By JERRY BLACKWILL | Moonshine Ink
From 1900 to 1943, you could board a train in Oakland and transfer at Truckee to a railroad following the Truckee River to Lake Tahoe, along what is now the cyclist-loved Tahoe Pyramid Trail. When the train reached Lake Tahoe, it would continue out onto a pier in Tahoe City and be met by steamer that would take the recreational passengers on a pleasure cruise with many sightseeing stops throughout the day around Lake Tahoe.
Two trains through the mountains and by the river and a steamer on the lake, all with coordinated guided stops: What brought this about at a time when travel in the mountainous and sometimes dangerous terrain of the Sierra Nevada was far from easy? It was the dream of a man named Bliss, and he built his life around making it a reality.
At the age of 17, young Duane Bliss left his home in Savoy, Massachusetts in search of his fortune in California gold. Initially, he was plagued by bad luck: His gold mining activities proved fruitless and he subsequently lost his wife and two daughters to illness. Bliss left California to try his luck in the silver operations of Virginia City, Nevada. While there, the Bank of California took over most of the town. A bright young man, he was put in charge of some of the bank’s operations. He worked with Henry Yerington to build the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The pair went on to form the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company with Bliss as president and general manager.
As the silver supply was exhausted, the now independently wealthy Bliss sought new challenges in the tourism sector, and his dream to take over Tahoe tourism was born. He promptly founded the Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company and began using everything he had to create the seamless rail-to-steamer tourist experience.
Bliss had prepared in advance. He sent two sons to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn technical degrees: William Seth Bliss received a degree in civil engineering and Walter Danforth Bliss a degree in architecture. William used his skills to construct the railroad from Tahoe City to Truckee and Walter built the Tahoe Tavern hotel in Tahoe City to house visitors after their adventure. Bliss upgraded a second, smaller hotel in Glenbrook for tourists as well.
The railroad needed a route between Tahoe City and Truckee. Bliss worked a deal with the Truckee Lumber Company to get the railroad’s right-of-way along the Truckee River. The lumber company owned the river valley and its tributaries, and although the lumbermen could log the timber along the river, the flow was not reliable enough to float logs down to the sawmill. Bliss successfully proposed the construction of a railroad alongside the river to carry the timber on logging cars. He negotiated a deal that he would charge a reasonable hauling price in exchange for railroad right-of-way when he wanted to bring passengers through, creating a combination passenger and logging operation.
Steamships were the third leg of Bliss’s tour dream, and he arranged for Union Iron Works in San Francisco to design and build one called the Tahoe. The steamer was fabricated in sections that were loaded onto railroad flatcars and sent from the Bay Area to Reno on the Southern Pacific, then on to Carson City via the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. Once in Carson City, the sections were put on wagons and hauled up and over Spooner Summit to Glenbrook. Once assembled, the ship was launched into Lake Tahoe. Bliss also acquired a smaller steamer he called the Nevada from Lucky Baldwin, a renowned California businessman of the era.
So, what was a Lake Tahoe excursion like back in 1900? You might have boarded a Southern Pacific train in Oakland on a Friday night to arrive at the Truckee depot before 7 in the morning Saturday, and taken a short walk across the tracks to a passenger car with open windows. For the next hour, you would experience the pine-scented trip along the babbling Truckee River, stopping at Squaw Valley and Deer Park, a hotel and hot spring near today’s Alpine Meadows. Your train would then stop at the end of the long pier extending out into Lake Tahoe from Tahoe City. Soon after, you would board the steamer Tahoe and boat around the lake. The cruise took most of the day with stops at Homewood, McKinney, Meeks Bay, Emerald Bay, Tallac, Al Tahoe, Bijou, Lakeside Park (State Line House), Glenbrook, Brockway, Tahoe Vista, and Carnelian Bay. Your day would end with a meal and night’s stay at the Tahoe Tavern overlooking Lake Tahoe.
July 18 | 5:30 p.m.
Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad
Listen to Jerry Blackwill discuss the history of the construction of the railroad.
July 27 | 7 to 8 p.m.
Learn how the logging industry was tied to the development of the railroad and the surrounding areas. Discussion will be led by Nelson Van Gundy.
Aug. 3 | 7 to 8 p.m.
Truckee Lake Tahoe Railway
Hear about the history of the Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company and its impact on creating tourism for the Lake Tahoe Basin. The First Transcontinental Railroad brought the beauty of the Tahoe Basin to the commonfolk, not just the wealthy. Learn about the little railroad line between Truckee and Tahoe City that allowed the world to discover the beauty of Lake Tahoe. Talk will be led by Jerry Blackwill.
*All talks will be held in the Truckee Tahoe Airport conference room.
July 28 | 9 a.m.
Logging Trestle Tour/Walk
Drive from downtown Truckee to various locations to view old logging trestles and educational talks on the logging industry in the area from Hobart Mills to Boca. Bring a lunch; carpooling is available. Meet at the Railroad Society Caboose Museum next to the Truckee Visitor Center in old-town Truckee.
Aug. 31 | time tbd
150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad Celebration Picnic
Located at the Truckee Regional Park, 10050 Brockway Rd., Truckee.
For more information and a full list of summer activities going on in Truckee to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the First Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or the Facebook page: Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration.