Lake Tahoe History

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky, “Part VI – The “Yanks” are Coming

Yank's Station from the East - 1866

Yank’s Station from the East – 1866

In 1868 the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad reached Truckee. From there a narrow gauge railroad, built from the remnants of the lumber railroads that had proliferated in the Tahoe Basin during the lumbering years, connected it to Tahoe City at the north end of the lake. This resulted in development of summer resorts at the northern end of the lake, but there was no similar railroad connection to the southern end of the lake.

The southern end of Lake Tahoe was still only connected to the outside world by the roads that had carried the emigrants into California and the freight and passengers from Sacramento to Virginia City. Because of this traffic, some inns, along with eating and drinking establishments had been built along these roads in the middle and late 1800’s. Amongst these would be one located closest to Echo Summit, a place that everyone had to pass by, no matter which of the two routes they took south of the lake. Its progressive development is in many ways typical of all others in the Tahoe Basin and worth looking at. It was known as “Yanks Station”

As mentioned before, the first white settler in the area at the southern end of the lake, a place known as Lake Valley, was Martin Smith. An real entrepreneur, he arrived in 1851 and built a simple way station at a place along the main road, seven and one half miles south of the Lake. When it burned down he, and a partner named Jim Muir, rebuilt it and added barns, a corral and stables.

When the first stagecoach crossed the Sierra into the Tahoe Basin in 1857, Smith and Muir’s way station was where they stopped. Although it was nothing more than simply a place to get minimal food and drink, a reporter of the time is said to have described it as “a spacious, well-kept hostelry…with obliging proprietors and…a respectable air about he place.”

Soon Muir would sell his interest to George Douglass, who ran another way station nearby. In 1859, Smith and Douglass would sell out to a very interesting character by the name of Ephraim Clement.

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.

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part IV – Down Come the Trees

Feeding the Teams along the Trail

Feeding the Teams along the Trail (1865)

Within just a short period after the 1859 discovery of silver in the Virginia Mountains of Nevada, there were over one-hundred way stations along the road between Placerville and Virginia City.

Freight wagons by the hundreds were lined up end to end along what would be called the “Bonanza Road” day and night, and the word was that if you got out of line, you might not get back in for hours or even days. This traffic would continue until the mid-1860s when the western portion of the transcontinental railroad would be completed from Sacramento to Truckee and then Reno.

The huge wagons and their teams of 16 or more horses or mules which passed by the south end of the lake on their way to Virginia City, or what was often called the Comstock Lode, did some damage to what had been quite a pristine area as trees had to be cut for roads and dirt from the roads washed into the lake. However, that was small compared to what would happen over the next few decades.

The rich deposits of silver and gold in Virginia City lay in the mountains and had to be reached by tunneling. The various shafts, drifts, and adits in the soft, crumbling earth were unstable and unsafe for miners unless shored up with timber. The Virginia Mountains had very few trees suitable for timber, but the mountains around Lake Tahoe were a different story.

The forests on the Nevada side of the Sierra Nevada were soon being cut and then the hungry sawyers and mills moved over the summit and into the Lake Tahoe basin’s thousands of acres of virgin forests, just waiting to be harvested. And, harvest them they did.

In 1860, the first sawmill in the Tahoe Basin had been established by Robert Woodburn, about two miles northeast of Yank’s Station. Using power from a small overshot water wheel on Trout Creek that powered a single blade saw, he produced lumber and planking for buildings near the Lake.

Mills like Woodburn’s could produce the shingles and lumber needed at the mines, but not the huge, straight timbers fifteen to twenty feet long and twelve inches square that they interlocked to hold up the crumbling roofs of the tunnels.

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky, “Part III – The People Come

John Calhoun "Cock-eye" Johnson

John Calhoun “Cock-eye” Johnson

Prior to 1859, when the news of the discovery of silver in the Virginia Mountains of what was then known as Washoe, and later Nevada, leaked out, very few people resided in the Lake Tahoe Basin and fewer had yet explored it. Some supply stations had been erected near both the north and south ends of the lake because of new trails that were being used by the thousands coming west, but the men running the stations were there for the traffic on the roads, not because of the lake.

The eastern boundary line of California was set by its constitution and not only split the lake between California and Nevada, but made a jog near the center of the lake. Politicians had created the boundary in spite of the fact that little if any survey work had been done there. In fact, few realized that the description had even divided the lake, let alone with two-thirds of it in California and one-third in Nevada.

In 1855, George Goddard, who was with the Utah Territorial Commission, entered the Lake Tahoe basin and surveyed the line as it passed through the lake and even located the jog, confirming the ratio of the division. However, it would be many more years before anyone surveyed the remainder of the line as it continued both north and south through the rugged mountains of the Sierra Nevada Range.

John “Cock-Eye” Johnson, who had a way station just east of Placerville, along the immigrant trail, is said to have been the first white man to actually explore the large valley to the south of Lake Tahoe.

He entered the valley by way of a pass that turned north at Echo Summit (later Johnson’s Pass), traversed steep granite cliffs and after crossing Echo Creek, reached the valley. It is said that the trail, as rugged as it was, could be used with some degree of safety by travelers.

His discovery of what is now known as Lake Valley is not usually challenged, but the date is unknown although it is thought to be somewhere between 1848 and 1850.

In 1853 Johnson and a reporter from the Placerville Herald worked their way up the Rubicon River and then down the slope to the lake where they discovered Emerald Bay. As soon as Johnson’s many treks into the valley became widely known, more and more followed his trail to explore Lake Tahoe.