As we wrestle with the legality of corporations influencing our Democratic Republic, we can look to local history to see that it’s all happened before.
Today, the large beach in central Tahoe City is a haven for visitors and locals alike, as they enjoy concerts, parties, picnics, swimming, and lazing on the shore. But Commons Beach, a 900-foot piece of lake frontage deeded to the public in the late 19th century, was for a time taken over by private interests. In 1937, a mysterious event returned access for the common people and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1863, a settlement called Tahoe on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe was mapped out on paper. Only about 15 people called the area home; half that in the often brutal winter.
Fueled by silver mining interests and the timber required to support it, by 1870, the area contained 50 homes and businesses.
Called Tahoe City by everyone, it is not, nor has it ever been, a city, but was the first community established by whites at Lake Tahoe and was referred to as simply “Tahoe” until “City” was added by the U.S. Postal Service in 1949.
An 1872 photo shows a small, rocky beach below a looming cliff called The Tahoe Commons.
Having visited Tahoe City in 1869, President U.S. Grant, credited with winning the War Between the States, or the Civil War, deeded the 4.3 acres known as The Commons to the citizens of Tahoe City under the provisions of an act of Congress designed to reserve parcels of land for public use.
Commons or “The Commons” was an oft-used term referring to an area to be enjoyed by the public and not subject to private or commercial use or sale.
As the Civil War finally came to its bloody end, silver in the mines began to play out and the need for what timber was left in the Basin began to wane.
Timber barons such as Duane Bliss looked to other profit centers to make their fortunes. Recognizing that people wanted to see the beauty of Lake Tahoe but were put off by the brutal wagon or stagecoach ride from Truckee, Mr. Bliss shipped the trains, tracks, and buildings from his fading Glenbrook logging operation to the Tahoe City Commons by barge.
His new company, Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation, laid a narrow-gauge railroad from the new intercontinental railroad station at Truckee to Tahoe City. He opened a magnificent resort at Tahoe Tavern, just across the Truckee River on the west side of Tahoe City so passengers could disembark from his train to the door of his hotel. The train would then pull out on Tavern pier to pick up mail and supplies from one of the many steamers such as Mr. Bliss’s “Tahoe” that plied the lake with passengers and goods.
The tracks also had a spur that crossed what is now the Tahoe City Wye and enabled the train to deliver passengers and freight to the wharf and pier at the Commons. The train could then continue east along Commons Beach to maintenance shops and housing for personnel at what is now the Tahoe City Marina. The few locals of the early 1900s were generally in favor of the train and the required infrastructure as it provided jobs and supplies for the little community.
Time marches on though, and as automobiles became more common and most of the timber had been cut, roads were built and the trains and steamers were used less and less. Locals began to agitate against the railroad and the buildings that had grown up around it.
In 1926, the Bliss family sold the railroad to Linnard Steamship lines and the relationship to the community continued to deteriorate. Locals and tourists were kept off the only Tahoe City beach by “bulls,” or private railroad police.
A local lumberman, Walter Bickford, found himself locked out of the wharf, the only place he could unload his truck to a barge.
Bickford and others brought suit against the company in 1919 for encroaching on public land and use, and the battle went back and forth for over seven years. Finally, a decree was entered on May 9, 1927, in favor of the public. Bliss and Linnard were in no great hurry to obey the decree, and though some buildings and locked gates were removed, this was largely because they converted the rail to standard gauge so the train could come directly from the Truckee station on Southern Pacific rails.
On the night of Oct. 21, 1937, a fire was reported in the area of the railroad maintenance shop. There was no local fire department and the nearest one was the forest service ranger station in Truckee.
The fire raged through the night, and the next morning dawned to reveal the destruction of all buildings on the Commons. The U.S. Post Office, the Women’s Club, and the two-story Tahoe Mercantile were gone, along with some of the railroad buildings.
The investigation was conducted by Harry Johanson, the local constable and deputy sheriff, but the cause was undetermined. The destruction of the “Tahoe Merc” and railroad shops offered the opportunity to return the Commons to a public space.
The Women’s Club began fundraising and obtained permission to use land atop the bluff overlooking the Commons to build a new Women’s Club and post office. The building opened for public use in 1938.
Years of cleanup on the Commons followed, but the public once again had access to the beach. Boaters, picnickers, and stargazers could enjoy themselves without being harassed by railroad bulls or getting hit by a train or truck.
As war once again reared its ugly head, the now abandoned rails were pulled up and recycled to equip the military for World War II.
In 1961, a fire engine shed addition that had been built 11 years earlier was torn down and a state-of-the-art two-story fire station was built sharing a wall with the 1938 Women’s Club building, which now houses the North Tahoe Arts Center.
Since North Tahoe Fire built a new station on Fairway Drive in 2012, the old 1961 fire station is now up for grabs. Placer County solicited proposals for the site a few years ago and selected two projects for consideration. The county has stated that a primary objective is to put in a development that serves “the needs of the entire community.”
Tahoe City ancestors had the courage to stand up against wealthy corporations profiting from our Tahoe Commons. Seems the message was heard.
Sources: This story was compiled from research including Tahoe City’s First Hundred Years by Carol Von Etten; Calexico Chronicle, Oct. 21, 1937; and Tahoe Tattler, June 27, 1938.