Pioneers, progress & preservation: Truckee celebrates 160 Years

Commercial Row Truckee, circa 1869. | Truckee Donner Historical Society

This summer the town of Truckee is celebrating the 160th anniversary of its founding by pioneers in 1863. British-born Joseph Gray and his family are credited as the first Anglo Americans to settle at the present site of Truckee when he purchased 640 acres of land along the Truckee River. He built a two-story log cabin and toll station to serve increasing wagon traffic.

At the time Central Pacific Railroad had its Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road over Donner Pass under construction. The railroad wanted an improved turnpike to convey lumber and material to supply the work being done on the western portion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. It could also charge supply freighters heading to the booming Comstock Lode in Nevada. Gray’s roadside business became a popular rest stop and feeding station for weary travelers and muleskinners with their draft animals.

Summer traffic over Donner Pass was relatively light in the 1850s due to the popularity of the Placerville to Virginia City Road near south Lake Tahoe. However, the 1859 silver strike at Virginia City, Nev., accelerated growth in freight, stage and express transit across both transportation routes.

By 1868 the new railroad would take on most of the heavy lifting for transport over the Tahoe Sierra. Gray’s Station was located near today’s Jibboom and Bridge streets in Truckee, but it was certainly not the first household to live in the area.

Indigenous presence for 8,000 years
Indigenous peoples had traveled through the Sierra Nevada and summered throughout the region for 7,000 to 8,000 years before Gray arrived. Trade was robust between the Pacific and Great Basin tribes.

Explore Truckee with Mark McLaughlin’s historic walking tours

In the Truckee basin, Native Americans hunted game and foraged for berries and medicinal plants. Washo Indians call the Truckee River “a’wakhu wa’t’a.” Professional archeologist and Truckee resident Susan Lindstrom has reported that before downtown Truckee was built, the site was a Washo village named “K’ubuna detde’yi.”

There are variations on the meaning of the word Truckee, but the most reliable definition comes from Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute princess who said that it means “all right.” Her grandfather, a Northern Paiute chief and medicine man, frequently used a word that phonetically sounded like “Trokay” while assisting early American emigrants from the Great Basin to Donner Pass.

It makes sense that the friendly chief would reassure wary pioneers with words that essentially meant, “Everything’s going to be ok.” Eventually the chief adopted it as his common name. After Chief Truckee told an 1844 wagon train about a great river emanating from the mountains, the grateful emigrants named it Truckee in his honor.

After Chief Truckee told an 1844 wagon train about a great river emanating from the mountains, the grateful emigrants named it Truckee in his honor.

Coburn Station established
In 1865, a blacksmith from California named Samuel S. Coburn set up his own stage station with a restaurant and saloon west of Gray’s enterprise. In a short time, Coburn’s Station was crowded with men assigned to work at the advance camp for Central Pacific Railroad. Coburn’s Station’s popularity overshadowed his predecessor and the name stuck — for a while.

Joseph Gray expanded into the booming lumber industry with George Schaffer, a new arrival and experienced businessman from Carson City, Nev. Due to all the lucrative timber and railroad activity the small hamlet along the Truckee River grew rapidly. In April 1868, newspapers reported that Central Pacific had changed the name of Coburn’s Station to Truckee. Two months later, much of it burned down, including Coburn’s structures. Residents rebuilt the town and Truckee was back on the map.

Logging boom
Comstock operations and Central Pacific’s track, tunnel and snowshed construction generated intense demand for wood. The railroad also provided Truckee-based businesses with an efficient transportation system to ship finished lumber, fish, ice and other products to distant markets. To supply cordwood for the railroad’s steam-powered locomotives and Nevada’s smelting furnaces, scores of sawmills were built in the Truckee area.

Hundreds of Chinese immigrants were employed in the local logging industry as wood cutters and laborers. The forests around Lake Tahoe and Truckee provided lumber and building materials for towns throughout the West. For nearly 75 years the mountains reverberated with the sound of loggers’ axes and whining mill saws until there was nothing left to cut.

In the 1870s, the silver mines at Virginia City began to play out and unemployment grew among Truckee industries.

Chinese settlers attacked
The newly idle white workers became less tolerant of Chinese immigrants as men scrambled for any job they could get, including some of the low-wage work performed by the Asians.

Central Pacific had hired thousands of Chinese laborers and when railroad construction ended, up to 2,000 settled in Truckee and its nearby logging camps. In 1875, Truckee’s Chinatown burnt to the ground. Little damage was done to surrounding buildings, but residents had suffered devastating fires before and racial and ethnic tension increased.

A vigilante committee that called itself the Caucasian League formed to rid the town of Chinese. Violent tactics that included a highly publicized murder, arson and intimidation, caused many Chinese inhabitants to flee.

Tourism takes hold
During the summer months of the late 19th Century, tourism injected money into Truckee’s economy. Stagecoaches and the railroad delivered many visitors thrilled to enjoy the pleasant climate and scenic beauty. Tourists ate at local restaurants, drank and danced at Commercial Row saloons and slept in nearby hotels.

In the mid-1890s, Truckee civic leaders led by Charles F. McGlashan, an attorney and jack of all trades, organized a winter carnival. McGlashan proposed using “Snowball Express” trains from Sacramento and Oakland to bring thousands of tourists up to Truckee.

Today California’s winter sports industry pumps nearly $2 billion into the state’s economy, but it all started with a home-grown winter carnival.

Note: The Tahoe Weekly uses the spelling Washo as requested by tribal officials instead of the spelling used in their federal tribal designation.