It is hard to imagine a town getting off to a less rousing start than Coburn Station. The bad vibes started 17 years before there was even a settlement here, in 1846, when 87 pioneers who had set out in wagon trains from Missouri became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Donner Party took shelter in three cabins that had been constructed two years earlier up by Truckee Lake. With food running out and winter promising little relief fifteen men and women tried to cross the mountains on handmade snowshoes but became disoriented in the sea of white. Seven members survived to be rescued and finally a third relief attempt brought 48 of the original travelers to California. The tragedy of the Donner Party would have been a tragic footnote among the hundreds of thousands of overland emigrants to Oregon and California but almost immediately stories of cannibalism by the survivors began to leak out. With the fire of sensationalism lit the saga of the unlucky Donner Party would be recounted over and over with varying degrees of luridness in magazines, books and popular culture for decades. Around Truckee landmarks abound with the Donner name - a state park, the mountain pass the settlers never made it through, the main road in town and on and on. Truckee Lake is now Donner Lake.
Whatever bad karma existed here for potential settlers was trumped by the advantages in the location. The Truckee River is the only outlet from Lake Tahoe and provided super clean water in the valley. And the Truckee Basin was a natural stopping point for east-west travelers - you could tie up your horse and rest up before tackling the intimidating Sierra Nevada if heading west or you could recuperate coming down out of the mountains traveling east. So, in 1863 Coburn Station got under way in earnest around the only stage road through the Sierras - and five years later it mostly burnt to the ground.
The town rebuilt quickly but took a new name - Truckee, like the river and lake. Truckee is an approximation of a great Paiute chief named Tru-ki-zo who proved friendly to western settlers. He supposedly approached with shouts of “Tro-kay” which was a friendly greeting. The first order of business for the new town of Truckee was the Transcontinental Railroad that was being built right by its front door. Unimaginable quantities of lumber were needed to complete the 19th century’s greatest building project - for buildings, trestles, bridges, railroad ties, tunnel supports and, for the track near Truckee, enormous wooden “snow sheds” constructed over the tracks to enable the trains to run in winter. There were sheds shielding forty miles of track in the Sierra Nevada mountains above Truckee. The giant virgin stands of lodgepole pine came down so quickly that twenty-five sawmills were operating along the Truckee River trying to keep up.
Everything was built soon enough and industry drifted away from Truckee but the travelers kept coming. In the 20th century skiing became a popular winter pasttime and word got out that Lake Tahoe is the best lake in America. The old stagecoach path became Interstate 80 and Truckee established itself as a resort town.
Not much new has been built in town lately and many of the Victorian structures now house tourist-related businesses. Our walking tour of Truckee will start not on today’s main drag but a block away on a more historic avenue where the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road once ran, where the largest red light district of any small town in the West once flourished and which is named for the wooden spar on a ship that extends past the bow...
Old Stone Garage
10070 Bridge Street at southwest corner of Jibboom Street
This is the spot where Joseph Gray built the Dutch Flat–Donner Lake Wagon Road’s Toll Station that was the first structure in Truckee in 1863. The log cabin was moved one block away to Church Street after it was sold in 1907 to make way for this stone building that was used as a livery and a garage. Skilled European stone masons laid the courses of native fieldstone.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE OLD STONE GARAGE, TURN RIGHT ON BRIDGE STREET. AT CHURCH STREET, TURN LEFT.
Old Englehart House
10020 Church Street
The Engleharts were Butte, Montana folk who came to Truckee in 1892. William Englehart was a long-time businessman in town who began with groceries and operated a theater for many years. His greatest success came with glass bottles as the owner of the Truckee Soda Works.
Gray’s Log Waystation
10030 Church Street
Not many towns can say they still have the very first structure raised on its streets. But Truckee’s is here, built around 1858 by Joseph Gray from lodgepole pine and tamarack felled by an axe within dragging distance of its location at the corner of Bridge and Jibboom streets. Joseph Henry Gray was born in England in 1826 and was brought to America by his family at an early age. Lured to the West by the business opportunities the California Gold Rush promised, Gray began buying and selling cattle. His cabin served as a way post where travelers could obtain supplies, catch up on information and grab a meal on the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road. Gray, who owned most of the land that became Truckee, passed away in 1897. When the Gray cabin was taken apart and reconstructed here after being sold in 1909 the Truckee Republican reported that “most of the cabin’s timbers were as solid and firm as the day they were fashioned into the shape of a house.” Since then “Uncle Joe’s Cabin” has received some remodeling and an addition but otherwise survives as the founding relic of Truckee.
Church of the Mountains
10069 Church Street
This became Church Street after a Methodist church was raised here in 1869 when the Central Pacific Railroad completed its crossing of Donner Pass. Fires plagued the congregation until the construction of this wood frame Carpenter Gothic sanctuary in the 1890s that has stood ever since. The church bell was cast in Baltimore in 1889 and sailed around South America to be raised in the tower. The congregation has been the Church of the Mountains since 1958.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO BRIDGE STREET AND TURN LEFT. WALK A FEW STEPS TO THE CORNER OF DONNER PASS ROAD.
The Truckee Hotel
10007 Bridge Street at northeast corner of Donner Pass Road
This hotel, under a cornucopia of names, has been a staple of Truckee life since Joseph Gray opened it in 1873 as the American House; the name of the stationery has been the Truckee Hotel since 1976. Stewart McKay, a transplant fro Nova Scotia, Canada, bought the property in 1875 and re-named the hostelry the Whitney House. A fire destroyed the hotel in 1909 but McKay had also owned a sawmill so there was enough lumber at hand to rebuild immediately and the New Whitney House was greeting guests 42 days later. Nevertheless, McKay sold all his business interests and retreated to the woods where it was rumored around town that he was living on potatoes, stale bread and water in a “semi-nude attire.” He had prepared for a passage to the next life by crafting an ornate granite tomb overlooking Donner Lake where he had once developed the area’s first summer camp but McKay died in San Francisco in 1917 and was cremated. The tomb was never used.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK WEST ON DONNER PASS ROAD TO BEGIN YOUR TOUR OF COMMERCIAL ROW.
Bar of America
10040 Donner Pass Road at northwest corner of Bridge Street
Before it was the Bar of America it was the Bank of America. The bank moved out back in 1968. Commercial Row was first anchored here by the four-story Sherritt House Hotel, run by the Sherritt brothers, John and James. The Sherritts were from Montreal, Canada and were among the earliest settlers in Truckee, working the logging camps when they arrived in 1865. The wooden Victorian burned to the ground in 1913 and was replaced with this brick corner building.
10060 Donner Pass Road
Frank Burckhaulter hailed from Zanesville, Ohio and he came West in the Gold Rush but as a businessman not a miner or adventurer. He ran a grocery and had interests in timber and the railroads as well. He moved to Truckee in the 1860s and started the town’s first bank here. Local lore recounts an early bank robbery here in 1869 that saw employees and townspeople fight back against the bandits. Most got away, taking the cash, but one perp was shot in the ankle and died when his shattered foot was being amputated. Over the years this 100+ year-old brick building was home to a saloon, a skating rink, a lodge house, a boarding house, a jewelry shop, a liquor store, a donut shop, a furniture store and, since 1974, a restaurant that takes its name from the 10’3” wide space.
10064 Donner Pass Road
The earliest business that operated out of this patterned brick building was a grocery store run by J.N. Durney. In 1913 after the premises were spruced up with steam heat it began to operate as the Hotel Rex. The proprietor Dan Smith was a native of Truckee and active town promoter. He ran one of the town’s earliest car dealerships, pushing Buicks, and was head of the Truckee Motion Picture Association which promoted the area to movie directors. He was always at the forefront of organizing the town’s Independence Day celebrations. But Dan Smith probably endeared himself mostly to the town’s residents by serving up Truckee’s best bootleg whiskey from a speakeasy called the Silver Mirror from a lower floor here during Prohibition - a dollar a shot. The Silver Mirror also offered games of chance and skill to patrons who gained entrance only through thick electric doors and a visual examination via peepholes. And if your hair was a bit shaggy you could also get a shave and a haircut from Dan Smith who learned barbering at an early age and operated a barbershop off the hotel lobby.
10068 Donner Pass Road
The Middle Ages in Great Britain saw the banding together of tradesmen into guilds to promote business and fellowship. The carpenters had their own guild, the bricklayers had their own guild and so on. Trades that did not have a large number of practitioners welded into hodgepodge guilds known as Odd Fellows. In 19th century America an International Order of Odd Fellows lodge building, usually exuberantly ornate, could be found in virtually every town. Truckee’s was constructed in 1871.
10072 Donner Pass Road
This the oldest brick structure on Commercial Row, constructed in 1870 by William H. Hurd for his Capitol Saloon. Hurd left the mining fields to open the establishment in 1868 but the wooden building burned to the ground. In addition to the bar and restaurant on the ground floor there was a theater upstairs. The Capitol stayed in business until 1980 but is best remembered for the events on November 6, 1891 when the town’s first and most famous constable was gunned down in the saloon. Jake Teeter was New Jersey-born and came west to Truckee where he rented boats and worked as a fishing guide on Donner Lake. At the age of 26 in 1868 Teeter was appointed constable. Over the years he gained respect, dispensing justice with a pick handle rather than a gun. He constantly won every election for constable, often over his sometime fellow lawman, James Reed. Reed was also known for vigilantism and over the years their friendly rivalry turned bitter. A final confrontation in Hurd’s bar led a whiskeyed-up Teeter to fire on Reed who shot and mortally wounded the lawman. Reed was found innocent of Teeter’s killing at a cornoner’s inquest. But he was so haunted by the incident that the once gregarious and popular Reed retreated to a small cabin outside of town and lived as a recluse for the final 13 years of his life.
10100 Donner Pass Road
This is Truckee’s oldest retail establishment, in business since 1918. Founder Dave Cabona would not recognize the high end fashions for sale today in the store - he sold fishing tackle, rubber tires, gasoline and dry goods more suited for life in a wilderness cabin.
10112 Donner Pass Road
Tim O’Hanrahan of Kilkenny, Ireland owned the original Sierra Tavern that was located west of Spring Street; Davis & Richmond Grocers occupied this location back in the 1870s. The Sierra burned in 1927 and O’Hanrahan built a three-story building here for his saloon; a fourth story came along in 1938. This was a favored hostelry for visiting movie crews on location in Lake Tahoe and it is rumored that Jack London, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne all signed the guest register here. Upstairs, Charles Fayette McGlashan kept an office; he is credited with establishing Truckee as a winter tourism destination in the late 1800s and as editor and proprietor of the Truckee Republican newspaper was the first to accurately chronicle the struggles of the Donner Party in his book, History of The Donner Party, A Tragedy of the Sierra.
First and Last Chance Saloon
10128 Donner Pass Road at northeast corner of Spring Street
This brick building from 1890 was the first place for travelers heading east to get a drink in Truckee; for those heading west it was your last chance to get a drink before leaving town. John Mazza was the barkeep; he emigrated from the town of Tyrol on the Switzerland-Italy border in 1884 and came to Truckee five years later.
TURN RIGHT ON SPRING STREET.
Old Jail Museum
10142 Jibboom Street at northeast corner of Spring Street
Until 1873 only an informal dungeon served the lawmen of Truckee and it was getting a workout - just about every day a prisoner was being transported to facilities at Nevada City. Nineteen town businessmen pooled $25 each to build a proper jail and James Stewart, the best stonemason in town, got the job for a fee of $1,235. Stewart fashioned a one-story building with walls 32 inches thick and just slender vents for air; the iron bars were an extra cost. William Hart was the first “guest” in September of 1875, spending six days in the jail for brawling. The Truckee jail would operate continuously until 1964; a second brick level was added in 1901, in part for female prisoners. Some of the Great Depression’s most notorious outlaws, including Lester Gillis, aka Baby Face Nelson, and, George Barnes, better known as Machine Gun Kelly, who was picked up for shoplifting in Truckee Variety, spent time in this jail.
CONTINUE ON SPRING STREET AS IT BENDS TO THE LEFT UP THE HILL.
10154 High Street at southeast corner of Spring Street
George and Warren Richardson were born on the Maine coast in the 1820s and came west for the California Gold Rush. The brothers followed their mining ambitions by starting one of Truckee’s largest lumber mills. They also owned a box factory and managed an active ice trade. Warren Richardson was one of the earliest and wealthiest of Truckee’s citizens and in 1887 he used lumber from his mill to construct this handsome Victorian home.
ACROSS THE STREET IS...
Rocking Stone Tower
west side of Spring Street at High Street
Rocking stones are large rocks, often souvenirs from retreating glaciers, that are so finely balanced that just a small touch will set them rocking. This 17-ton stone used to rock but no longer does; it was considered sacred by the Washoe people who held ceremonies here some 15,000 years ago. Charles McGlashan built the Victorian tower in 1895 to display relics from the Donner Party and his widely renowned butterfly collection.
WALK BACK DOWN SPRING STREET TO DONNER PASS ROAD AND TURN RIGHT, CONTINUING WEST.
10130 Donner Pass Road at northwest corner of Spring Street
This brick building with a stepped parapet was constructed in 1915 as the town’s first telephone building; the owner was Tim O’Hanrahan of the Sierra Tavern. Although the building stands without any ornamentation the porch columns and second story windows are of visual interest.
Tahoe Dave’s Skis
10200 Donner Pass Road
This is an 1880s residential structure that survives as an example of a working class house from Truckee’s boom days as a lumber center in the summer and ice supplier in the winter. Beginning in 1907 it was used as a ranger station for the United States Forest Service, one of the first for the service that had just been started by President Theodore Roosevelt two years earlier.
10230 Donner Pass Road
This one and one-half story building dates to 1885. Although somewhat altered it retains some of the heritage traits of its original Queen Anne stylings including scale shingles in the front gable and a cutwork balustrade featuring heart and diamond patterns.
10292 Donner Pass Road
“Kruger” was William Henry Kruger a lumberman and builder of this two-story Italianate house in 1873. Kruger was partners with E.J. Brickell, whose name this slice of downtown carries. The lumbermen build many residences in Brickelltown for their employees at the Truckee Lumber Company that flourished on the other side of the railroad tracks. “White” was Charles Bernard White who arrived in Truckee in 1896 in the employ of the Southern Pacific Company. After working for the railroad he became a bank manager in town and served as president of the Truckee Chamber of Commerce; he purchased this house in 1904. Additions and restoration have given the showplace house, now a commercial property, a more Queen Anne appearance.
TURN AROUND AND WALK BACK ON DONNER PASS ROAD, HEADING EAST. AT SPRING STREET CROSS THE ROAD AND CONTINUE HEADING EAST.
Flying A Service Station/Sports Tahoe
10091 Donner Pass Road
Associated Oil Company of San Francisco was founded in 1901 and created the prominent Flying A brand for its premium-grade gasoline in 1932. When J. Paul Getty was buying up oil companies in the 1930s he merged Associated with his Tidewater Oil Company, founded in New York City in 1887, and made Flying A the primary brand for the company. Flying A disappeared in 1970 when Getty decided to use its own trademark name for its gas. This service station dates to 1936 and it was restored in 2007 to a 1949 look; it does duty today as retail space.
10075 Donner Pass Road
The first depot in Truckee was built in 1869 when the Transcontinental Railroad was constructed through town. Engines from the Truckee yards were necessary to help pull trains with more than 100 railroad cars over the Donner Pass. In the winter crews based at Truckee would have the responsibility of clearing snow off the tracks; in the early days that could mean six or seven plow-pushing locomotives. After the depot burned in 1900 the Southern Pacific Railroad raised this low-slung building of local pine boards. Next to the station the Truckee Railroad Museum operates in a Southern Pacific caboose, painted in the original colors of the line.
CROSS THE RAILROAD TRACKS AND WALK THROUGH THE PARKING LOT TO WEST RIVER STREET AND TURN LEFT.
10015 West River Street
George Schaffer built the town’s first lumber mill with partner Joseph Gray on the Truckee River in 1867. This vernacular frame structure was erected as a residence, maybe for his own family or maybe for employees; Schaffer built three structures in town before moving to another mill in the Martis Valley in 1871. The building was converted to the Star Hotel at that time and began a run of hospitality stretching over 100 years. Today it is believed that the Victorian frame house to the west, your right as you look at the Star Hotel, was the Schaffer residence.
10009 West River Street at southwest corner of Brockway Road
This board-and-batten building was a saloon when it was raised in the 1890s. One hundred years later the structure was entombed in a stucco straightjacket when a 30-month restoration was undertaken. Uncovered in the makeover was the large painted sign - “Cook’s Phone 27.” Cook’s was a plumbing supply store and there were so few telephones in town that all you had to do to get in touch was ask the switchboard operator for “phone 27.”
Jax Truckee Diner
10144 West River Street at northwest corner of Brockway Road
The Kullman Dining Car Company began in Newark, New Jersey in 1927, manufacturing diners. With innovative materials such as stainless steel and formica, the company became a leader in pre-fab structures and lasted until 2011. This diner, which looks like an actual railroad car, began life in 1949 as the Birmingham Grille on a busy truck route in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. It was closed in 1991 and surrounded by towering weeds in an empty lot when San Francisco restaurant entrepreneur Robert Carey uncovered it. Carey paid $45,000 for the diner and another $30,000 to truck it two weeks across the country to this location where it is estimated to be one of less than a thousand original diners remaining in America.
TURN LEFT ON BROCKWAY ROAD AND CROSS DONNER PASS ROAD TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.