A Brief History
How Was The Lake Formed?
“I can just imagine the settlers when they came in over the pass and they saw the lake at six thousand feet…”
The lake was formed through faulting of the Earth’s crust, volcanism and glaciation. About 25 million years ago, the Sierra Nevada block was formed by tremendous uplift. The valley that later became the Tahoe Basin sank between two parallel faults as the mountains on either side rose. Water filled this Basin where Lake Tahoe lies today. Lava flowing from Mt. Pluto on the north shore formed a barrier or dam across the basin’s outlet. Water from rivers and streams flowed into the Basin gradually filling it several hundred feet above its present level. During the last Ice Age, less than a million years ago, huge ice blocks or glaciers formed in the surrounding mountains. These glaciers scoured the landscape, carving broad U-shaped valleys now occupied by Cascade Lake, Fallen Leaf Lake, and Emerald Bay. The material left after the glaciers melted, called moraines, blocked the original outlet of Lake Tahoe, changing it to the present Truckee River outlet at Tahoe City. Today’s Lake Tahoe exists on the border of Northwestern Nevada and Northeastern California. Just west of Lake Tahoe is Desolation Wilderness: 63,960 acres of sub-alpine and alpine forest, granite peaks, and glacially-formed valleys and lakes from the last Ice Age.
Native American Heritage
The Washoe: The First People of Lake Tahoe
“This is the aboriginal homeland of our Washoe people, and the lake is the center of our being.”
According to the Manataka American Indian Council, “The Washoe are the original inhabitants of Da ow aga (Lake Tahoe) and all the lands surrounding it. Tahoe is a mispronunciation of Da ow, meaning “lake.” Washoe ancestral territory consists of a nuclear area with Lake Tahoe at its heart, and a peripheral area that was frequently shared with neighboring tribes.”
As early as the 1830s, the Washoe people experienced very limited intrusion from white settlers, but when the Gold Rush of California hit, the tribe experienced an upheaval of their land and customs. The tribal leaders pushed for negotiations with the local and national government in order to secure their territory and culture, but they were not given any consideration. The Manataka American Indian Council notes that “between 1871 and 1877 several more requests for a reservation for the Washoe were made by agents, but again they were not heard. The government made no attempt to secure rights for the Washoe or to stop the destruction of the lands by the colonial culture.” With the rise of Federally-sponsored Assimilation schools for Native Americans, many children of the Washoe tribe were forcibly taken away from their families and sent to the Stewart Indian School in present-day Carson City, Nevada.
It wasn’t until 1917 that the Washoe Tribe was able to claim any of their own land for purchase, and this first land purchase included land that wasn’t useful to the tribe’s livelihood. The Washoe tribe wasn’t officially granted American Citizenship until 1924. The Manataka American Council details the struggles that the tribe underwent in restoring some of their former sovereignty and land ownership: “Under the Indian Reorganization Act, between 1938 and 1940, the Washoe acquired 95 acres in the Carson Valley that became known as Washoe Ranch. Finally, the Washoe had agricultural land where they could raise animals and food. In 1951, the Washoe filed a claim to the Indian Claims Commission for their lands and resources that had been lost. The legal proceedings lasted nearly twenty years, and the Washoe received their claim only in 1970. The government had significantly reduced the area that the Washoe had designated as their ancestral homeland, and so the final settlement was five million dollars, which “scarcely constitutes even a token compensation for the appropriation of an ancient territory and its resources which today comprise one of the richest and most attractive areas in the American West. Also in 1970, a special act of congress granted 80 acres in Alpine County, California to Washoe that had lived there for many years. This is now known as the Woodfords Community.”
In more recent years the tribe has been acquiring lands within their ancestral territory including, Frank Parcel, Lady’s Canyon, Babbit Peak, Uhalde Parcel, Wade Parcels, Olympic Valley, Incline Parcel, Upper and Lower Clear Creek Parcels. Some of the lands have been set aside as conservation and cultural lands for the Washoe People.” Today, the Washoe Tribe remains an outspoken and necessary reminder of the importance of preserving the sovereignty and culture of Tahoe’s first people.
To read more about the Washoe Tribe, visit the Manataka American Council’s website here.
Tourism and the Comstock: Lake Tahoe of the 19th Century
“The rush to Tahoe continues unabated.”
-Reno Evening Gazette, “Brevities,” August 29, 1888
When the Comstock Lode (an immense deposit of Silver in Nevada) was discovered in 1859, miners and settlers rushed to the Northern Nevada area. In order to build the mines, large deforestation projects were completed at Tahoe, which set Lake Tahoe up as the site of major lumbering operations during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The logging industry was met with both criticism and pride; early conservationists resented the immense losses of timber and natural beauty, while supporters of logging lauded the expansion of American industry and progress.
Early Criticism of Logging at Tahoe:
“If in some cathedral there was a picture painted and framed by an angel, one such as mortal art never could approach in magnificence, the world would be shocked were some man to take off and sell the marvelous frame. But Tahoe is a picture rarer than ever glittered on cathedral walls; older, fresher and fairer than any work by the old masters, and yet they are cutting away her frame and bearing it away. Have we no state pride to stop the work?”
–Truckee Tribune, September 7, 1878
Local and national Progressive legislators and lobbyists advocated for the conservation of Lake Tahoe’s forests after seeing the effects of mass logging. Rather than advocating for a complete cessation of logging, these activists argued for “scientific management” of deforestation, which outlined restrictions on how much and how often timber could be cut, with the goal of conservation in mind. Through decades of activism and lobbying, the forests around Lake Tahoe were steadily preserved through laws passed in 1891 and 1897; however, these legislations were not well-enforced and to activists, these regulations seemed as marginal movements toward proper conservation. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt transferred the Forest Service to the United States Department of Agriculture, in order to give these regulations a body of enforcement power. Beyond this, President Roosevelt expanded the protected area of the Tahoe Forest as part of the wide-reaching conservation initiatives of his administration. Roosevelt also limited deforestation through strategically appointing conservationists to the positions of District Foresters.
The effects of logging can be seen through Peter Goin’s photographic series featured on the Nevada Online Encyclopedia. The project is titled Stopping Time – A Rephotographic Survey of Lake Tahoe. It can be viewed here.
“Sadly enough, on the eastern shores of Tahoe, and part of the southern, the flanks are being stripped for timber, to be swallowed in the Comstock mines. There seems to be no method of arresting this spoliation. It would have been well years ago had the General Government reserved the slopes leading to this lake as a permanent pleasure ground, to be regulated for the benefit of all people, as well as a specially beautiful spot for rest and recreation for travelers from all lands.”
-George Montague Wheeler, 1890
“The Comstock lode may truthfully be said to be the tomb of the forest of the Sierras. Millions on millions of feet of lumber are annually buried in the mines, nevermore to be resurrected…”
-Dan De Quille, The History of the Big Bonanza, 1876
Tahoe “is coming to the front…Under the high pressure of American progress, it is only a question of time when Lake Tahoe will have railroad communication with the outside world…hence great multitudes, during the summer months, will throng to this beautiful Lake, with its clear waters, pure atmosphere, and enchanting scenery.”
-The Mountain Democrat, August 16, 1890
Early Tourism at Lake Tahoe:
Regardless of critical reactions, infrastructure for logging and mining was increasingly established in the nineteenth century, paving the way for an industry of tourism to follow. Amidst the lumber industry’s expansion, tourists benefited from the alpine environment. Rusticators rejuvenated their bodies in the high mountain air and recreation enthusiasts sought out sport and leisure. Tahoe tourism boomed in part because of the lumber industry’s presence. This early tourism established Lake Tahoe as a popular travel destination—subsequently, setting a precedent for travel and recreation that would last into modernity.
“…Lake Tahoe has become very accessible. A small steamer, carrying the mail, makes a daily tour of the lake. There are sufficient hotel accommodations for a large number of travelers…Grace Greenwood, writing from California, says: “‘Tahoe is the most beautiful lake I have ever beheld. I think Lake Tahoe must yet become a great pleasure resort. I have seen no more charming spot in all my tours for a summer’s rest and rambling.’”
-Alfred Conkling, 1877
“Lake Tahoe is before me…. The Air is keen and elastic. There is no sound but the distant and slightly musical ring of the lumberer’s axe.”
–Isabella Bird, 1873
“The Lake’s scenery had a moral and restorative influence on individuals, while its sawmills and resorts were the physical incarnation of progress for the society as a whole. Beauty and utility were not inconsistent.”
-C. Elizabeth Raymond, Stopping Time, 1992
At the bottom of the flume from Lake Tahoe to Carson Valley, one of the riders exclaimed, “that he would not make that trip again for all the silver and gold in Nevada.”
— Harpers Weekly, “A Perilous Trip,” June 2, 1877
“The hotels at Lake Tahoe are again in full blast and the fishing is good.”
–The Mountain Democrat, “Tahoe,” May 31, 1884
“There is no way to estimate the advantage a community derives from having some place near at hand where tired and sick people can go to draw fresh strength from nature.”
-Reno Evening Gazette, “Our Pleasure Resorts,” July 19, 1882