Tahoe Snapshot History



A flood of editorial deadlines has kept me office-bound for much of the summer, but I did get out and about a few times so I’ve posted a short essay to share a bit of what’s been going on at Lake Tahoe. The region has been enduring periods of smoke and haze for nearly a month due to two large California fires that ignited in early August.

The Tahoe Basin and western Nevada communities of Carson City and Reno are all located downwind of both the American and the Rim (Yosemite) wildfires. Fortunately, the American fire is now 100% contained and full containment for the Rim blaze is projected by Sept. 20. At this point air quality in the Tahoe Basin has improved dramatically.  

After one of the driest January to May seasons on record, the area picked up several inches of much needed rain in June. But July would turn out to be the warmest since the beginning of measurements in 1888, and it started out with a scorching heat wave at the beginning of the month. The weeklong roasting quickly dried out biofuels in the forest and helped set the stage for the wildfires of August. (Thanks to the NWS staff in Reno for the graphics.) 

The American fire was located west of Lake Tahoe and south of Interstate 80. At the time of this photo smoke was drifting north and staying west of the Tahoe Basin. This view is from the top of Cave Rock looking toward the West Shore. I explored Cave Rock for the first time this summer and will be posting a Nugget in the near future. It’s an amazing place! 

Water vapor satellite image from Aug. 21 depicts a closed low pressure system drifting off the California coast. During summer months these counter-clockwise circulations are usually moisture-starved, but they can generate thunderstorm activity, particularly over the Sierra Nevada as seen here. Note monsoonal moisture surging into the Great Basin along 110 degrees longitude.

Tahoe obscured. There were many days in August where visibility was very poor due to smoke. Unfortunately, I led my annual historic bus tour for the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society down along the East Shore on Aug. 23 and we couldn’t see a thing. With more than 20 years leading ecotourism field trips in the region, I’ve been snowed on, rained on, wind-blown and chilled to the bone. This was the first time I was smoked out and it was by far the worst condition of them all.

The smoke did make for some beautiful sunsets and sunrises at times.

While hiking at Squaw Valley in August, I came upon some leftover snowpack carved by a stream. Snow pile above the tunnel was about 12 feet deep. While crouching 15 feet into this mini cavern I was aware that just a few days before a snowboarder was killed by a collapsing snow tunnel at Mt. Baker. Fortunately, this feature had less mass but since I was alone any issue could have been troublesome. 

Each August the Sierra Boat Company in Carnelian Bay hosts the Concours d’ Elegance wooden boat show. This is Hornet II. Originally built with a mahogany deck, her art deco aircraft-aluminum deck was built in preparation for the Lake Tahoe Championship races in 1939. Equipped with a 600-horsepower engine, it blew away the competition.

Another look at Hornet II. Over nearly 20 years of racing (1935-1953), she won more races on Lake Tahoe than any other boat. Powered by different high-performance engines, this stunning watercraft was owned by Henry J. Kaiser, a Tahoe homeowner and industrialist, who became known as the father of modern American ship building. Kaiser’s Tahoe estate was featured prominently in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, The Godfather II. The development is now called Fleur du Lac on Tahoe’s west shore near Homewood.

On Sept. 1, Garwoods Grill & Pier hosted their first annual fireworks display right here on the beach in Carnelian Bay. It was a fund raiser for the local high school and by far the best fireworks experience for me. Close to home and close to the pyrotechnics too. Can’t wait until next year!





Tahoe Snapshot History



After the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), both countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo giving the U.S. more than half of Mexico’s original sovereign territory.

U.S. expansion into the West began with President Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase and culminated during President Polk’s administration with the annexation of Texas and victory in the Mexican-American War. It was a controversial and unpopular war and considered a land grab by many, but it brought California and much of the Desert Southwest into the American fold.

When the question of California’s geographical size and official borders came up at the state’s first Constitutional Convention held in Monterey in October 1849, there were two main options considered. One called for including all of what Mexicans called Upper California, which included a big chunk of the Great Basin as well as portions of present day Utah and Arizona.

Many of the delegates, however, preferred a more manageable border in the Sierra Nevada, for both political and practical reasons. The possibility of an uber-state later being politically carved into slave territories was one serious concern.

Among those pushing for a state line along the Sierra Range was none other than John C. Frémont, credited as the first Euro-American (along with his cartographer Charles Preuss) to see Lake Tahoe. Frémont was also a strong proponent of California entering the Union as a free state, not slave. Considering that Frémont had already seen the size and beauty of Tahoe (he called it Lake Bonpland), the topographical engineer probably assumed that the important lake would be totally included on California’s side of the boundary.

John C. Frémont’s 1848 map illustrates the general contours of the Sierra Nevada. Courtesy Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc. 

Finally, one of the delegates called for an eastern border fixed in the mountains, but based on longitude and latitude, not geography. The delegate himself had no concept of Sierra Nevada topography and hydrology when he made his suggestion and despite the lack of a survey the convention submitted to Congress an eastern state border based on an imaginary grid, not the ground. This ill-conceived action by a few has caused headaches and confusion for Nevada and the federal government for decades. Bi-state water rights issues on the Truckee River continue to this day.

Two of California’s boundaries were no brainers; 42nd degree latitude for the northern border (based on an earlier agreement incorporated into the Oregon Territory treaty when Great Britain relinquished all claims to the present-day Pacific Northwest), and the Pacific Coast (including all the major bays, harbors and offshore islands). California’s southern state line would be run right down the middle of the Colorado River and then along the 35th parallel on the border with Mexico, but it was the eastern boundary that gave everyone fits.

Shaded area indicates trouble zone for California and Nevada’s shared border. Nevada Territory was established in 1861 (after the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode) when the federal government split Utah Territory in half. Note how additional Mormon land was ceded to Nevada, which gained statehood in 1864. Map courtesy John P. Wilusz from his article published in Professional Surveyor, January 2002.

On October 11, 1849, the youngest delegate attending the convention, James M. Jones, offered a land description of the eastern border which was adopted and incorporated into the state constitution. The description started at the northeast point of the state at the intersection of the 42nd degree latitude at the 120th degree longitude, and then “…running south along the 120th degree longitude until it intersects the 39th degree of north latitude [an intersection that falls within Lake Tahoe]; thence running in a straight line in a southeasterly direction to the Colorado River… “

Jones description placed Lake Tahoe and its water, which flows into the Great Basin, not the Pacific Ocean, directly in the crosshairs of dispute and disagreement between California and the future state of Nevada. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo not only described the new international boundary between the United States and Mexico, it required each government to commission a survey to run and mark the boundary line on the ground. The California convention delegates skipped this important step. When the first survey to mark the state’s eastern boundary was completed in 1863, they were surprised to find that only two-thirds of Lake Tahoe actually fell within the new state border, with one third in Nevada.

Running the state line through Lake Tahoe (see Nugget #238 for the history behind the name) generated controversy and conflict between California and Nevada over water rights.

More surveys were undertaken in the 1860s and 1870s and each found discrepancies with previous work. In 1872, the federal government hired astronomer and surveyor Alexis Von Schmidt to improve the results. Part of the challenge for these early surveyors (besides rugged topography, hostile Indians, lack of funding, and an aggressive schedule) was the difficulty of locating geographic coordinates, especially longitude.

Of the two coordinates, latitude is the easiest to determine using astronomical observations and scientific instruments, but longitude is a function of time based on global meridians in relation to Greenwich, England. At the 39th degree latitude (Lake Tahoe) a clock error of only one second would cause a surveyor to post his longitude marker nearly a quarter of a mile out of position. Von Schmidt faced challenges similar to his predecessors, but he had an important advantage when it came to determining longitude. By 1872, accurate time signals could be transmitted by telegraph from San Francisco. The wires followed the transcontinental railroad tracks and crossed the border near Verdi, Nevada.

Diagram defining the border calculations. Courtesy John P. Wilusz, PE, published in Professional Surveyor, 2002.

In addition to the technological challenges, Nevada caused more problems when it passed the Organic Act. Instead of simply recognizing California’s existing eastern border as its western margin, this act demanded California give up any land associated with waters that “did not flow into the Pacific.”

The congressional acts that created Nevada Territory (1861) and the State of Nevada (1864) provided for a western boundary at the Sierra Nevada crest line if the California state legislature would agree to change its existing boundary from 120 degrees longitude. California, however, declined to relinquish any territory, particularly its portion of Lake Tahoe which is located east of the Sierra crest line.

North Lake Tahoe survey monument from Alexis Von Schmidt’s 1872 survey.

Lake Tahoe was not the only casualty from this early confusion. The so-called Roop County War took place when residents near the disputed state line around Honey Lake near Susanville in northeastern California proclaimed themselves in a separate territory. Their independence freed them from California law and taxes. It took a heavily-armed, 90-man militia from Plumas County to enforce California’s jurisdiction, but after two days of fighting the defeated rebels became part of Lassen County.

A hydrological border along the Sierra crest would have mitigated many of the controversial issues of watershed management along the eastern Sierra front, with Nevada having control over vital water sources emanating from the “California Mountains.” Fortunately, over the past 150 years bi-state agreements and federal decrees have solved many of the problems associated with a state boundary that does not take into account physical features like streams, lakes, and rivers.

Special thanks to Guy Rocha, retired Nevada State Archivist, for his prior research into this topic.




























Tahoe Historical Tour Tahoe Snapshot History



For generations, Lake Tahoe has inspired untold numbers of people fortunate enough to view its pristine waters and forest-cloaked mountains. For countless summers, American Indians of the Washoe, Maidu, and Paiute tribes foraged, fished and hunted the region’s natural bounty.

Their ancestors, prehistoric nomadic tribes who spent their winters in the high desert and California valleys, also took advantage of the mild alpine summers in the Sierra Nevada to collect edible and medicinal roots, seeds and marsh plants. In the Truckee area, there is archeological evidence of Washoe villages dating back at least 8,000 years. The Washoe had named the Truckee River “a’wakhu wa’t’a,” and they called Lake Tahoe “da’aw.”

Known locally as “Big Blue,” Lake Tahoe never fails to impress. A lake of superlatives.

The region’s nomenclature changed dramatically in 1844 when Captain John C. Frémont led a small expedition into present day Western Nevada. Frémont had earlier surveyed the Rocky Mountains, but this was his first mapping mission of the geographical region he later named the “Great Basin.”

The Paiute chief Truckee was certain that the Anglo-Americans were the tribe’s ancestral white brothers and he greeted them warmly. In his journal, Charles Preuss, a European cartographer with the Frémont expedition, noted one of their first encounters with the tribe: “January 15, 1844. During a short day’s march we reached a deep lake [Frémont named it Pyramid for the giant pyramid-shaped rock near its eastern shore], but do not yet know whether it is Mary’s Lake or not.” [Mary’s Lake was the name for the end of the Humboldt River. Pyramid Lake is the terminus of the Truckee River.]

In January 1844, Frémont and his men reached Pyramid Lake which the explorer named for obvious reasons. Today Pyramid Lake is the site of a Pauite Indian Reservation. Note the field artillary piece. The group lugged their trusty cannon along for months until they lost it in the deep snow near Walker Pass in February 1844.

Preuss continued: “The lake has no outlet, but a small river flows into it. Near where we are camping, the river is swarming with magnificent salmon-trout. We traded a few trinkets for a whole load of fish from the Indians and I almost ate myself into oblivion. The winter is rather mild here, if only the wind would not blow so often.”

There are no known photographs of Chief Truckee, but this is his son Chief Winnemucca.

After observing the abundant fish in the desert stream, Frémont called it “Salmon-Trout River.” The name would be changed to Truckee River later that same year after Chief Truckee helped the first immigrant wagon train (Stephens-Murphy-Townsend) in their epic overland crossing into California.

Captain Elisha Stephens successfully led the first wagons over Truckee’s Pass in the fall of 1844. Later the pass would be renamed after the 1847 Donner Party tragedy.

Frémont and his band continued their journey south, where they came upon two more streams emanating from the snow-covered mountains to the west. Frémont named the first one “Carson” after his friend and guide Christopher “Kit” Carson. The third and most southern of the rivers was named for Joseph Walker, a noted mountain man accompanying this expedition. He blazed Walker Pass in the southern Sierra, the first snow-free route to the Pacific Ocean.

Christopher “Kit” Carson (left) with Capt. John C. Frémont. The two men explored much of the western United States together during a series of mapping expeditions from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean.

Frémont spoke to the Indians about reaching California. One of the tribal elders told him that “before the snows fell it was six sleeps to the place where the whites lived, but that now it was impossible to cross the mountain on account of the deep snow.

In desperate need of supplies available at Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento), Frémont decided to tackle the mountains despite the warnings. He wrote: “In the morning I acquainted the men with my decision, and explained to them of the beautiful valley of the Sacramento, with which they were familiar from the descriptions of Kit Carson, who had been there some 15 years ago, and who had delighted us in speaking of its rich pastures and abounding game. Carson drew a vivid contrast between the summer climate less than 100 miles distant, and the falling snow around us.”

Terminus of the Truckee River which drains Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake has a surface area almost as large as  Tahoe. Pyramid Lake is the largest remnant left over from the ancient Lake Lahontan, a huge inland sea that once covered much of Nevada and the Great Basin.  The lake is part of the Pyramid Lake Pauite Tribe’s reservation and is a productive fishery. Anglers flock to Pyramid Lake year-round to try their luck catching the world’s largest cutthroat trout that thrive here.

The men prepared for their Sierra crossing as best they could by dressing in leggings, along with moccasins and heavy clothing to resist the snow and cold. Frémont’s men were uncharacteristically silent, but they pushed on using large wooden mallets to break the snowpack’s crust. Pruess complained, “This surpasses all the hardships that I have experienced until now. Here all we have is a buffalo hide on the snow as our bed.”

On February 14, 1844, while climbing an isolated peak, Preuss and Frémont “discovered” Lake Tahoe. Frémont named it Lake Bonpland in honor of Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist. But for once Frémont’s official appellation didn’t stick because in 1854, supporters of California’s third governor John Bigler named the lake for him.

Approximate view of Lake Tahoe from Red Lake Peak as seen by John Frémont and Charles Preuss on Valentine’s Day 1844. Although the expedition was reduced to eating mules, peas, and dog meat, all the men survived the trans-Sierra journey to Sutter’s Fort in the southern Sacramento Valley. Photo courtesy David Antonucci.

During the Civil War, Union sentiment objected to calling the lake Bigler because the former governor was an outspoken secessionist, and a political movement was started to designate the phonetically-sounding Washoe name, “Tahoe” meaning “water in a high place” or “edge of the lake.”

California did not restore the lake’s original Native American name until 1945, when the State legislature officially renamed it Lake Tahoe in honor of the first Americans to call it home.