou area of the City of South Lake Tahoe, with Meyers, crossing Heavenly Valley, Cold and Trout creeks and passing by the Sierra House on Pioneer Trail.

Iron rails being difficult to obtain and expensive, he simply made the rails for his narrow-gauge line out of wood.

At first Chubbuck used oxen to pull the loaded flat cars along the track. This being too slow, he acquired a steam engine named “Old Morsby”. The wooden tracks couldn’t hold the load and they soon disintegrated.

Chubbuck also had a contract with Bliss, but he couldn’t meet it. Soon, D. L. Bliss acquired Chubbuck’s property and railroad.

Under the guidance of D. L. Bliss’s son, William, ten thousand acres of timber rights were acquired from the Barton, Sibeck, Jewell and Hill families, among others. Chubbuck’s wooden rails were replaced with iron rails, the line was extended to eleven miles and an eighteen hundred foot long pier was built out into the lake.

In 1889, this pier would be extended to a half-mile to accommodate larger lumber barges and lake steamers. Seven years later another eighty feet was added to handle the S.S. Tahoe’s one-hundred seventy-foot length.

The Lake Valley Railroad, as it was now known, purchased the “Santa Cruz” locomotive from the Santa Cruz Narrow-Gauge Railroad Company. It hauled the logs to the lake and then backed up for the return trip to the forest. By 1899 the operation became unprofitable and the equipment was moved to Tahoe City and used to bring tourists and supplies from the transcontinental railroad station at Truckee to the north end of Lake Tahoe.

At the north end of the lake, near a town now appropriately named Incline Village, Hobart and John Overton built “The Great Tramway,” an inclined railroad four thousand feet long, that carried lumber, shingles and cordwood to a flume at the summit.

It was a cable powered line that consisted of two sets of narrow-gauge tracks so that the fully loaded cars going up could be balanced somewhat by two empty cars coming down. It soon became a tourist attraction.

With the ending of the major lumber industry about 1897, the equipment was removed and the village where the employees lived was deserted. In the 1950s Incline Village would be rediscovered as a recreations site.

With the lumbering industry in the Tahoe Basin effectively finished, people began to notice what the newspapers had been reporting for nearly a quarter century.

Much of the forest around the lake was gone and in its place were endless hillsides of stumps, rotting logs, slash and piles of sawdust. The shore of the lake itself, was littered with debris of all kinds.

The resort owners, in order to get tourists, emphasized the lake itself and tried to ignore the damaged forests. However, concern for what was happening in the western forests was becoming a major issue nationwide, but almost too late.

Sources for this story include: “Atlas of California”, by Donley, Allan, Caro and Patton (1979); “California Place Names”, by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “The Saga of Lake Tahoe, Volumes I & II, by Edward Scott; “The Mountain Sea”, by Lyndall Landauer (1996); “Lakes of California”, by Don Baxter (1972); “Sierra-Nevada Lakes”, by George and Bliss Hinkle (1949); “Sierra Stories – True Tales of Tahoe”, Volumes 1 & 2, by Mark McLaughlin 1997-1998): Glenbrook Rental Program Webpage; “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the archives of the Mountain Democrat.

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