History of Truckee, California
In 1844, a group of immigrants encountered a helpful Paiute (pronounced pie-oot) indian. He kept repeating the word Tro-kay, and the immigrants assumed he was repeating his name. He guided them through a pass along a river that led into the Sierra, they named that river after him, the Truckee. What he was saying, it turned out, was "everything is all right" because he was concerned they might think he was hostile.
The area became infamous as the site where the Donner Party tried to winter. A tragic tale of bad timing, bad decision making, and ultimately bad taste, this is a story that requires a page of its own.
The area wasn't settled until it became a route for the new railroad going over the Sierra. Materials were hauled to a site nearby. In 1863, Joseph Gray built a home for his family that came to be called Gray's Station. Later a man named Coburn built several additional buildings to supply the railroad workers and the miners crossing the Sierra to the mines in Nevada. Soon a town formed around the newly named Coburn's Station. In 1868 a fire burned Coburn's station to the ground, but a new town quickly sprung up nearby called Truckee.
Wagon trains heading west passed through the area as early as 1844, but Truckee’s first white settler was Joseph Gray who built Gray’s Station in 1863, and gave his name briefly to the settlement. The late 1860s saw growth and change for the young community. A logging industry was born, and the first lumber mill was built in 1867. The town’s name was changed to Coburn Station, and to Truckee in 1868 during the rebuilding that followed a major fire. Truckee seems to be an Anglicization of a Paiute Indian term. It was also in 1868 that the first train arrived, as well as the Central Pacific Railroad which would become part of the transcontinental railroad. Thousands of Chinese worked under dangerous conditions to conquer the Sierra Nevada for the Central Pacific, and Truckee had the second largest Chinatown on the west coast. Another industry came on the Truckee scene at this time - ice harvesting. It would play a major role in the community’s economy for 60 years. Ice ponds scattered along the Truckee River were the most important source of ice for California. The intense cold, plentiful clear water, access to rail sidings and a good labor supply contributed to the industry. The end came in the 1920s when technology developed mechanical refrigeration. During the 1890s, a far sighted local recognized that opportunities for Truckee lay in winter tourism. Elaborate ice palaces were built, ice skating and sleigh rides to Donner Lake became popular, and Norwegian skiing came to the area. The area still hosts a major winter carnival. In 1960, the Winter Olympics were held 10 miles from Truckee at Squaw Valley, putting the area on the map.
Snow and Cold Become a Blessing
It's the autumn of 1894, snow is falling earlier than usual, and the residents of Truckee are concerned about making it though a harsh winter. True, the train is bringing people to town, but there is really no reason for them to get off.
That is, not until Charles F. McGlashan, one of Truckee's leading citizens, took matters into his own hands. More than a few eyebrows must have been raised as he took chicken wire and formed a 60 foot high cone which he sprayed with water each night. The result was a giant icicle lit with a light and clearly visible from the trains.
McGlashan believed Truckee's economy would greatly benefit from becoming a winter sports center. He got the merchants interested, and the next year using his chicken wire technique, an ice palace was built complete with ice rink and toboggan run. McGlashan arranged for the Southern Pacific railroad to run excursion trains, and for the next six years, tourists poured into town.
The first winter carnival was held in 1909, the year Norwegian skiing was taking hold. What is believed to be the first ski lift was built in Truckee in 1913. After the last ice palace was destroyed by fire in 1916, action focused on Donner Lake. Horse drawn sleighs brought people to the lake for ice skating. By 1932, the railroad had established the "Snowball Special." It ran until the 1940s when people began coming by car.
Improved roads led to further development of recreation resorts in the Sierra Nevada. In 1960, 250,000 spectators were drawn to the area as Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics. And, the completion of I-80 in 1964 made the trip up the hill even easier.
Everything Is Alright If a Bit Misunderstood
The town of Truckee makes perfect sense. It arose where it is to meet the needs of people on the move and it still fulfills that role today. The Truckee Basin is perfectly situated to rest and provision travelers before they head over the mountains or for them to recuperate after completing the journey from the west. Truckee has always had a great source of water as the Truckee River is Lake Tahoe’s only outlet. So development along this pretty stretch of river, adjacent to the trail that goes over what is now called Donner Summit was inevitable. I like to think that Truckee is to the Sierra Nevadas what Kathmandu is to the Himalayas, only without quite as many amazing wall carvings and about 984,000 fewer people. Naturally adventurers these days aren’t as worn out as those who traveled through here during the 1880s, which is where Truckee’s current recreation culture and nightlife come in. It is one lively town by heritage, as Truckee’s history has always had a lively and raucous nature. And that makes for one of those great California settlement stories.
People often ask why Truckee is called Truckee. The name of the river and ultimately the town are attributed to a misunderstanding by the earliest group of white settler-explorers, the Stevens Party, in 1844. The story has it that a friendly Paiute Chief named Tru-ki-zo approached them repeating the greeting “tro-kay,” which is Paiute for “everything is all right.” Supposedly, the travelers assumed he was announcing his name and eventually, in gratitude for his guidance and assistance, they misnamed the river after him. The evidence suggests that while the Indians travelled through and utilized the Truckee area, they had no significant settlement at the site.
A Rough Start But Boom Times Follow
In 1846, a group of pioneers from Illinois, originally known as the Donner-Reed Party but now usually referred to as The Donner Party, became snowbound in early fall as a result of several trail mishaps and poor decisions. Their unfortunate story of hardship, death and despair is widely known. Nearby Donner Lake is the site of Donner Memorial State Park, located where many members of the Donner Party spent their ï¬nal days. Rangers report that about two hundred thousand visitors, most very curious about the cannibalism aspect of the Donner story, stop at the state park each year. The park's surprise is that it displays not only the dark side of human experience but also the gentle beauty of the area. Anything but gruesome, the state park and surrounding mountains are now known as a major center for the enjoyment of skiing, camping, hiking, ï¬shing and boating.
European-Americans began development near Truckee in 1863, when Joseph Gray built a log toll-station for stagecoach travelers in response to the building of what is called the Emigrant Road. The pressure was on to get to California’s gold fields and settlement areas and Truckee would spend the next half-century responding. In something of a Wild West tone-setter, the next two white men to arrive with building in mind got into a dispute that ended with one being shot and wounded and the other going to prison. In 1864 the stage road was opened as the “Turnpike over the Sierras” and “Gray’s Station,” which became “Coburn Station,” was growing as a construction camp for first the turnpike and then the railroad that followed. By 1867 there were three stores and two each of saloons, hotels and blacksmith shops. A vast quantity of lumber was needed for building the railroad and also the mines of Nevada, and Truckee was surrounded by ample stands of mature pine and fir trees. At the peak, flumes were built to transport logs and the town was surrounded by twenty-five sawmills running almost constantly. One enormous use of Truckee lumber was in the building of “snow sheds” over the railroad tracks to protect them from drifting snow in winter. At one point, there were sheds covering forty miles of track over the mountain, a few of which still remain intact today.
Lowering the Jibboom, Dispersing the Celestials
Coburn Station burned in 1868 and the town was rapidly rebuilt, a bit to the east this time. This is when it began to be called Truckee, after the river, after the Chief. By the end of 1869, Truckee had boomed into the biggest town on the rail line between Sacramento and Ogden, Utah. And it had the reputation of being “The Sin City of the Sierra.” With so many men working the mills and construction projects, the saloons did big business and the “red light district” of Jibboom Street was notorious and thriving. A jib boom, by the way, is the “spar fixed to and extending beyond the bowsprit of a ship, used in securing a jib or other headsail.” There was already a Jibboom Street in Sacramento, along the river where many boats were abandoned by men rushing off to the gold fields, so perhaps the street name was suggested by someone from Sacramento. Let’s hope it was in no way meant to disparage the ladies.
The railroad is of huge importance to this part of California and many of the most arduous and dangerous aspects of building the tracks and tunnels over the mountains were accomplished by workmen recruited from China. The Chinese immigrants were sometimes called "Celestials" because they referred to their native land as the Celestial Kingdom. Contracted from China specifically to build Central Pacific's railroad, the men were paid about $30 per month. Despite the formidable obstacles of ice and granite, the crews slowly pushed the track eastward, reaching Donner Summit on Nov. 30, 1867. Despite their contribution to the railway and the desire of some to remain in Truckee, the Chinese were never accepted by most as part of the community and by 1878, their buildings were razed and they were driven out of the city limits. This was not atypical of the time. To appreciate what they accomplished, consider the following description: ”At Donner Summit, Tunnel No. 6 was carved through 1,659 feet of solid granite. Despite the constant digging and the use of 300 kegs of black powder daily, the rock was so hard that the Chinese laborers, working around the clock by lanterns and firelight, could gain only about one foot per day.” So we just may own them a debt of gratitude- and be sure to notice the tunnels next time you take the train heading west out of Truckee.
Truckee Comes Into Its Own
Into the twentieth century, Truckee continued to serve travelers passing through on what evolved from a stagecoach road to eventually become Interstate Highway 80, which was completed in 1964. Over time, the area became a popular destination and home base for recreation instead of just a stop on the way to somewhere else. Major ski resorts in the region did much to establish Truckee as a vacation magnet, as did being next to Donner Lake and having Lake Tahoe so nearby. As industries rose and then receded, including everything from natural ice making to one of the first commercial fish hatcheries in the state, it was the natural beauty of the area that continued to be the most resilient attribute of all. As far back as 1920s, movie and television companies have been attracted to the area. Probably the most famous of all to shoot here was the 1924 silent film classic, “The Gold Rush,” which was partially filmed in Truckee by director and star Charlie Chaplin. Never a place to get in a rush, the town of Truckee incorporated in 1993 after a reasonable hundred-plus year discussion. For true Nevada County character, be sure to visit and stay a while in Truckee, where everything is alright and most things are a whole lot better.
History of Nevada County
Nevada County was created in 1851 from parts of Yuba County.
The county was named after the mining town of Nevada City, a name derived from the term "Sierra Nevada." The word nevada is Spanish for "snowy" or "snow-covered."
Nevada City was the first to use the word "Nevada" in its name. In 1851 the newly formed Nevada County used the same name as the county seat. The bordering state of Nevada used the same name in 1861. The region came to life in the gold rush of 1849. Many historical sites remain to mark the birth of this important region in California's formative years. Among them are the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, the oldest theater built in California in 1865. It operates to this day and once hosted Mark Twain among other historical figures. The Old 5 Mile House stagecoach stop built in 1890, also operates to this day as a provider of hospitality spanning three centuries. This historical site still features "The stagecoach safe" that is on display outside the present day restaurant and is the source of many legends of stagecoach robbers and notorious highwaymen in the California gold rush era. The gold industry in Nevada County thrived into the post WWII days.
The county had many firsts and historic technological moments. The first long-distance telephone in the world, built in 1877 by the Ridge Telephone Company, connected French Corral with French Lake, 58 miles (93 km) away. It was operated by the Milton Mining Company from a building on this site that had been erected about 1853. The Pelton wheel, designed to power gold mines, still drives hydro-electric generators today. Nevada City and Grass Valley were among the first California towns with electric lights. The Olympics, NASA, and virtually every television station around the country utilizes video/broadcasting equipment designed and manufactured by Grass Valley Group, founded in Grass Valley. Electronic medical dosing equipment was first developed and manufactured in Nevada County. The first commercially viable picture-phone was developed in Nevada City. More than fifty high tech and applied tech companies, and more than one thousand hardware and software design and development professionals call Nevada County home. The county is sometimes referred to as the "Silicon Valley of the Sierras." The arcade video game was born in Nevada County, with Pong.
The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad was built in 1876, and was the only railroad in the West that was never robbed, even though its primary freight was gold. (Builder-owner John Flint Kidder's reputation made it clear that he would personally hunt down and kill anyone who tried.) The rail line closed in 1942 and was torn up for scrap.
In Grass Valley the historic Holbrooke Hotel opened in 1851 and housed Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and four U.S. presidents (U.S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and James A. Garfield).
The Community of Rough and Ready seceded from the Union for a time and became the Great Republic of Rough and Ready.