Truckee’s Renaissance Man: Charles McGlashan

Charles McGlashan, circa 1880. | San Jose Public
Library, Clyde Arbuckle Collection.

McGlashan Butterfly Collection display | Truckee Community Center |
Rocking Stone Tower | Truckee Veteran’s Hall | downtown Truckee

On a hot July afternoon in 1872, Charles McGlashan stepped off a crowded passenger train in downtown Truckee. He squinted into the bright, high-altitude sunshine and gazed past the depot to the terrain beyond. McGlashan had been warned by friends in Placerville — a Sierra foothill town where he had been principal of the high school — that there are only three seasons in the Tahoe Sierra: July, August and winter. But “Mac” as his fraternity brothers nicknamed him in college, had visited Truckee before and was captivated by the spectacular rugged beauty of the landscape.

Fascinated by astronomy, he relished dark night skies perfect for celestial observation. Another passion was entomology, specifically lepidoptera, which includes the study of butterflies and moths. The colorful insects abound in the region. In fact, Donner Summit boasts one of the greatest densities of butterfly species in the United States and Canada. McGlashan had found his home.

In Placerville, the year before, McGlashan fell in love with his sister Martinette’s best friend, pretty Jennie Munson. She didn’t have an inquisitive and scholarly mind like McGlashan, but he felt assured that she would make a fine wife and mother of their future children. In December 1871, the couple wed. Shortly after the nuptials, Munson’s family moved to Truckee, from where they mailed frequent letters extolling the virtues of the alpine community. Six months later the newlyweds joined the Munsons in Truckee where McGlashan had been hired as a teacher, school principal and district superintendent.

Tall with an athletic build, McGlashan sported a shock of unruly hair on his head and a large, bristling red mustache. McGlashan’s spirited brown eyes revealed the sharp intellect and steely strength of character that this young man possessed. His boundless energy would contribute mightily to the social structure and economic future of the increasingly disorderly railroad hamlet.

Over the years, McGlashan gained statewide recognition as an erudite criminal defense attorney, scientist, inventor, pioneer newspaperman and, true to the times, an admired and effective anti-Chinese legislator in the California State Assembly. Presciently, he also promoted the development of winter sports as an essential economic industry in the Tahoe Sierra. It’s fair to say that he was a Renaissance man, extremely intelligent and multi-talented. McGlashan leaves a bold, but somewhat complicated legacy that endures beyond his imagination today.

Early years
Charles Fayette McGlashan was born into poverty on Aug. 12, 1847, at the small frontier settlement of Beaver Dam, Wis., to Peter and Elizabeth McGlashan. (Ironically, his birth came just a few months after the last of the Donner Party survivors were rescued from their infamous winter entrapment at Donner Lake, a harrowing tale that McGlashan would reveal to the world with his 1880 bestselling book, “History of the Donner Party.”) Raised as the only boy among six sisters, he was 2 years old when his mother died in childbirth at Christmastime. From then on, his father Peter was sullen and morose, a broken man. He now considered the religious holiday a period of mourning and forbade gifts or celebrations in his household.

In 1851, Peter McGlashan announced that he was moving the family to California and after two years of preparation they headed west, arriving in Healdsburg in September 1854. As a boy, “Fayette,” as he was called then, had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. To pay his tuition at the Sotoyome Institute in Healdsburg, Fayette cleaned floors in a gory butcher shop, labored at strenuous farm work and performed countless odd jobs. He was such an impressive student that at graduation in 1864, the 17-year-old was offered a faculty position teaching classes in Mother Lode mining camps.

To further his education, he petitioned for admittance to Williston Seminary, an elite school in Massachusetts that specialized in science. McGlashan excelled scholastically in all subjects, athletically in gymnastics and rhetorically as leader of the debate society. Testament to his popularity, he was elected student-body president. Unlike his fellow classmates, however, who hailed from New England’s most distinguished, affluent families, McGlashan worked his holidays selling books door-to-door. He also taught Sunday School.

Indicative of his character, while at university McGlashan joined the Free Masons and Independent Order of Good Templars, two fraternal organizations with clandestine rituals, passwords and handshakes. The Good Templars were part of the temperance movement and advocated total abstinence from alcohol. Freemasonry is a male-only secret society devoted to fellowship, moral discipline and mutual assistance. Throughout his life, McGlashan remained attracted to groups that were committed to community activism, secret or not. In his final year of study, McGlashan was expelled for protesting the disciplinary treatment of a classmate. His father died around that time, so in the spring of 1871 McGlashan returned to northern California on the cusp of his 25th birthday to take the head position at Placerville Academy.

Inquisitive reporter
Upon his arrival in Truckee that summer in 1872, McGlashan was hired as a reporter for the local Republican newspaper before being promoted to editor. He had previously written freelance articles for the Sacramento Daily Union, but now he began covering mountain news. On such story included an adventure he had with his friend Charles Burkhalter.

The pair borrowed a boat to explore the depths of Lake Tahoe and they crisscrossed the vast lake while repeatedly lowering a champagne bottle filled with lead-shot secured by fishing line to accurately plumb Big Blue’s deepest point. They established it at 1,645 feet, a remarkable accomplishment later confirmed by university scientists and government geologists deploying sophisticated equipment.

McGlashan thrived on a busy schedule after arriving in Truckee teaching students and supervising schools in Truckee and nearby Boca. He spent evenings lecturing adults in chemistry and teaching astronomy classes on rooftops. Beyond that he burned the midnight oil, studied law and eventually passed the bar exam. McGlashan was having the time of his life, but his unrelenting pace broke the marriage with Jennie. When she moved out, Mac quit work and left for Sacramento angry and demoralized.

The editor at the Daily Union suggested that the tormented young man travel to Utah to research the truth behind the conspiratorial Mountain Meadows Massacre, a horrific incident from 1857 when renegade Mormons dressed as American Indians murdered 120 men, women and children in a California-bound wagon train. McGlashan’s revealing exposé shocked the nation.

Connection to 601s
In November 1874, while McGlashan was in Utah, the Republican newspaper’s editor and owner, David B. Frink, was fatally shot in error by a fellow member of Truckee’s vigilante group “601.” McGlashan had joined the secretive cabal shortly after his arrival and was now an influential associate but unaware of this botched raid to capture a troublesome local prostitute and her hoodlum lover. The “601,” a self-appointed syndicate, aimed to maintain law and order in a town overwhelmed by criminal activity, even if they had to break the law to do it. Frink was highly respected and after his death newspapers throughout northern California lamented his demise while also supporting the vigilance movement that caused it.

The Chrystal Palace
McGlashan and Jennie reunited upon his return to Truckee and were blessed with a baby girl in late 1875, but Jennie then admitted she loved another man, so the couple divorced in 1877. Luckily, McGlashan found his soul mate in Leonora (Nona) G. Keiser, an attractive imaginative woman. They married in 1878 and over the years had 8 children. Tragically their young son Charles Fayette Jr. died of scarlet fever five days before Christmas 1886, but eldest daughter Nonette became a noted sculptor; June obtained a Hastings College law degree and became partner at her father’s firm, while Ximena gained national fame as The Butterfly Princess.

In 1903, Mac and Nona designed and built their family home, a glittering, eye-catching structure called the Chrystal Palace. It matched the columned museum McGlashan had erected seven years before over a large, balanced rocking stone to house his Donner Party relics and 20,000 mounted butterflies among other curiosities. (Part of McGlashan’s butterfly collection is on display at the Truckee Community Center.)

Work to drive out Chinese
In the final decades of the 19th century, anti-Chinese rhetoric, legislation and violence were rampant on the West Coast where tens of thousands Chinese immigrants had arrived starting with California’s Gold Rush. They worked in mining and agriculture, dug irrigation projects and opened restaurants and laundries. It was also Chinese nationals who constructed the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad. Despite their vital contributions to the country’s economy and cultural diversity, the Chinese were seen as undercutting wages of white men and became unwanted by many Californians. McGlashan’s oratory and occasionally his newspaper editorials reflected the sensibilities of Truckee’s white residents, many of whom wanted to banish all Oriental residents.

It’s unlikely that McGlashan held personal animosity against the Chinese. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that he was sympathetic to their plight. But as part of the community, as well as a prominent member of the local anti-Chinese Caucasian League, he was aware of how his neighbors felt. In 1884 he was elected Assemblyman for eastern Nevada County’s 15th precinct primarily based on his promise to write legislation that refused Chinese migrants any rights of U.S. citizenship. Even so, McGlashan abhorred the racist brutality directed at Chinese immigrants, often in the form of arson, murder and assault.

McGlashan organized and demanded an essentially peaceful, non-violent economic boycott where Chinese employees were fired and Asian-owned businesses shunned. The so-called “Truckee Method” was successful in accomplishing its goals and most Chinese left. Although legal and intended to eradicate bloodshed, McGlashan later revealed that he “regretted his actions bitterly.”

Nearly a century after McGlashan’s death on Jan. 6, 1931, it’s important to remember that McGlashan was a man of his time, and his political actions should be viewed within the context of his era. As an energetic civic leader, he arguably contributed more to the Truckee community and Tahoe Sierra than any individual on record.