Tahoe City turns 160: Tracing Tahoe City’s rich history

Tahoe City circa 1880. | North Lake Tahoe Historical Society

Tahoe City celebrates its 160th anniversary of its 1863 birth on Aug. 8. The establishment of this Euro-American settlement at the headwaters of the Truckee River opened the door to various industries including tourism at Lake Tahoe, but also initiated a seismic shift in the human and cultural geography of the Tahoe Basin.

Before the pioneers’ arrival, the Washo, an indigenous Native American tribe, considered Lake Tahoe their ancestral home and spiritual center. The word Washo is derived from the ancient name Washiw, later Wa She Shu, which means “the people.” For hundreds of generations, when weather and snow conditions moderated in the spring, young adults in the tribe would migrate from the high-desert valleys of today’s Western Nevada to Lake Tahoe to hunt, fish and harvest berries and medicinal plants.

The town’s permanent year-round population grew incrementally, but Tahoe City hit the big time at the turn of the 20th Century when a Comstock-era timber baron named Duane Bliss got out of the logging business and into the tourist trade.

When the warm days of summer arrived, the remaining members headed for the sacred lake they called “da ow aga.” According to the Washo, Da.ow is the root word for lake, often pronounced with a ‘t’ sound. Da ow aga refers to Lake Tahoe specifically.

Arrival of Anglo-Americans
Topographical engineer John C. Frémont is credited with being the first Anglo-American to report seeing Lake Tahoe, based on a journal entry dated Feb. 14, 1844. Frémont had previously surveyed the Rocky Mountains, but this was his first mapping mission of the geographical region he later named the Great Basin.

Seven months later, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy wagon train ascended the Truckee River to Donner Lake. A half-dozen rode ahead on horseback and followed the main branch of the river south to its source. These six pioneers were the first non-Indians to reach the current site of Tahoe City. They headed down the West Shore and probably followed the Rubicon and the middle and north forks of the American River to reach the Sacramento Valley.

During the second half of the 19th Century, Tahoe City was relatively slow to develop. Unlike the bustling railroad town of Truckee where train passengers could easily stop and visit, summer travel to the North Shore meant a 15-mile stagecoach ride along the Truckee River Canyon that cost $16.50 roundtrip. On arrival in Tahoe City in the 1870s, tourists could rent rooms at A.J. Bayley’s 84-room Grand Central Hotel, the largest building in town or visit William Pomin’s Tahoe House, a boutique hotel with a lively saloon. On the wharf, the steamer “Governor Stanford” waited to transport passengers to various resorts around the lake.

Other than summer tourism and logging, Tahoe City’s early economy relied on commercial fishing. Italian and Portuguese fisherman netted or line-caught Tahoe’s prized silver trout to supply local hotel dining rooms, as well as for export to San Francisco’s priciest restaurants. There was a hatchery near the lake’s outlet where visitors paid a fee to catch dinner.

Nutritious wild timothy hay was sold to livestock ranchers at the south end of Big Blue. Delivery businesses providing supplies to the Comstock mines also needed grass and hay to feed their draft animals. Extensive herds of dairy cows and flocks of sheep grazed in lush West-Shore meadows, but once autumn arrived businesses closed and all but a few people left town for the winter.

Tourism takes hold
The town’s permanent year-round population grew incrementally, but Tahoe City hit the big time at the turn of the 20th Century when a Comstock-era timber baron named Duane Bliss got out of the logging business and into the tourist trade. He launched “Tahoe,” a sleek steamship to transport visitors in grand style. Bliss also laid a railroad track from Tahoe City to Truckee, eliminating the stagecoach and increasing tourist volume and comfort. Finally, he constructed the Tahoe Tavern, a luxurious hotel just south of town with open verandas and manicured landscapes.

Big winters are nothing new to Tahoe City residents, but old timers still remind us that we have it easy compared to the early days. Consider the winter of 1938 when cold storms dumped 17 feet of snow and blocked Tahoe City food deliveries for two weeks. When more blizzards pummeled the region, an emergency air drop was organized in San Francisco. Two planes flew in to deploy boxes of bread, meat and fresh fruit and vegetables on the snow-covered Tahoe City Golf Course.

In 1952, snow piled so deep that residents used second-story windows to enter or exit their homes. Winter 2023 was certainly memorable, but still 219 inches shy of Tahoe City’s record 535 inches in 1952.

Birth of Tahoe skiing
The region’s reliable snowfall inspired young, Tahoe City skiers to form the Lake Tahoe Ski Club in 1928. Their goal was to organize winter activities and competitive events for the snowbound community. It was the beginning of an organization that has had an indelible impact on the nation’s ski history. This early enthusiasm for skiing culminated in the 1960 Winter Olympics, but the region’s bragging rights as a mecca for winter sports has only increased over the decades.

The transition from stoic mountain individualism to accommodating throngs of tourists required some effort. When a reporter from the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper visited Tahoe City in 1886, she observed that locals were “a queer class of people – old hunters, miners, and inn keepers. Their knowledge of the inclinations and desires of tourists is exceedingly limited.”

It’s safe to say that in the modern era, the missing “knowledge of what visitor’s desire” has been achieved and nurtured to the fullest.

To learn more about Tahoe City history visit Watson Cabin open Sat. & Thursday (during the Farmers’ Market) or the Gatekeeper’s Museum open Wed.-Sun. | northtahoemuseums.org

Tahoe City Days

Until Aug. 8

Wed., Aug. 2

Waterfront Wednesdays




Tues., Aug. 8

Tahoe City Day

Take a Historic Walking Tour

Read Mark McLaughlin’s two-part story at TheTahoeWeekly.com