Shirley of the Canyon

When the land you know is no longer named for strangers

THE LAND BEFORE TIME: The Scott family owned more than 2,000 acres in the valley.

By Trevor Kekke

One day in 2004 at a family gathering I learned that one of the stomping grounds I’d known for years was named for someone in my own family — my great aunt, Shirley Scott.

A few years after moving up to Tahoe/Truckee in 1998, I had been hired to help build terrain parks at the ski resort that was then called Squaw Valley, including one beneath the Shirley Lake Express chairlift that was there for one year. One time, when I was visiting home, my grandmother asked me how it was going with my job on the mountain. She then dropped the bomb, “You know, your great aunt has a canyon named after her up there.” At the time, I was 25.

The discovery of my connection to the place made me want to shout it to the world, but one day while riding up the Shirley chairlift with a friend, I changed my mind. When I mentioned the chair was named after my great aunt, he didn’t believe me. He laughed and said, “Yeah right!” I decided to keep my mouth shut.


I couldn’t back up the claim. That silence lasted five years.

WATER NYPHM: Shirley would spend hours in her namesake canyon.

But the history of Aunt Shirley and her family wouldn’t let me go. I’ve always loved coming across treasure, such as rocks in the forest, and this seemed like a trove unlike any other. After my grandmother passed away in 2008 and as I neared 30 years old, I decided to explore this connection to the past. And this decision set me onto an exciting journey that continues today.

To my surprise, the history came to me. I had been looking for articles or books or any type of history on the area and its early pioneer families. Then, in 2017 my mother, Cindy, mentioned that she was going to visit Shirley in Pleasanton, California. Shirley was then 94 and going to enter a rest home. I mentioned that I was really interested in her Squaw Valley history. I asked my mother to ask Shirley if she had anything at all that had any relation to the valley.

That next day I got a text from my mom that said: “You wouldn’t believe what I found!”

Shirley didn’t just have a few momentos: She had a whole entire photo album dated and labeled with names and everything. It was the most amazingly put together historical photo album and journal I’ve ever seen!

The photo album and all of my research revealed that our family’s story stretched well beyond Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley, but it was a true American tale similar to other stories about the area’s early pioneers — especially the ranching pioneers. By the time Shirley was born in 1924, her grandfather had been ranching for some time between properties in Folsom and Squaw Valley, California. The Scott family was among some of the earliest White settlers in this area. Shirley’s grandfather, along with his brothers, had used Squaw Valley as grazing land for the large number of cattle he herded in summertime from the warmer climes of Sacramento Valley. I can only imagine what it was like herding that many cattle up and over the mountains into Squaw Valley every spring, and then down again every fall. That was a lot of rugged miles.

HOOFIN’ IT: Shirley’s whole ranching family grew up with horses. Many of the horse trails in the region, including the popular Five Lakes Trail in Alpine Meadows, were made by the family.

The valley wasn’t only important to them in the summer: Shirley’s mother, Dorothy Scott, and father-in-law, Lou Melluer, would head up in the winter to enjoy a little skiing and fishing, to get away. At this point, after roads and railroad lines went in, it was a little easier getting into the valley during the winter months than it was before the turn of the century. Still, considering there were not many plows or snow blowers in the ’20s, and as we all know, in any Sierra Nevada winter you’d better be prepared for a big storm, getting here was quite an undertaking.

Shirley’s time in the valley, though, was summertime. She spent time here just about every summer from the time she was a toddler until she was about 13. Her special place was the creek on the northern part of the valley, with its sparkling waterfalls. She would play for hours, wandering the canyon and splashing around in magical swimming holes with her grandma, so they named it Shirley Canyon. The lake, in the wilderness area, is also named after her.

In 1937 her grandfather and his two brothers sold more than 2,000 acres of their Squaw Valley properties, land which they had had for 50 years. Shirley ended up marrying my grandmother’s brother, Richard Maggach, and living in the Bay Area.

After digging in deep into Shirley’s records — as a family we scanned photos and did what we could to preserve her journal — I did more research, not only at the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, but also online and in conversation with people I know. As the years passed and technology advanced and more history begin to surface, it became easier to find details.
To my excitement, the stories that I read and the facts that I started to find matched stories that my grandmother had told me.

I learned that the names so familiar to me in North Tahoe, were now actually related to me. I saw the names of my family everywhere: on street signs, lakes, canyons, and even mountains. One day Shirley’s daughter told me that if I thought Shirley’s story was interesting, then I would surely think it was important that Shirley’s grandfather-in-law was Robert Montgomery Watson. He was the first appointed constable sheriff of Lake Tahoe. I recently had read local historian Mark McLaughlin’s write up about Watson’s history, and so now I was especially shocked. I was related to numerous pioneer families important to Tahoe’s history? What were the odds?

After all these years of studying the history of this family and the valley, I’ve been able put myself in these people’s shoes and imagine what it would be like in those days. I think history is so important and as my experience shows, it can get lost so easily. I’m happy to be a part of this story and proud of Shirley and her family for doing what they did for all those years. They were true pioneers of the West.

Shirley passed away last year at the age of 97 and I’m now 41. For my part, I aim to honor the past by sharing the rich and layered stories while also paying it forward and fostering respect for the land.

This, I will shout from the mountaintops.


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