Lake Tahoe History

In 1844, explorers John Fremont and Kit Carson discovered Lake Tahoe. In the summer Lake Tahoe Basin was a gathering place for three bands of peaceful Washoe Indians. The lake held spiritual meaning for the tribe and many sacred ceremonies were held along the southern shores.

Lake Tahoe had many names before Tahoe became official in 1945. The Washoe called it “Daowaga” meaning “edge of the lake.” It was called “Bonpland” after a french botanist and also “Mountain Lake” and “Bigler Lake” after California’s third governer.

The California Gold Rush lured immigrants and fortune seekers to the rugged Sierras. Prospective miners used Donner and Beckworth Passes to the north and Carson Pass to the south to circumnavigate the treacherous Tahoe Basin.

In 1859, Highway 50, then called “Bonanza Road,” was the first West-to East road across the mountains. The road was built to handle travelers eager to cash in on Virginia City’s Comstock Lode.

As traffic over the “Bonanza Road” increased, small businesses such as way stations, stables, and toll houses began to spring up to collect fares for traveling the privately owned sections of the road. These stations were basis for most development in the area, from Friday’s Station to Stateline, which served as a Pony Express stopover, to Yank’s Resort in Meyer’s which was built in 1851.

The Comstock Lode increased the flow of traffic and people to Lake Tahoe Basin which in turn inflated th use of natural resources in the Tahoe Basin. Between 1869 and 1890, Tahoe’s forests were nearly stripped of trees due to fuel needed to support the labyrinth of mines being constructed beneath Virginia City. Lumber was pulled to the Lake’s shores by steam train and horse, dragged to Glenbrook by steamers, pulled to the top of Spooner Summit and sent by flume to Carson City. From there, the logs were loaded onto trains and wagons bound for the mines. The decline of the Comstock Lode may have been the saving of the Tahoe forests.

By the turn of the century, Lake Tahoe had become the haven of the rich because of the natural beauty of the area. This period marked the heyday of steamship transportation around the lake. Visitors would attend lavish parties on board while cruising across the waters. Many steamers also delivered mail and supplies to the resorts around the lake’s rim.

During the 20s and 30s, the roads though the mountains were paved. Lake Tahoe was no longer available only to the rich. Travel improvements also marked the decline of the steamship era. Use of the automobile enabled people from every level of society to enjoy the magnificent “Lake in the Sky.” Smaller, middle class lodges began to develop as the affluent retreated to elaborate family hideaways.

Harvey and Llewllyn Gross opened Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Saloon and Gambling Hall in 1944. It was a rustic cabin built with $10 worth of nails and displaying a weathered wagon wheel on the roof. At the same time, the Stateline area was far more crowded, but the Gross family faced competition from many other casinos in the area.

Development at Lake Tahoe began in earnest in the 1950s. Roads to the basin began to be plowed year round, enabling permanent residence. The 1960 Winter Olymipics at Squaw Valley put Lake Tahoe firmly on the map as the skiing center of the western United States.

Today, Lake Tahoe continues to offer visitors a bit of many historic eras. While hotels, casinos, and ski resorts draw millions of guests each year, the main attraction continues to be the quiet beauty of the Sierras and timeless inspiration of the lake itself, little changed from the days of the Washoe Indians.