Lake Tahoe History & Heritage

Before Tahoe City and the areas around Lake Tahoe became a premier summer and winter vacation destination, it had a rich and complex history. Nomadic early Americans, Western pioneers, Hollywood icons, and modern-day trail-blazers all once inhabited Tahoe.

The History of Tahoe City

When the transcontinental railway opened in Truckee, it was a big boom to Tahoe City, a rough lumbering camp at the lake-end of the Truckee Canyon. Tourists left the train at Truckee and boarded a Concord coach for a jarring ride along the Tahoe-Truckee Toll Road to Tahoe City where they boarded steamers for destinations around the lake. The toll road was eventually replaced by a narrow gauge rail line that terminated on the pier at Tahoe Tavern.

Cobblestone West 1966

Cobblestone West 1966

By 1871, Tahoe City was a sleepy community of some 50 houses, 2 hotels and an over water saloon named the “Custom House.”‘ That year the “Grand Central Hotel” opened to great fanfare. It was the ultimate in elegance and refinement with a bar, billiard room, bowling area, croquet grounds, telegraph office, express office, carriage and saddle horses for rent and row boats for hire. Rates were $14 to $21 per week with meals.

Luxurious resorts had sprung up all around the lake and Tahoe City was the jumping off point for each of them. Tahoe City was a great success in summer months but became an isolated pocket of hardy souls during winter months. In the winter of 1938, there was 12 feet of snow at lake level with 20 foot drifts. Travel was impossible and in Glenbrook, they had to resort to killing and eating the caretaker’s horse to survive. Food was later dropped from airplanes to the beleaguered residents.

The Birth of Tahoe Skiing

In 1928 Tahoe Tavern hired Lars Haugen to build a ski jump. It took 2 years to complete and in 1931 Olympic tryouts were held on what was then, and still is today, Olympic Hill at Granlibakken. Not until Interstate 80 crossed Donner Summit did the North Shore come into its own as a winter playground. In the summer, Lake Tahoe was famous for boating and fishing.

Lake Tahoe in the Summer

Lake Tahoe history is not complete without the understanding that Tahoe is as appealing in the summer as it is in the winter. The annual Wooden Boat Concourse in August is a tribute to a more peaceful time when wealthy summer residents would race each other up and down the lake in beautiful, custom wooden boats. In the halcyon days of lake travel by steam, paddle wheel captains would regularly race, to the joy of passengers and spectators. Even today, boating is a major part of the charm and tradition of Lake Tahoe.