Tahoe Characters



It was a sad day for the small community of Tahoe City in the spring of 1932. Citizens dressed in black were in the process of burying the town’s first constable, the revered pioneer Robert Montgomery Watson.

Watson had arrived at Lake Tahoe in the 1870s and was appointed Tahoe City’s first constable in 1906. Constable Watson served his community until 1932 when he died of pneumonia at the age of 80.

When Harry E. Johanson rode into town on that fateful April day, he observed a somber funeral procession and Watson’s casket being drawn across the snow-covered meadow towards the Tahoe City Cemetery. Businesses were closed and school bells tolled.


First Tahoe City constable, Robert Montgomery Watson, was a noted horseman who helped re-open and mark the old Emigrant Road over Squaw Valley. Today it is known as the Western States Trail and site of a 100-mile-long horse race and also a world-famous ultra endurance foot race of similar length.

Born in Sweden in 1899, Johanson had demonstrated exceptional youthful athleticism by taking top honors in many skiing, swimming and long distance running competitions. He ended up winning a total of 84 medals and trophies, including a third place finish just behind future Finnish Olympic gold medalist Paavo Nurmi.

Johanson studied architectural drafting at the University of Upsala and after graduation he joined the Swedish Army Air Corp. In his late 30s, Harry decided to immigrate to the United States, but the quotas were full and instead he sailed for Canada. He took on a variety of jobs as he worked his way west, traveling the wilds of northern Canada to hunt, fish, and compete in sporting events like long distance swimming contests.

The versatile Swede eventually became an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. While serving three years with the “Mounties” he learned horsemanship and dog sledding, skills that would serve him well at Lake Tahoe.

Like his predecessor Constable Watson, Harry Johanson was an accomplished horeseman.

Finally Johanson received the long-awaited paperwork that allowed him to legally enter the United States and he briefly worked as a draftsman in the sweltering Imperial Valley of Southern California. It didn’t take long for the Scandinavian-born, back-country expert to decide that it was the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevada where he would feel most at home.

Johanson came to Lake Tahoe to take a caretaker position at a West Shore estate. He didn’t expect to permanently settle in Tahoe City for long, but once he saw the stunning scenery decided to stay. Residents found the newcomer polite and well-versed in the skills necessary for travel and survival in a snowbound environment.

During Tahoe’s long, snowy winters, dog sled was a better form of transportation than cross-country skiing. In addition, sled dogs could also pull the injured or ill to safety.

In late 1934, he received his citizenship and shortly after became Tahoe City’s second constable. It soon became apparent, however, that “Harry Jo” as locals liked to call him, would be much different than Robert Watson. Watson was known as a quiet, reserved family man; Johanson was a confirmed bachelor with a flamboyant personality that defined him as a confident, self-made man.

Despite a well-deserved reputation as a “ladies man,” Harry Johanson always said he preferred dogs to women. Photo courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society.

Harry Jo covered his beat of 200 square miles by horseback in summer and dogsled in winter. Harry loved dogs. One of his favorite quotes was “A man’s best friend is his dog, better even than his wife.” Johanson kept up to 15 dogs at a time, most them malamutes, to pull his sled. Despite heavy winter storms that buried the region in deep snow, Harry made his rounds checking on year-round residents. Blessed with incredible endurance and an expert on cross-country skis, in 1937 he circled Lake Tahoe in one day.

During the 1930s, Hollywood directors filmed many of that era’s adventure movies at Lake Tahoe, including such epics as “Call of the Wild” (Harry stood in for Clark Gable), “White Fang,” and “Rose Marie.” 

Johanson’s dog sled team always drew a crowd.

Harry Jo preferred the devoted companionship of his dogs over any commitment to a woman, but the handsome constable with wavy blond hair certainly enjoyed the “fairer sex.” His brief marriage to local schoolteacher Dorothy Zaharias produced a child, but Harry argued that he was not the father and she angrily left town with the baby. Afterward, Harry said, “The more I see of women, the more I love my dogs.”

Despite his well-publicized sentiments regarding marriage and women, he nevertheless flirted with many of the eligible females in Tahoe City, always wearing his dashing uniform and service revolver, even while drinking in the local taverns. Harry was a bit short in height and often wore lifters in his shoes, but he still charmed the ladies. Rumor has it that the beautiful actress, Jeanette MacDonald, star in “Rose Marie,” was one of his conquests.


The beautiful actress Jeanette MacDonald starred in the movie “Rose Marie” filmed at Lake Tahoe in 1936. Legend has it that Harry Johanson (who did stunt work for her co-star Nelson Eddy) successfully seduced MacDonald during her stay at the lake. 

Constable Johanson played an active role in regional law enforcement, not only capturing crooks (once nabbing a murder suspect in Tahoe City), but also in confiscating slot machines and shutting down local gambling operations. Johanson wore other hats too, simultaneously performing the duties of deputy sheriff, deputy tax collector, and deputy coroner.

Harry Johanson lived in the house that is now Wolfdale’s Cusine Unique restaurant on the main street in Tahoe City. This structure was originally built in Glenbrook, Nevada (near South Lake Tahoe) and towed across the lake to Tahoe City. In July 2012 a few of Johanson’s relatives visited the restaurant and owner/chef Douglas Dale gave them a tour of the building and showed them the jail Johanson designed.

Tahoe City was such a tiny community back then, when Harry bought his house, some locals complained about why he lived so far out of town.


As a trained architect, Johanson designed this “new” jail located on Tahoe City’s Commons Beach. The old jail was a dank, concrete bunker built nearby.

Prisoners’ view from Johanson’s Tahoe City jail.

After 32 years of service to his community, Johanson resigned in 1967. More than 200 people attended his retirement dinner at Sunnyside Lodge. Harry Jo eventually moved to Reno and died in 1980, but was buried in Tahoe City’s Trails End Cemetery, which he had renovated in the 1950s.


Special thanks to my friend Mickey Daniels — California’s last constable; Captain of Big Mack II



Tahoe Sightseeing Uncategorized



The aerial tram at Squaw Valley will lift you effortlessly up into the Sierra high country, where ice-carved cirques, extruded thrusts of volcanic rock, and stellar views of Big Blue will take your breath away.

Squaw Valley’s aerial tram whisks passengers up to elevation 8,200 feet, where an array of fun activities await summer guests. A bonus this year is that the rides are free for anyone holding an active 2012-13 season ski pass at Squaw-Alpine.

Yes, there are lots of summer activities on this legendary skiers’ mountain, including hiking, swimming, roller skating, and poolside eating and drinking, but a trip to Squaw Valley is also an historic gateway to days gone by when pioneer emigrants traveled through its lush valley and over its craggy peaks on their way to California.

Squaw’s tram offers family explorers of all ages access to big mountain scenery; a perfect outdoor classroom to observe wildflowers, geology, and climate-driven vegetation. Hiking boots aren’t necessary, but people I saw wearing flip-flops had made the wrong choice. Sneakers or comfortable walking shoes should do the trick if you intend to stick to the maintained trails.

For thousands of years, American Indians from the ancient Washoe tribe summered at Squaw Valley, which they considered a sacred place. There the men could hunt game in the upper elevations, while the women wove intricate baskets, dug out roots of medicinal plants, fished, and watched their children play.

Noted basket weaver Washoe Mary at her craft, circa 1913.

After the long winter in the high desert of today’s western Nevada, the Indians looked forward to foraging in Squaw Valley’s verdant marshes for wild onions, berries, and other tasty edibles. The women also used the large granite boulders nearby to grind their harvest of seeds. The first Euro-Americans to pass through the valley observed that there were only women and children in the meadow (braves were away hunting), so they named it Squaw Valley.


A fine display of Washoe Indian baskets, tools, and weapons at Donner Memorial State Park.

The valley itself was scoured out by glaciers that advanced and retreated in successive waves. The terminal moraine deposited at the eastern end of the valley by advancing ice acted as a dam and created a lake filled by melting ice. Over time the lakebed was filled with eroded sediments, the moraine breached and a valley-meadow created.

At one point, the Squaw Valley glacier dammed up the Truckee River draining Lake Tahoe, forcing the lake’s water level hundreds of feet higher than today. These powerful geologic and climatic forces left behind, “The most beautiful valley the eye of man has ever beheld,” as Placer County surveyor Thomas A. Young described it in 1856.

Before Squaw Valley’s Olympic-driven development during the 1950s, the valley was primarily used for cattle and sheep grazing. The meadow provided lots of nutritious grass and Squaw Creek supplied plenty of fresh water.

During the California gold rush, 49ers began using Squaw Valley as a short-cut to the Mother Lode in the western Sierra foothills. First known as Scott’s Route, the trail climbed from the meadow up the mountain and followed the ridge line towards Auburn, California. In 1852, $13,000 was appropriated to improve the trail, renamed the Placer County Emigrant Route, but it never gained the hoped-for traffic.

Historic plaque on the Emigrant Pass monument tells the story.

In his 1915 book, The Lake of the Sky, author George Wharton James explained why the trail was abandoned: “…a forbidding prospect. Only brave men would ever have dared to contemplate such a plan. The mountain cliffs, separated and split, arise before us as impossible barriers…We now begin to ascend this road at the head of Squaw Valley and in five minutes, or less, we are able to decide why it was never a success. The grade is frightful, and for an hour or more we go slowly up it, stopping every few yards to give our horses breath…It is hard enough for horses to go up this grade, but to pull heavily-ladened wagons—it seems impossible.”

At nearly 9,000 feet elevation, this granite monument at Emigrant Pass marks the highest point on both the original Placer County Emigrant Road and the current Western States Trail.

In 1931, Robert Montgomery Watson, Tahoe City’s first constable and a pioneer horseman, marked the trail from Lake Tahoe to Auburn. Today it is known as the Western States Trail, where each summer a world-class, 100-mile endurance footrace is held, along with the Tevis Cup, the toughest horse race in the West.

Dedication of the Emigrant Road monument at Emigrant Pass along the Sierra divide, circa September 21, 1931. The volcanic feature in the background (located between Squaw Peak and Granite Chief) was named “Fort Sumter” by Squaw Valley miners during the Civil War. The patriotic men torched a huge bonfire on top of the rock on July 4, 1863. 

In 1862, Squaw Valley was designated Federal land and opened for settlement. Four enterprising men, Fish, Ferguson, Smith and Coggins, set up a small ranching operation in the meadows. They named their spread Squaw Valley Ranch.

That same year, prospectors John Keiser and Shannon Knox, decided to leave the exhausted gold diggings in California, to head east for the bustling Comstock mines at Virginia City, Nevada Territory. They coaxed their well-packed mules along the Placer County Emigrant Route to Squaw Valley. When the two men reached a flat near the Truckee River, just northwest of the mouth of Squaw Creek, they noticed some outcroppings of rich-looking reddish ore. Squaw Valley had never been known for gold, but prospectors are nothing if not optimists.

The news of potential veins of gold at Squaw Valley started a stampede of Placer County merchants, miners, and saloon owners. Early assays from supposedly gold-bearing quartz veins reported up to $440 worth of gold per ton with “strong potential for great profit.”

By 1863, there were four mining districts established, with at least 1,000 claims staked out along the Truckee River and in Martis Valley. But there was trouble in paradise. Late that fall, word came back on ore specimens sent to Sacramento that the rock was worthless, with no gold content at all. The strike was a bust. The bonanza was over and within a few days the region deserted —all except for Tahoe City that is. The fledgling settlement eventually became the gateway to the Tahoe Basin, first by stage, then by narrow gauge railroad and steamer.

In 1912, Marian and Pauline Chamberlain explored the remains of the Knoxville Tavern, a relic of the Squaw Valley gold rush.

A few frustrated miners gave up the search for gold and settled along Lake Tahoe. Each lent their name to the geography of the region — Ward Creek is named for Ward Rush; Blackwood Creek for Hampton Craig Blackwood; McKinney Creek for John McKinney; and Burton Creek for Homer D. Burton.

When I hiked up to Emigrant Pass on July 10, 2012, there was still a large patch of snow in the deposition zone below the ridge. I suspect that this snow was deposited during the 2011 winter, not last year.

In 1931, Wayne Poulsen and Marti Arrougé took an extended camping and fishing trip into the mountains above Squaw Valley. Marti had often camped in the valley with his father, a Basque sheepherder who grazed flocks in the lush meadow there. It was then that Poulsen, an avid skier who was still in high school, fell in love with the place and began to dream that he could develop it into an excellent winter resort.

After further exploration, Wayne decided his life goal would be to acquire and develop Squaw Valley as “a mountain community dedicated to skiing as a way of life.” During World War II, Poulsen bought Squaw Valley. He and his wife Sandy built their home there and raised a family.

Founder of Squaw Valley, Wayne Poulsen (far right), with his family celebrating Christmas in the valley.

In 1948, Poulsen went into a partnership with an investor named Alex Cushing. Due to sharp business and philosophical differences between them, the partnership broke up and Cushing took control of the company.

By 1955, the ski resort was financially broke, but Cushing pulled off a miracle and coaxed the International Olympic Committee to award the 1960 Winter Games to Squaw Valley.

Against all odds, Alex Cushing convinced a slight majority of International Olympic Committee delegates to vote yes for holding the 1960 Winter Games at his “glorified cow pasture” in California. It’s a remarkable story that I included in my award-winning book, Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports.

The 1960 Winter Olympics were a spectacular success that changed Squaw Valley forever and catapulted the Lake Tahoe region into an internationally recognized sports destination. Learn more at the free Olympic Museum at Squaw Valley’s High Camp!

Despite some environmental concerns, the Lake Tahoe Winter Games Exploratory Committee has set its sights on the 2026 Winter Olympics, with events to be hosted at Tahoe, Reno, and Sacramento.

                                              SQUAW VALLEY HIKING MAP

















































Donner Party


If you ever hear about Portuguese-speaking Brazilians dressing up in American Confederate uniforms, waving the Rebel flag, wearing Southern-belle skirts, and playing the banjo at a Fourth of July barbecue, one of the people you can blame is Lansford W. Hastings. Anyone familiar with the Donner Party story will remember Hastings. He is often cast as the villain in that tragic tale.

Young Brazilian, descendant of an American Confederate family, circa 1998.

In early November 1846, members of the Donner Party were trapped east of the Sierra Nevada by deep snow. One of the reasons that their wagon train was attempting to cross the mountains so late in the season is because Lansford Hastings, a California land promoter and lawyer, had convinced leaders in the Donner group to take his untried shortcut through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah.

In 1845 Hastings had published a popular overland trail guide to the Pacific, a book that promoted the virtues of the land, climate, and health found in California and the Oregon Coast. He traveled from Ohio to New York City giving lectures and hawking his book, “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California.”

Lansford Hastings’ guidebook to California contained just about everything you needed to know to travel west in a covered wagon. In person, however, Hastings persuaded three wagon trains to try an untested route which was only suitable for horses or pack animals. Following Hastings was a mistake that cost the Donner Party dearly in lost time and provisions.

In New York City he met Mormon leader Sam Brannan who was preparing a ship to carry Latter Day Saints to the West Coast. Hastings tried to persuade Brannan to bring his followers to California’s Sacramento Delta region where Hastings was hoping to establish a settlement on a Mexican land grant, in the manner of John Sutter’s fort.

Mormon Sam Brannan and nearly 250 Latter Day Saints sailed from New York City to San Francisco onboard the ship Brooklyn, arriving in July 1846. Brannan and his followers were hoping to start a Mormon settlement in California, but the Mexican-American War foiled their plans. As a professional printer and journalist, he started the California Star newspaper in San Francisco. After gold was discovered in early 1848, Brannan became California’s first millionare, a boozer, womanizer, and an ex-Mormon.    

Lansford Hastings’ message was perfectly timed as it fit in with a growing political push toward westward expansion, and an almost religious exhortation that inspired frontier families to search out new land. Everyone was swelling with the notion of American Exceptionalism and driven by the concept of Manifest Destiny.

In the years between 1840 and 1845, the total number of emigrants that traveled from the United States overland to the Mexican province of California was just 325. But in 1846 alone, at least 1,500 people took on the grueling, often deadly California Trail.


Spirit of Manifest Destiny, an 1872 painting by John Nash, represented the modernization of the new West. Columbia, who’s stringing telegraph wire and carrying a school book, illuminates the darkness of untamed wilderness and leads progress, technology and civilization westward.

There were plenty of people involved in the Donner Party’s trajectory to disaster, but historians often label Hastings as the “bad guy.” Technically, there should have been nothing wrong with Hastings promoting a new cutoff that would save time and distance. Others were also developing alternate routes and parts of the California Trail changed frequently during the 1840s, but Hastings failed to lead the late arriving Donner Party through his cutoff and they were abandoned to their fate. Hastings tendency to improvise as he went and overstate his knowledge of geography led directly to the Donner Party tragedy and tarnished his reputation.


The Hastings Cutoff navigated steep canyons in the Wasatch and crossed the barren, virtually waterless Utah Desert. Note Hastings lack of awareness about topography with the big detour around the Ruby Mountains.

Hastings arrived back in California just in time to join Major John C. Frémont in the war against Mexico. Fighting in California was short-lived and in 1847 Hastings moved to San Francisco where he practiced law and invested in real estate. He was elected to the School Board and later appointed a judge.

In January 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s sawmill and Hastings was soon plucking nuggets out of the American River. That summer, 29-year-old Hastings married 19-year-old Charlotte at Sutter’s Fort. (Hastings’ abandoned first wife had either died or divorced him by then.) Hastings formed a partnership with Sutter and opened a miner’s supply store, and then later ran a ferryboat operation.

John A. Sutter. Lansford Hastings hoped to emulate Sutter’s success at obtaining a Mexican land grant to develop and create his own fiefdom.

Over the next eight years, Charlotte Hastings gave birth to five children, four of whom survived. In 1858, Lansford moved his family to Arizona Territory, where Hastings became postmaster, practiced law, and in 1860 was again appointed a judge.

Although raised as a “Northern Yankee” in Ohio, Hastings saw opportunity in aligning with the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War. He devised a scheme to annex Southern California and Arizona Territory with an occupation by anti-Union recruits from the Golden State.

During the Civil War, Hastings sided with the South. He dreamed up a scheme to separate California from the Union and unite it with the Confederacy. His plan didn’t work.

When Charlotte died in 1861, Hastings placed his children in the care of friends near San Francisco and travelled to Texas, Louisiana, and finally to Richmond, Virginia, where he met Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. For his efforts, Hastings was commissioned a major in the Confederate Army.

After the South’s military defeat in 1865, Hastings headed for Mexico and then journeyed to Brazil to obtain permission from Emperor Dom Pedro II to establish an American colony for disaffected Southern families seeking relief from the victorious Union government. After choosing a large land parcel near the Amazon River, Hastings returned to Alabama to publish his next book, “Emigrants Guide to Brazil.”

Even today, Brazilian descendants of Southern Confederate families assemble near the town of Americana to dress in antebellum-era attire and honor their ancestral traditions.

In 1867, 115 ex-patriots sailed with Hastings to Brazil to develop tropical plantation lifestyles free from interference. In less than a decade, Hastings’ colony consisted of 22 families with more than 100 workers. But Hastings life-long dream of ruling his own settlement was dashed in 1870 when the 51-year-old died at sea while on another voyage from the U.S. to Brazil. He’s buried in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Brazilian cemetery where American descendants of the Confederacy are buried.

Overall, up to 20,000 ex-Confederates immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War where today their some of ancestors live in the community of Americana. Proud of their heritage, descendants gather four times a year and still celebrate Dixie traditions and the Fourth of July.

Read more about Lansford Hastings in my Sierra Sun column: