TAHOE NUGGET #243: SQUAW VALLEY TRAM: A RIDE INTO HISTORY
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.
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