History of Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is as rich in American cultural history as it is in blue water and towering peaks. Pre-historic nomadic Americans, early Western pioneers, Hollywood icons and modern-day trail-blazers have all known the beauty that is the Sierra Nevada.,The complete story of Lake Tahoe is too long and complex to chronicle on one website, but the following will give you the Reader’s Digest overview on the area’s history. For more, the follow-up links below will provide additional details on the origins of our favorite place in the world.
The Geological Formation of Lake Tahoe
About 2 million years ago, a shift in tectonic plates caused the Tahoe Basin to drop down between the Sierra crest to the west and the Carson range to the east. Volcanic activity, also caused by the tectonic shifts, led to expulsion of magma up through the faults, filling in gaps and damming the valley.
Ten thousand years ago, at the time of the last ice age, individual glaciers formed at the area’s highest elevations, on the north, west and south ends of the Lake. Movement by the glaciers scoured out basins and formed Donner Lake, Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake, which sits up and to the West of Lake Tahoe.
Today, erosion and weathering is causing a slow, undetectable lowering of the Sierra, the mountain range that houses Tahoe. It is believed that Lake Tahoe is filling in with sediment at a rate of one foot every 3,200 years, so that in 3,158,400 years the lake will be replaced by a meadow.
A complete explanation and history of Lake Tahoe’s geology by CERES – The California Environmental Resources Evaluation System
Tsunami! At Lake Tahoe? Science News, 2000
The First Visitors to Lake Tahoe
The earliest known inhabitants of the Tahoe Basin were the nomadic predecessors to the Washoe, Maidu and Paiute Indian Tribes. These clans existed during the Middle Archaic Period and reportedly returned to the area seasonally to collect medicinal plants, hunt, fish and create stone tools.
In time, three bands of the peaceful Washoe Indians were regular occupants of the Tahoe shoreline during the summers. They found spiritual significance in the beauty of the Lake and surrounding mountains, and today their descendents are major players in the efforts to conserve this natural habitat. The Washoe Hunting and Fishing Commission, founded in 1978, is responsible for regulating hunting and fishing as well as protecting wildlife and other natural resources.
The first recorded sighting of Lake Tahoe by a European explorer was written by John C. Fremont in February 1844. Legendary explorer Kit Carson was the leader of Fremont’s exploration party. As eastern settlers began to move west, the Tahoe region saw an influx of emigrants moving through the area. These western-bound travelers included the infamous Donner Party, who spent the winter of 1846-47 stranded at the eastern end of Donner Lake, a few miles from present-day Truckee. The wagon company, which originally comprised 87 adults and children, lost 42 members to cold and starvation.
Transportation Means Population
The Sierra persisted as major obstacle for pioneers trying to reach the California’s land of milk and honey. But there was no holding back and the westward migration was steady.
In 1849, with the advent of the California Gold Rush, the emigrant influx morphed into a flood, and passes to the north and south of the Basin sustained considerable pioneer traffic. The first East-West road to carve directly across the mountains was the “Bonanza Road,” built after the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City. Today, this route is known as Highway 50.
The Comstock Lode, which emerged as the richest known deposit of silver in the U.S., turned Virginia City into a metropolis of 20,000, gaining Nevada statehood and developing the area into a center of wealth and culture. The effect on Tahoe was not quite as positive. Between 1860 and 1890, nearly all of the trees in the Tahoe Basin were logged to provide wood for the complex underground tunnels and excavation. The demise of the Comstock Lode just before the turn of the century could not have occurred soon enough; evidence of this extensive logging can still be seen today in the area’s forests.
During the 1850s, San Francisco’s population had grown significantly to where the city’s inhabitants required communication with the rest of the world. The Sierra Nevada, with its snowy winters and high climbs, made the job of carrying the mail a dangerous one. After two brave souls failed to regularly complete the route via mule pack, a man who has since gone down in Tahoe history assumed the job. Norwegian-born John “Snowshoe” Thompson used the snowshoes his father had rigged for him in combination with a rudimentary pair of skis to make the 90-mile trek up and over the Sierra to the Carson Valley. Twice monthly, carrying a pack weighing more than 100 pounds, Thompson completed the eastern-bound route in only 3 days.
The western section of the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1868, extending the Central Pacific Railroad via Donner Pass at Donner Lake. The line, which still functions today, winds roughly along the Truckee River, clinging to granite walls, crossing bridges, and passing through tunnels that protect the train from the winter snows. Much of this portion of the railway can be seen from Highway 80 and is truly an impressive feat of engineering. In fact, you can explore the abandoned eerie lengths of the original “Snowshed Tunnels” which snake along the mountains over Donner Lake. (The current tunnels are a ridgeline to the south from the Snowshed tube.)
The first automobile arrived in Tahoe in 1905 in the form of a chain-driven Simplex. The car’s not-so-humble owner, Mrs. Joseph Chanslor, completed the trip from Sacramento in only eight hours. In 1913, the Lincoln Highway crossed the Sierra as part of the first coast-to-coast paved route. Though replaced by US 40 in 1930, sections of this road are open during the summer as scenic, historic drives.
The introduction of these fast, load-bearing transcontinental routes immediately increased the flow of raw goods, manufactured products and people in and out of California. Railway and roadside stops throughout the Sierra exposed more travelers to the beauty of the Tahoe Basin and created a buzz about the area as a viable vacation destination.
North Lake Tahoe Becomes a Destination Area
By the late 19th century, Lake Tahoe had become a popular vacation spot for wealthy San Francisco residents. Beginning in 1887, Robert M. Watson, who later became Tahoe’s first constable, ran an inn called the Tahoe House with his wife and five children. In 1901, the original Tahoe Tavern was constructed by Walter Danforth Bliss. Over the next several decades, the Tavern was expanded to include such amenities as a casino with a bowling alley, ballroom (which was later converted to a movie theater), physician’s office, laundry, steam plant and water system. Both the Tahoe House and Tahoe Tavern were located in Tahoe City on the West Shore. Today, modern buildings bearing the same names commemorate their existence. Other notable hotels and residencies around the Lake included the Glenbrook Inn on the East Shore; Tallac House on the West Shore; and Brockway Springs Hotel near Crystal Bay, which was originally constructed as a getaway for Comstock miners.
In 1904, when Tahoe House owner Watson returned from trying his luck at gold mining, North Lake Tahoe was so well populated that the citizens decided a full-time constable was necessary, and they elected Watson to the position. Watson, who was known to local youth as “Grandpa,” is famous for having declared the Tahoe City jail unsuitable even for miscreants and allowing prisoners to sleep on his kitchen floor. 
Guests of these popular resorts could take a South Pacific train from San Francisco all the way to Truckee. The Lake Tahoe Railway would then take them into Tahoe City, where they either settled down into one of the nearby lodging options, or climbed aboard a steamship that could deliver them to several spots around the Lake.
Casinos and Gaming
For many early visitors Tahoe’s prime attractions were the casinos that opened up on the North Shore after the turn of the 19th century. In 1927 the Ta-Neva-Ho (present-day Cal-Neva Resort) opened as Crystal Bay’s first casino, The Tahoe Biltmore, among others, soon followed. The Cal-Neva was built by Bob Sherman and in subsequent years saw a series of short-lived and occasionally famous owners, including Frank Sinatra, from 1960-63. Sinatra’s contributions to the resort included the Celebrity Showroom and a helicopter pad on the roof to aid transportation for some of his wealthier guests. Frequent patrons at that time included Marilynn Monroe, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., and mobster Sam Giancana. Giancana’s presence put an end to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ casino gaming ventures.
Winter Sports Spark Year-Round Enthusiasm
Modern recreational skiing in the Sierra dates back to 1938, when the bravest Bay Area souls found their ways up to present-day Sugar Bowl mountain peaks via the Southern Pacific Railroad. Walt Disney, Austrian Hannes Schroll and a few others had the foresight to recognize the area’s potential as a world-class ski resort, and in 1938 Sugar Bowl officially opened. The resort would go on to build the first ski lift in California, and to this day is a second home to some of the Bay Area’s most established families. 
Meanwhile, the Lake Tahoe Ski Club had already put the North Shore on the map for winter recreation, having hosted the 1931 Winter Olympic Tryouts, as well as the 1932. National Jumping and Cross-Country competitions. This all took place at present-day Granlibakken, then known as Olympic Hill, which was owned by the Tahoe Tavern.
In 1960, Tahoe’s reputation for winter sports gained international recognition when Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics. North Lake Tahoe tourism benefited greatly from the exposure, as these were the first Olympic Games to be televised. Many of the resorts, motels, restaurants and ski lifts built to accommodate the influx of Olympians and fans still proudly host guests today.
For more information on the History of skiing, check out the Museum of Skierra Ski History and 1960 Winter Olympics:
Boatworks Mall, 760 North Lake Blvd. #2, Tahoe City, CA 96145 - Tahoemuseum.org
Admission is free and donations are accepted. The museum covers ski history of the Sierra from ancient to modern times and 1960 Olympics.
For more on the North Lake Tahoe ski resorts, visit their websites:
What Now?
With a total population of 65,000 and approximately 3 million visitors each year,the Tahoe Basin remains the same awe-inspiring place that drew the Washoe Indians here 10 thousand years ago. Tourism booms as the area’s main source of income, while visitors and locals alike bask in the outdoor and indoor recreational options available at every turn. North Lake Tahoe continues to produce nationally ranked athletes year after year; the rich and famous continue to flock here; and the wildlife continues to abound. Most importantly though, the Lake remains an icon of American history, tradition and values. We see our history in its reflection; we hope you’ll take the time to look as well.
Additional Resources
The Saga of Lake Tahoe, by Edward B. Scott
More Tales of Tahoe, by David J. Stollery
The Tahoe Quarterly features a “Looking Back” section in each issue. Order through the website or pick it up from any local newsstand.