Lake Tahoe History

Lake Tahoe – “Lake of the Sky,” Part II – Development at the Southern End

Yank's Station - 1866

Yank’s Station – 1866

Prior to the popularity of the personal motorcar, the main means of transportation into the Lake Tahoe basin was by stagecoach, wagon or carriage.

In 1868 the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad reached Truckee, which later would be connected to Tahoe City by a narrow gauge railroad. This resulted in development of summer resorts at the north end of the Lake, but not the south.

The southern end of Lake Tahoe was still only connected to the outside world by the roads that had carried the emigrants into California, the freight from Sacramento to Virginia City and, at one time were the route of the riders of the short-lived Pony Express. Because of this traffic some inns, along with eating and drinking establishments had been built along these roads (mostly along the old road, which is now Pioneer Trail) in the middle and late 1800s. Amongst these was one known as “Yanks Station.”

As previously mentioned, the first white settler in Lake Valley was Martin Smith. He arrived in 1851 and in 1859 he sold his way station, which was seven and one half miles south of the Lake, to Ephraim Clement. “Yank” Clement, as he was known, was a renowned teller of tall tales who attempted to retain the image of a “mountain man” by dressing in buckskins and moccasins and letting his curly hair grow.

Over the next few years “Yank”, and his wife Lydia D. Mark Clement, a much more reserved person, expanded the facilities considerably, building a three-story, fourteen room hotel, a stable and barn, larger corrals, two saloons, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a cooperage and several private homes. In spite of the significant reduction in traffic through the valley with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Clements continued to operate their station until 1873, when it was sold to one George Henry Dudley Meyers. He was a native of Germany who already owned another inn, Six Mile House, east of Placerville. (For more on Yank’s Station, see Lake Tahoe – Part VI)

Meyers purchased much of the land adjacent to what had become known as “Yank’s Station”, named the area after himself and raised beef and dairy cattle. In the early 1900s, the Meyers sold to the Celio family, who had settled in the Tahoe basin in 1863, when Carlo G. Celio established a ranch south of what is now Highway 50. The Celios continued to operate the hotel and their beef and cattle business while expanding into the lumber business on a large scale. In 1938 the old hotel burned down.

Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part I – Discovery

1850 Corps of Topographical  Engineers Map showing a small Lake Tahoe as "Mountain Lake"

1850 Corps of Topographical Engineers Map showing a small Lake Tahoe as “Mountain Lake”

Because of its location in the remote and relatively inaccessible portion of the Sierra Nevada range, Lake Tahoe apparently escaped “discovery” by all but the local native population up until 1844.

It was on Valentine’s Day of that year that Captain John Charles Fremont and his party were near Carson Pass, atop Steven’s Peak or Red Mountain, on their exploration of the west. Looking north, Captain Fremont spotted a large lake which he named “Lake Bonpland,” after a fellow-explorer. However, the  topographer of the party, Charles Preuss, only noted it on his maps as “Mountain Lake.”

The lake would be known as Mountain Lake for several years and then Lake Bigler, after a California governor who, in 1852, led a rescue party to aid some stranded emigrants near the lake.

Naming it after a politician did not set well with some, so about 1861, when there was a strong movement to establish place name all through California, there was a movement to name the lake Tula Tulia, which some believed to be its real Indian name. Finally, in 1862, when all the dust settled, the name Tahoe (a Washoe Indian word meaning “big water”, “high water”, or “water in a high place”) prevailed (Mark Twain, in his book “Innocents Abroad,” disagrees with the meaning of the word Tahoe and contends it means “grasshopper soup”). It should have ended there, except in 1945 someone noticed that the proper procedure had not been followed in 1862 and the lake was still officially Lake Bigler. A quick act of the California legislature corrected that.

Direct exploration of the Lake may have taken place in the winter of 1844 by the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy emigrant party, a group that followed an old Indian trail over the mountains near the lake. This route would be substantially improved by John C. “Cockeye” Johnson, a rancher, Indian fighter and later a California State Assemblyman.

Johnson’s Cut-Off, as the road would be known, followed the general route of today’s highways 50 and 89, but took a more precipitous route, climbing directly from the valley to Echo Summit on a twenty-five percent grade road. In spite of the fact that there were places where the oxen had to be unhitched and the wagons hauled up the mountain by block and tackle, many parties of emigrants used this route, rather than follow the Carson Immigrant Trail to the south.