Editor’s Note: We incorrectly reported the date of the Star Hotel’s destruction by fire. That update has been included below.
I like to think I have the best view in the Moonshine Ink office. Second best at the very least.
While some, from their desks, get to look at the Truckee River flowing through our backyard, others simply get a wall (sorry, guys). Beyond my computer monitor is a window to Riverside Drive in all its parking mayhem and one-way glory. It’s a window (literally and figuratively) to the goings on of Truckee.
Eugene Gini, owner of the house-cum-office, has known this tiny alleyway of a street for nearly nine decades. Gini is the self-proclaimed oldest-living native Italian in Truckee — born March 21, 1931 on the kitchen table of his aunt’s house on East River Street and living in town ever since (minus four years in the Navy).
When Gini looks at Riverside Drive and East River, he sees a town where those of Truckee lore were not only household names, but faces of people he knew: the McIvers, the Sassarinis.
“I can go up and down the road and relive times when I was growing up and thinking of the people that I knew, which was almost everybody in Truckee at that time,” Gini told me. “The population of Truckee was less than 400. It was a great place to grow up.”
As a young boy, he was a “cut-up,” running around his neighborhood with other children and spending “many, many hours” in the Truckee River. Once, he told me, he accidentally derailed a train.
“The story is, Truckee used to be the helper service for the freight trains, and they had a yard master who used to switch the engine around to send it down to hook it to the back of the freight train,” he explained, laughing a bit. “Well, the guy used to throw switches, and I thought I could throw a switch. Unfortunately, it was the wrong time and the wrong place.”
Gini’s brother-in-law worked as a railroad bull (a police officer for the tracks) and tried to scare little Gini into never doing it again. It worked. Gini admitted: “I didn’t derail any more trains.”
In addition to their current East River Street abode, Gini and his wife, Shirley, own houses on the river, in midtown, and in the Gateway neighborhood.
A boy whose parents hailed from the old country (Italy), Gini and his seven siblings lived in the Italian area of town, in a house across the street from where Jax at the Tracks now stands.
“See, at one time Truckee was pretty segregated,” he said. “Everything south of the river was Chinese and Chinese environment. Between the river and the railroad tracks was the Italian part of tracks. And everything north of the tracks was the Irish and other ethnic groups that helped build the railroad.”
While Riverside Drive now requires cars to drive in one direction, from east to west, it wasn’t always that way. Rather than automobiles, grocery and milk delivery wagons rolled along the road. Up until the 1920s, Riverside Drive served as a back-entry alleyway for the parallel West River Street.
“In the wintertime they didn’t plow [Truckee] roads at all,” Gini explained. “The McIvers and — I can’t remember the name of the other people — but they had teams of horses that they would run up and down the street to pack the snow down so people could walk.”
Mostly residences were established on the northern bank of the Truckee River along Riverside Drive, as far as Gini recalls. The current location of Moonshine world headquarters was owned and lived in by his father — who purchased the residence for about $44,000 — before Gini inherited it. He had to actually buy out his brothers’ and sisters’ shares to call the house his own. Gini never lived in the home himself, but rented it out from 1978 to this day.
Immediately east of it sat the Wyethia Club house, a women’s club. Another house or two down from there was a footbridge that once carried a McGlashan water pipeline over the river. The footbridge, Gini says, was taken down shortly after World War II, when he was in his teens.
“Most of the people that live [on Riverside Drive] now haven’t lived there very long,” Gini said. “I say very long; maybe 30, 35, 40 years.”
Of course, you can’t share the history of Riverside Drive without its big brother, West River Street, whose businesses back up onto the much quieter water-side road. Officially separated name-wise from its eastern half in 1898, West River was mostly businesses in the 20th century too, known as a mirror community to the downtown Commercial Row.
“In where that sporting complex is, that used to be the laundry,” Gini said. “… The house directly west of it, I think it’s a bed and breakfast now, or a place for youngsters, was a hotel.”
The Sassarini family owned and operated numerous businesses along West River Street, including the pool hall known as Il Trovatore Club (where now lie Cornerstone Bakery and Morgan’s Lobster Shack), a wine store, and a boarding house.
The Star Hotel, second structure down on West River from Bridge Street, was also a boarding house for the railroad and lumber camps. The current building (for sale and most recently housing Tahoe University, an apparel and home goods store) was destroyed by fire in 1885, and was later rebuilt that same year. Many West River Street structures rose from the ashes of fires, including one in October of 1921, which started at the laundry building and destroyed 17 structures along the road.
Though Truckee’s segregation of different ethnic groups has faded, though automobiles now stack up along the streets that once served wagons, and though he no longer knows everyone in town, Gini says he still loves to live in Truckee.
“Do you really?” I asked him. “It’s quite a different place now.”
“Oh yes,” he laughed. “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”