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Truckee and Environs

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 final 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, fishing and boating.

European-Americans began development near Truckee in 1863, when Joseph Gray built a log toll-station for stage coach 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.

Related Links:

Exploring Nevada County: An Illustrated Guide to Local Landmarks and Historic Sites by the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission.


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