Lake Tahoe History

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part X – The Saga of the “S. S. Tahoe”

Steamer Tahoe

Steamer Tahoe

In Part IX, we touched on the subject of the most famous and, according to most visitors of the time, most beautiful steamer to grace the lake, the steamer “Tahoe,” often referred to as the “S.S. Tahoe” and also the “Queen of the Lake.”

The “Tahoe” was commissioned by lumber baron D.L. Bliss. Lumber had made Bliss rich, but the mining activity began to fade and with it the lumber business. Bliss decided to look elsewhere for business and decided that tourism, along with carrying freight and mail, was the real future in the Tahoe Basin.

The steel hull for the “Tahoe” was built in San Francisco in 1894 and then disassembled. The multitude of numbered parts were hauled on huge freight wagons Glenbrook, along with her two steam engines and wood-fired boiler. On June 24, 1896, in a lavish ceremony, she was launched into the lake. She was a huge 169 feet in length with a beam of 18 feet. Her two large steam engines each drove an underwater propeller and, according to some, she could reach the amazing speed of 18 knots, mostly because of her narrow beam.

Luxurious passenger travel on the lake was the goal of Bliss and he spared no expense to outfit the “ Tahoe” in a magnificent manner. Her cabins were paneled in the most expensive of woods, crystal light fixtures were everywhere, marble counters and brass fittings abounded, the carpet was handmade and the furniture was upholstered in leather. Meals were served on porcelain, with silver utensils, crystal glasses and linen tablecloths. With all this, including steam heat throughout and hot and cold running water in the lavatories, she was indeed the “Queen of the Lake” and the height of luxury.

Steamer Tahoe picking up mail, freight and passengers at Glenbrook

Steamer Tahoe picking up mail, freight and passengers at Glenbrook

For years she made a daily circuit of the lake, and leaving every morning from Tahoe City with the mail and freight from the previous night’s train, and returning in late afternoon. In her round trip she delivered and picked up freight and mail at all of the major landings, while carrying up to 200 passengers. But the same narrow beam that allowed for her high speed was not always conducive to comfortable passenger travel, especially when the weather turned, which it often did.

Because Lake Tahoe is in a high mountain valley, the winds and weather are very unpredictable. One moment things could be completely calm and the next the lake could be choppy and full of waves. The fickleness of the lake’s weather had been the downfall of the large sailing vessels that had carried everything around the lake for many years, often keeping them in port to await better weather. The owners hoped things would be different with a steamer the size of the “Tahoe,” but although she could venture out in nearly any weather, when the winds came up and the whitecaps grew, the steamer rolled unmercifully. Needless to say, when this happened the passengers wanted more than anything to return to dry land. Unfortunately for them, when the weather was bad the “Tahoe” could not make much speed back to her home port, again because of her length and narrow beam.

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part IX – The Early Steamers on the Lake

Steamer Tahoe at Tallac

Steamer Tahoe at Tallac

It was Augustus Pray, a lumberman at Glenbrook in the Tahoe Basin, that first realized the need for steam powered boats on the lake.

Throughout the 1850s and early 1860s only sailboats had carried the freight, passengers and mail around the lake. Pray believed that the rapidly growing lumber business in the basin demanded the need for more powerful boats that were not so subject to the fickle whims of the wind.

In 1863 Pray milled the lumber for a forty-two foot long, twenty-four foot wide boat. He ordered a steam engine, firebox and boiler from San Francisco and had it delivered to Glenbrook. That in itself was an accomplishment in those days, since it had to be carried by huge “Washoe” freight wagons, hauled by teams of oxen, up the mountain road from Placerville and over Echo Summit into the basin and then around the south end of the lake to Glenbrook. Named after H. G. Blasdel, the first governor of Nevada, the “Governor Blasdel” was the first steamer on the lake.

The “Governor Blasdel” was driven by a paddlewheel on each side, powered by the steam engine between them. With wide beam, her pilot house quite forward on the deck and her twenty-foot iron smokestack, she looked like what she was, a steam powered barge. But that was an advantage, since she drew very little water and could work close to the shore.

Pray used his steamboat to haul logs to his mill every day throughout the summer and when she was not busy doing that, she carried passengers on sightseeing tours. Even the Governor of Nevada, after who she was named, often came to the lake to vacation and took trips on “his boat.”

After thirteen years the harsh winters to the Tahoe Basin began to take their toll on the “Governor Blasdel” and then her boiler exploded. In 1877 she was beached and became simply firewood.

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part VIII – The Sailboats Arrive

Washoe Chief's Family near Lake Tahoe - 1866

Washoe Chief’s Family near Lake Tahoe – 1866

The first visitors to the Tahoe Basin, the Native Americans, probably did not venture far out on to the lake in boats. Neither did the early explorers and mountain men. There was no need to do so, since there was plenty of food on the shore and fish could be easily caught where the many creeks entered the lake.

Asa Hawley, of Hawley’s Grade fame, attempted to measure the size of the lake by rowing around it in a skiff made from local materials. Although his math was incorrect and he calculated the lake to have twice the circumference as it really had, he is believed to be the first to circumnavigate of the lake in a boat of any kind. Like the many later visitors and tourists that brought canoes, rowboats and sailboats to the lake, he also did not venture far from shore.

The first real sailing craft to appear on the lake was the “Edith Batty”, a seven ton, gaff rigged sloop. She was built at Glenbrook in the 1850s by Homer Burton. Although designed as a sailboat, she also had long oars, or sweeps, used when the wind died, which it often does in the Tahoe Basin.

During the warm summer months, the “Edith Batty” was available for charter and afternoon or evening parties and often carried passengers, freight and even the mail to and from different places around the lake. With a good wind, she made excellent speed, but because the winds were fickle, it often took a full week to make a trip around the lake.

In the 1870s, after years of hard service, the “Edith Batty” was beached at Glenbrook Bay and abandoned to the harsh elements of the Tahoe Basin.

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part VII – The Basin Begins to Fill

Friday's Station

Friday’s Station

There was only one road that entered the southern end of the Tahoe Basin from Sacramento and Placerville. However, once it entered, it split into two roads just east of Yank’s Station. One branch passed along the southern end of the lake through the marshlands created by the Upper Truckee River, somewhat close to the present alignment of Highway 50. This branch is often referred to as the Placerville-Virginia City Road and even “Johnson Route”, in honor of John Calhoun “Cockeye” Johnson, who pioneered a route over the Sierra from Placerville.

The other branch had many names: the Placerville and Carson Valley Route, the “Bonanza Road” and sometimes the “back road,” simply because of its location. Serving as the main road much of the time, it passed through the heavy forest further to the south of the lake than the other road and then veered back near the California-Nevada border, where it met the Placerville-Virginia City Road and the Kingsbury-Daggett Pass Road. This road is now know as Pioneer Trail.

Along both of these roads, other way stations and hotels were built, mostly to serve the travelers during what was called the “Bonanza Days,” the time when the freight wagons stretched end to end over the road from the railroad station in Shingle Springs to the mines at Virginia City. Many would ultimately be expanded, rebuilt or replaced to serve tourists and other visitors to the Tahoe Basin.

The first inn or way station east of Yank’s, along Pioneer Trail, was the Sierra House, at Cold Creek, built by Robert Garwood Dean in 1859. A few months after it was built it was sold to William Mac (Mack?), who renamed it “Mac’s Station”.

Further east and near what is now Heavenly Valley Creek (formerly Miller Creek), in 1862  John G. Miller, a native of Pennsylvania, built the Miller House. Years later it became a dairy center.

Six tenths of a mile further east was Dixon’s House, built by R. P. Rainery in 1861, and renamed in 1865 when bought from Terry and Hiram Brown by Mr. and Mrs. Harry Dixon.

The next inn along the road was McComber’s, which was a large, two-story clapboard structure. Freeman McComber had arrived in Tahoe in the fall of 1865 and acquired 2000 acres, including the “State Line House and Ranch.”

At that time the state line was believed to be to a half-mile west of its present location, so this inn was thought to have straddled the line. The line, McComber told people, passed through the middle of the dining room, a tale that brought in tourists. There is even a legend that McComber’s first son, George Lincoln, was only a Californian because he was born on the west side of the house.

In 1882 McComber’s was purchased by George Washington Chubbuck, who ran it for two years. Chubbuck would be better known for his lumber railroad with unique wooden rails that he would later build from the lake to Meyers, generally along the Pioneer Trail route.

Just a short distance to the west of the present state line, at the junction of the Placerville-Virginia City Road was a hostelry and settlement established in 1860 by William W. Lapham. Over the years it was known as Lapham’s Fish Market and Landing, Lapham’s Hotel and Landing and Carney’s Stateline House.

The inn burned in 1876 and was replaced in 1892 by E. B. Smith’s Lakeside House or Tavern, later renamed Lakeside Park. By 1915 “The Park” had become a choice summer residence area