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.

In 1870 two new steamboats appeared on the lake. The first one, the “Emerald,” arrived in Truckee by flatcar, carried by the new Central Pacific Railroad. From there she was hauled to Tahoe City by wagon (a seven day trip at the time) where she was outfitted and launched by Ben Holladay. She was fifty-five feet long and twelve feet abeam and powered by an underwater propeller, rather than paddle wheels. She could make 12 miles an hour and, in addition to hauling freight and towing log booms, often carried passengers. She continued in service until 1881.

The second of these two new steamboats was the “Truckee,” which was built on the south shore of the lake. Only forty feet long, she was usually referred to as a tugboat, since she often towed larger boats around the lake. She was only used during the summer and, because steam engines were scarce in the basin, in 1874 hers was temporarily removed for the winter and used at the Bay City Shingle Mill.

The “Niagara” was launched by J. A. Todman in 1875. It was eighty-two feet long and had a ten foot beam. Unfortunately, it only had a fifty horsepower steam engine and could barely make four knots. A butt of many jokes, she was sold to Fish and Ferguson, the owners of the sailboat the “Iron Duke,” who used her to haul freight and passengers. She was fully outfitted with every modern convenience, including life preservers, and suited tourists who were more used to sailboats, and therefore not in a hurry. In 1905 she too was stripped and became firewood.

Steamer Meteor - 1892

Steamer Meteor – 1892

In 1876 the first iron-hulled ship was launched by Duane L. Bliss. Her eighty-foot hull was built in Delaware and brought to Glenbrook overland by railroad and wagon. Christened the “Meteor,” she was advertised to be the fastest inland steamer in the world, and possibly on the west coast. In 1928 there were plans to convert her to diesel power, but that simply didn’t happen. Unsuitable for firewood, she was taken out into the lake and sunk.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, about the time that the mining in Nevada began to wind down, several new steam boats were built for service on the lake. The “Governor Stanford” was built first, followed by a second one named the “Emerald.” The “Governor Stanford” lasted only ten years on the lake, but the “Emerald” would last much longer.

The “Emerald” was sixty feet long and made of iron and steel. Although she was built in 1887, six years after the original wooden-hulled “Emerald” was taken out of service, there is a confusion in history about the two of them, especially since they both belonged to D.L. Bliss at one time or another. In 1935 she was taken out of service and, since her hull was still in good condition, it was hauled all the way to San Diego and rebuilt as a fishing boat. One author believes that parts of her may still be in service to this day.

Steamer Tallac - 1892

Steamer Tallac – 1892

The “Tallac” was an interesting craft, with a hull built in Buffalo, NY and shipped by rail to Truckee and then by wagon to Tahoe City, in the same manner as the first “Emerald.” The owner of the Tallac Hotel, E. J. “Lucky” Baldwin, wanted a luxury steamer to serve the patrons at his hotel and when the hull arrived he had it fitted out in fine style.

It was launched in 1890 and carried 40 people on trips around the lake. The next year, while tied up at the hotel’s pier, it caught fire and burned to the steel hull. What was left was towed back to Tahoe City and the next year she was relaunched, now twenty-five feet longer and not as fancy as before.

By far the longest and certainly the grandest ship ever to grace the waters of Lake Tahoe was the 169 foot long steamer “Tahoe.” It too was commissioned by D. L. Bliss.
The “Tahoe” was constructed in San Francisco in 1894, then disassembled and transported in sections by train and horse drawn wagons to Glenbrook. There it was reassembled and launched on June 24, 1896. She was powered by two wood-fired steam engines developing a total of 1200 horsepower.

The “Tahoe” sported many polished brass fittings, a teak and mahogany trimmed deckhouse, and interior appointments which included leather upholstery, hand-woven carpeting, and marble lavatory fixtures. It also boasted some of the latest technological advancements of the day, including hot and cold running water in the lavatories, electric lights and bells, and steam heat.

In 1934 the “Tahoe” became too costly to operate and lay unused at dockside until 1940. Dismayed at the once proud steamship’s deteriorating condition, William S. Bliss, son of the original owner, bought the vessel back from the company he had sold it to, and ordered it to be scuttled as a memorial to the bygone era of steam traffic on the lake.
The “Tahoe” went to the bottom of the lake off Glenbrook in the early morning hours of August 29, 1940, and still lies there today in nearly 400 feet of water.

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): “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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