Lake Tahoe History
American explorers, John Fremont and Kit Carson came upon this beautiful shore in 1844, rupturing a peaceful solitude that had been a way of life for the Washoe Indians for thousands of years past.
They migrated each summer from the Carson Valley area, in search of the region’s bountiful fish, game and cooler temperatures. The Washoe women were artisans known for their exceptional weaving skills, particularly in the making of beautiful baskets. Within five years, silver and gold would be discovered in the Sierra Nevada, and fortune hunters in their quest for riches would completely destroy the tranquility of the Indians for whom the lake was a mysterious and sacred place. The Lake Tahoe Basin was the spiritual hub for three Indian tribes, and the ancient name they bestowed upon the site lives on today in modern form. The early explorers, who were unfamiliar with the native tongue, translated da-ow-aga or big water or edge of the lake as “Tahoe.” The name stuck down through the years, becoming official in 1945.
Miners rushed to the Tahoe Basin via the northerly Beckworth Pass and Donner Pass, the site of the famous wagon-train tragedy, and Carson Pass to the south. The influx of pioneers and miners brought in their wake way stations, stables and toll houses to collect fares. The rush was so great that the “Bonanza Road” forged across the mountains (near Ben Cartwright’s home?) would later become Highway 50.
Lake Tahoe’s timber-rich forests were as valuable to the new intruders as the minerals that lay beneath them. Between 1860-1890, they became a vital resource for the Central Pacific Railroad and the support of the labyrinth of mines being constructed beneath Virginia City. On the eastern shore of the lake from Incline Village to Glenbrook, an extensive logging empire was established. Soon the forests were devastated, and were only rescued from complete ruin by the decline of The Comstock Lode. To this day, the scars of the logging industry remain.
By the early twentieth century, the elitist families of San Francisco had discovered the breath-taking scenery of the Lake Tahoe region. They flocked to the area via steamship, residing at plush new hotels and hosting lavish parties. In addition, other small diverse groups of people became enamored of the area’s resources and natural beauty. These included: Basque sheepherders, early entrepreneurs and Chinese laborers; each separate cluster contributing and creating the amalgam that would become Lake Tahoe’s legacy. In 1944, one of the first gaming establishments, Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Saloon, opened in the area. But Harvey wasn’t alone for long, and other gaming saloons sprang up quickly, addressing the need for more hotels.
The 1950s witnessed the major plowing of roads, and by the time of the 1960 Olympics, Lake Tahoe was known as the skiing center of the western United States.
Developers in the region have been environmentally responsible, incorporating the wisdom of the ancient Washoes by respecting the magnitude and beauty of the lake itself. Even the giant Lake Tahoe casinos do their best to blend in and to respect the surrounding environment. In 1968, California and Nevada created The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency whose balanced approach to construction will improve the economy and the environment well into the next century. Tahoe retains its “pioneer charm” and its main attraction, despite colorful amenities, remains the awesome splendor and majesty of the lake.