Magic in Markleeville: Battered town rich in Sierra history

Sunset on the east Carson River in Markleeville.

Over the past few years, the residents and businesses of Markleeville have been to hell and back.

First, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down tourism for nearly two years, a mainstay of the town’s economy. In 2021 the massive Tamarack Fire roared down from the mountains and the seemingly doomed community was evacuated. Flames surrounded the tiny municipal center of Alpine County and nearly eradicated it from the map. The historic burg was saved only by the heroic efforts of hundreds of dedicated firefighters who smothered the flames at Markleeville’s doorstep. Even so, some of the beautiful forest has been replaced by a scorched landscape that will take years to recover.

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In early August 2022, a ferocious thunderstorm dumped about 2.5 inches of rain on the area’s steep terrain, flooding the town with deep mud and sludge. Destructive debris flows from burn scars closed all but one road into the area and washed out Highway 89, a vital access artery. It took weeks for California highway crews to repair and reopen Highway 89, which was a crushing financial setback for local businesses trying to recover during this year’s peak summer season. The situation got so bad that a GoFundMe donation drive was established. But visiting the town and patronizing its commercial establishments is a more organic and an enjoyable way of supporting the community.

The residents of Markleeville, a small hamlet 31 miles southeast of South Lake Tahoe, are a tough, resilient bunch, fitting for a place founded by a man who was murdered in cold blood over a land dispute.

Fortunately, the residents of Markleeville, a small hamlet 31 miles southeast of South Lake Tahoe, are a tough, resilient bunch, fitting for a place founded by a man who was murdered in cold blood over a land dispute.

Namesake Jacob J. Markley established a 160-acre land claim in September 1861, just below a small silver mining encampment called Kongsberg by its Norwegian residents. He constructed a bridge over the stream that ran through his property and collected tolls from miners and pack-mule freighters heading up the trail. A major mineral strike in 1863 created a booming economy. Kongsberg was renamed Silver Mountain City and within a couple years Markleeville was bustling with various businesses including its first brewery.

But Markley’s luck ran out in May 1863 when he was shot by his investment partner. A jury found Henry Tuttle innocent by reason of self-defense.

Town steeped in history
Visit the Alpine County Chamber & Visitor’s Center on Highway 89 in the heart of town and the cheerful staff will steer you toward the highlights of Markleeville. You can also pick up a copy of the historic walking tour of the town.

Head to Schoolhouse Hill, a short drive or vigorous walk from the visitor center, to enjoy a collection of outdoor exhibits at the Alpine County Museum including an historically unique log jail, a Basque oven, quaint schoolhouse, vigilante plaque and more.

Despite its small size, Markleeville’s friendly residents cater to locals and visitors with a variety of restaurants, cafes and the Cutthroat Brewing Company. In town are markers signifying pioneer amenities such as the long-gone Hurdy House, a risqué establishment for drinking, dancing and probably more activities.

Hangman’s Bridge
Hangman’s Bridge is 1.5 miles east of Markleeville on Highway 89. Nearly a decade after Markley’s violent death in 1863, jealous husband Ernst Reusch observed his wife’s suspected lover in a local saloon, so he shot E.H. Erickson dead. Reusch was promptly arrested and incarcerated in the local jail. To save money and ensure a fair trial, county officials attempted to transport the shooter to Mono County, but the escort didn’t get far.

On April 17, 1874, armed vigilantes grabbed Reusch, slipped a noose around his neck and lynched him from a nearby wooden bridge. It’s concrete now, but still known as Hangman’s Bridge. I’ll circle back and share more of Markleeville’s fascinating frontier history in future columns in Tahoe Weekly.

Markleeville Cave
Nearby is the intriguing Washoe Cave used for shelter by generations of Great Basin Washo Indians and probably Native Americans from the Sierra west slope and California’s central valley, as well. The grotto is accessible via a short walk from Hangman’s Bridge and because of its archeological significance, it is monitored by government agencies and volunteer site stewards to protect primitive artifacts. The old, well-worn path to this naturally formed rock shelter follows John Calhoun Johnson’s 1852 wagon toll road, the first constructed over the Sierra Nevada.

The nearby East Fork of the Carson River is popular for trout fishing and is also an entry point for whitewater rafters.

Grover Hot Springs
Grover Hot Springs State Park is just a few miles outside of town, but the popular park is currently only partially open due to structural damage from the Tamarack Fire. The hot springs pools are closed at this time. |,,

Special thanks to Markleeville historian Karen Dustman, co-author of “A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Markleeville.”

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