City Spotlight: Lake Tahoe

[Reprinted from Images of America: Lake Tahoe by Peter Goin (Arcadia Publishing, 2005).]

A Brief History

Early Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a large freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada, which straddles the border of California and Nevada. It was first “discovered” in 1844 by American explorers, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson. However, various artifacts confirm the presence of early Native Americans, dating back to a time when saber-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths roamed what is now Nevada Desert.

 For example, radio-carbon dating recently revealed that a human mummy nicknamed “Spirit Cave Man” is over 9,500 years old (for reference, this is 3 times the age of the mummy of King Tut in Egypt). Further, petroglyphs in the area have been dated to 14,800 years, making them the oldest yet discovered petroglyphs in North America. Newer human artifacts, approximately 6,000 years old, have routinely been unearthed at Kings Beach, beside the shores of Lake Tahoe. It is believed that these early inhabitants, ancestors of today’s Washoe and Paiute Tribes, found a rich source of protein in Tahoe’s famous Lahontan cutthroat trout, thus allowing them to sustain life in the area.
Conservation & Tourism

The American Conservation Movement has deep ties to the Tahoe territory, but unfortunately it was not yet in place before some critical resources were depleted. By the late 1880’s, more than one billion board feet of old-growth timber had already been stripped from the Basin, to the point that timber companies had to pack up their sawmills and find more wood elsewhere. Further, close proximity to the new transcontinental railroad enabled implementation of industrial fishing methods which soon brought Tahoe’s famous Lahontan cutthroat trout to the brink of distinction, thus creating the first major collapse of an American fishery.

By 1888, when former-mountaineer turned conservationist, John Muir, showed up for an extended vacation, the devastation he encountered spurred him to action. He promptly formed the Sierra Club and lobbied extensively for the creation of the new National Parks and Forest Reserves. Though his efforts to create a Tahoe National Park failed, his consolation was the creation of the Tahio National Forest Reserve, which stretched all the way south toward Yosemite.

Thanks to Muir’s efforts, Tahoe’s depleted forest gradually recovered, along with a new and unanticipated development: a booming tourist trade. With a flood of wealthy tourists arriving each summer via luxurious steamships and railroads, Tahoe’s new resorts were soon competing for business with established hotels and casinos. As the automobile became more popular throughout the 1920s, visitors soon included middle-class families, and resorts catering to their socioeconomic status started popping up too.

Continued Growth

By 1950, Tahoe visitors could enjoy year-round access to the park, visiting its expansive sandy beaches in the summer, and skiing down the mountains in the winter. In 1960, the first nationally-televised Olympic Games aired in Squaw Valley, in great part to the efforts of Walt Disney, ushering Tahoe into even greater economic growth and land development.

Tahoe’s tremendous growth can also be attributed to the 1954 federal law banning slot machines nationwide – with Nevada being the exception. This prompted gambling-starved residents of other states to flock to the Nevada side of Tahoe, where gambling was still permitted.

Today, Lake Tahoe is (still) famous for its unparalelled, shimmering clear blue water and pristine sandy beaches, and visitors flock there to enjoy the more than 274 days of sunshine it receives each year. Whether you're going to gamble, ski, or swim in the Lake, the surrounding towns and resorts have something for everyone. 

Historic Images of Lake Tahoe

Now that we’ve got a brief history fresh in our minds, let’s take a look at some of the historic images of Lake Tahoe our dedicated authors have compiled for us.

Scenic View of Lake Taho

[Reprinted from Images of America: Lake Tahoe by Peter Goin (Arcadia Publishing, 2005).]

A visitor felt compelled to simply record the clarity of the water and mountain air in this photograph entitled, "Scene at North End of Lake Tahoe." There is no specific subject of the photograph, except for the intrinsic "view." This fits a common pattern of vernacular scenic photography. [Pg. 17]

[Reprinted from Postcard History Series: Lake Tahoe by Sara Larson and the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society (Arcadia Publishing, 2008).]

The railroad line along the Truckee River appears in this [postcard] at the spot where today there is a paved bike path. The Truckee River flows from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake in Nevada. [Pg. 11]

[Reprinted from Images of America: Skiing at Lake Tahoe by Mark McLaughlin (Arcadia Publishing, 2012).]

The Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl, located near Eureka Peak in Plumas County, California, is considered by historians to be the site of the world's first consistent, organized aline ski-racing competitions, which began in the early 1860's. [Pg. 10]

[Reprinted from Images of America: Lake Tahoe: A Maritime History by Peter Goin (Arcadia Publishing, 2012 ).]

Trout fishing became a major industry, indicated by the success of William Lapham's Fish Market Landing, and Burke and Company's Friday Station. The prevailing opinion at the time considered fish supplies inexhaustible, resulting in the inevitable decline of commercial fisheries. During the heyday of fishing operations, many entrepreneurs, such as the ones pictured here, acquired fishing boats allegedly using seine-fishing techniques. [Pg. 10]

 [Reprinted from Lake Tahoe: Then & Now by Peter Goin (Arcadia Publishing, 2010).]

The Tahoe Keys were built in the late 1950s as a popular area for recreational living. Unfortunately its development has led to several environmental problems. Landfill forever altered a large filtering marsh leading to more fine-particle sediment, lowering the clarity of the lake; also, Eurasian water milfoil, an invasive aquatic plant, has developed a stronghold in the area, resisting efforts by water authorities to eradicate it. [Pg. 18]

[Reprinted from Images of America: Lake Tahoe's West Shore by Carol A. Jensen and the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society (Arcadia Publishing, 2012).]

Erected by A.J. Bayley in 1871, the Grand Central Hotel was the first luxury hotel built in Tahoe City. It exceeded in popularity the Glenbrook House (established in 1863), which had catered to Virginia City magnates. The Grand Central functioned as the stage stop through a succession of proprietors. The hotel provided Wells Fargo banking and stage services as well. [Pg. 21]

Fun Facts about Lake Tahoe [courtesy of]

-   Tahoe's strikingly blue appearance is a result of clean air and water. Though this is in part due to the fact that it's reflecting the sky, water as clear as this absorbs red light, leaving that rich blue color for which it is famous.

- The lake is so clear, that in some places, objects can be seen to depths beyond 70 feet!

-   The water in Lake Tahoe could cover a flat area the size of California to a depth of 14 inches. This is enough water to supply everyone in the US with 50 gallons of water per day, for 5  years.

-   Lake Tahoe's average surface elevation is 6,225 feet above sea level, makikng it the highest lake of its size in the United States.

-   Although it is commonly believed that Lake Tahoe's origins are volcanic in nature, the Lake Tahoe Basin was actually formed by geologic block faulting 25 million years ago. Uplifted blocks reated the Carson Range on the east and the Sierra Nevada Range on the west. Down-dropped blocked created the Lake Tahoe Basin in between.

For additional resources and vintage images of Lake Tahoe, check out these other books:

Haunted Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe's Rustic Architecture

Lake Tahoe Through Time

Lake Tahoe's Railroads

All Lake Tahoe Titles