The Tahoe Basin was occupied by humans long before any historical record. The Martis peoples were living and trading here until around 500 AD.
Not much is known about them, other than that they came here as the climate changed on the continent and Lake Tahoe began overflowing into the Truckee River.
The Washoe people arrived around 500 years later. They were and are the most numerous native peoples in our area, and have been living here for over 6,000 years.
Traveling from the Carson Valley as spring melted impassable snows, they gathered at sacred places year after year, grinding pine nuts, fishing, and hunting on the beautiful shores of the place they call the lake or da ow. New settlers of European ancestry later mispronounced the name as Tahoe. Thankfully, this is the name that has stuck, rather than others that were considered by map makers and politicians, including Lake Bonpland, Bigler, and even TayHoo.
The Washoe peoples had an informal economy of trade among their own tribes and with the occasional other native peoples passing through the area. There was no money exchanged and it wasn’t customary for people to attempt to get more than others, or keep it for themselves.
Their tradition is to take enough from the earth or the lake, but leave plenty for the future and for others.
Things changed with the influx of White settlers. Mountain man Stephen Meek claimed to have trapped beaver along the Truckee River in 1833. In 1844, John C. Fremont mapped what he referred to as “Mountain Lake,” known to us now as Lake Tahoe. Other explorers found routes through the Sierra, and with wagon roads opening, way stations and small communities sprang up. As more Whites began to pass through the area, the Washoe tried to avoid them.
In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, triggering the Gold Rush. Wagon trains from the east brought hordes of settlers seeking their fortunes. The population of Whites in the western states — especially California, Oregon, and Nevada — exploded. Most emigrants and immigrants did not succeed at mining, but adapted by supplying miners with timber, produce, food, tools, lodging, alcohol, and entertainment.
Every Washoe fishing area, hunting ground, and farming area was taken over by invading Whites. Resistance was futile as the overwhelming tide of settlers displaced a generally peaceful people. The final conflict was the so-called “Potato War” of 1857, in which as many as 14 starving Washoe were killed after being accused of stealing potatoes from a White man’s farm in the area of Honey Lake.
In 1859, silver was discovered at Virginia City. The Comstock Lode triggered another rush of fortune-seekers to the region. Dubious reports of silver and gold created mining claims and boom towns all over the Sierra.
Tahoe’s West Shore, Olympic Valley, and Martis Creek were all sites of exaggerated reports of “the color.” This led to mines being dug and fortunes wasted on bad investment when no sizeable vein was ever found.
But timber for the mines and towns springing up all over the Sierra and Truckee Meadows developed into its own industry that effectively stripped the Tahoe Basin and Truckee of first-growth pine and fir trees. Many hopeful fortune seekers ended up swinging an ax or sharing the end of a saw as crews moved all over the mountains, dropping nearly every tree before them and transporting it to the mines and boom towns.
Virtually all of our Sierra forests now are second and third growth. The effect of this devastation is still impacting the lake and the watersheds, as well as the forest itself.
The completion of the intercontinental railroad in 1869 not only opened the Sierra and California to the rest of the country, but also enabled the rapid transport of produce from the fertile valleys and materials from our forests to homes across the U.S.
Timber, minerals, fish, and ice were rapidly and efficiently harvested and delivered to market until it was all gone.
Companies at Boca and other lakes adjacent to the railroad continued to prosper even after they stripped away the timber: They harvested the crystal-clear water for ice. Hauled by horses to the rail siding, ice was loaded into boxcars insulated with sawdust for delivery to restaurants in Sacramento and San Francisco.
Many trains left room for produce in the insulated boxcars, enabling the delivery of cold, fresh produce and fish to those same restaurants. It was only a matter of time before a true genius recognized that the combination of clean water, ice, and rapid transport meant he could brew and distribute ice-brewed lager beer, as opposed to the steam-brewed ales of the time.
Boca Beer, a grand prize-winner at the 1883 Paris World’s Fair, was the most popular California beer until 1893 when the combination of mechanical refrigeration in the cities and a fire at the brewery ended its run.
The wealthy railroad and timber barons of the time saw potential in the glorious spring and summer weather of the Sierra. When their industry ran out of material to mine or log, they began using the railroads, wagon roads, and shipping they had created for another profitable venture — summer tourism.
Adapting their skills to the new enterprise, loggers, miners, and farmers created a vacation paradise for the nation’s burgeoning middle class to enjoy the crisp evenings and balmy summer days in relative comfort at renowned resorts such as Tahoe Tavern and Brockway Springs. Vacationers would ride the rails into Tahoe City, then board steamer ships to travel all over the north and west shores for hot springs treatments, sport fishing, or lazing in the Sierra sun.
In the early 1900s, private ownership of cars skyrocketed and road construction paved the way for the passenger trains’ demise.
Auto clubs and influential car owners clamored for a “year-around” road. This led to the construction of the “all-weather” U.S. Highway 40.
Summer wasn’t the only season for Tahoe/Truckee tourism. Skiing, or “snow-shoeing” as it was previously known, was begun in the Sierra as a utilitarian exercise. Many of the miners in the 1800s’ “Lost Sierra” region north of Lake Tahoe were of Scandinavian ancestry and life in the winter demanded an efficient way to move around in the deep snows and long winters.
Later, fun and competition using the longboard skis of the time began, with competitors, men and women alike, flying down the mountains and launching into air on man-made ski jumps on gorgeous winter days.
The town of Truckee embraced the new sports and began “Winter Carnivals,” attracting crowds from the Bay Area to ice skate, toboggan, and watch awestruck as daredevils flew off ski jumps across from Commercial Row.
The Auburn Ski Club, formed at Soda Springs in 1928, advertised the emerging sport, even producing jump competitions in Berkeley and at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. ASC also convinced the state road department to keep Highway 40 open year-round. Rope tows and all manner of backyard conveyances soon sprang up on every snow-covered slope to feed the hunger for the new winter sport.
Sugar Bowl opened its resort in 1939 with the first electric ski lift in the state to quickly (for the time) zip the skier up the slope.
The ’60s brought the winter Olympics to Alex Cushing’s Squaw Valley Ski Resort. Everyone from developers to mom-and-pop shops raced to get in on the action. Motels and restaurants of every size and shape popped up all over the Basin and Truckee as the various Olympic contests were announced.
The ’70s and ’80s were a time of rapid development as second-home communities were built to meet the demand of those who wanted a year-round paradise close to the Bay Area and booming Sacramento Valley.
Infrastructure had to be improved from post-war era water supplies and sewer systems to meet the needs of this new population.
Myself, I was part of the fresh immigrants of these decades and this particular industry. In 1979, I got off a Trailways bus from Washington, D.C., on a warm fall evening. The next morning I was hired at the lumberyard in Incline Village. No one who wasn’t there can fully appreciate the building boom on the North Shore in the early ’80s. Our little lumberyard was as busy as Truckee Safeway on July Fourth — every day.
Most of the homes in Incline, Kingswood, and Carnelian Bay were built in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The boom was ended by the Reagan recession and the 1984 TRPA building moratorium. Contractors and carpenters left town toward Idaho like their hair was on fire, and the building industry here collapsed.
A lottery system for building permits was instituted by the now bi-state TRPA to control the amount of new construction and protect the lake.
As documented in Moonshine Ink and elsewhere, the consequence of all of this is a place that now caters mostly to the wealthy. The impact has not yet been fully realized. As a result of “working-from-home” people moving here, already dwindling rentals have evaporated and prices for the few available have skyrocketed. The new economy encourages owners to rent their properties by the day or week to visitors, rather than on a monthly basis to the people who might service that economy.
Though ordinary folks can still drive up for the day and enjoy California beaches, cost of anything from breakfast to groceries and gas now mimics San Francisco prices, and they’re climbing as each venue fights to retain the few employees who can afford to live in the area.
Many of these are veteran Tahoe ski bums who never left and managed to buy a place when a working person still could.
My three-bedroom Tahoe Vista fixer-upper was $92,500 in 1990. Last month I saw a one-bedroom timber fallers shack a few doors up from it listed at $450,000.
It seems that this trend will continue. Cities and towns all over California have been in this situation for years. Teachers, firefighters, law enforcement, EMS, service, and utility workers cannot afford rents here or in nearby Reno or Carson.
Life at Tahoe was, and is, never boring. But I challenge new home buyers to learn to drive a Cat snowplow, because those of us who have the skill can’t afford to live here anymore.