1863: Truckee is born

Commercial Row Truckee, circa 1869  |  Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

In 2013, the town of Truckee celebrates its founding 150 years ago.

In 1863, Joseph Gray erected Gray’s Toll Station along the Truckee River in order to serve wagon traffic on the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road that was under construction at the time. Gray and his family moved into the toll house and started a roadside business as a rest stop for weary travelers on the crude road that crossed nearby Donner Pass. Joe Gray’s early business venture was the seed that would blossom into the lively town of Truckee.

Early settlers
The 1859 discovery of silver and gold in western Nevada Territory had spurred settlement in the region, but Gray’s family certainly wasn’t the first to live in the area. For 9,000 years, Indians relied on the life-sustaining Truckee River as a vital resource for their survival. During the warmer months, they hunted game and foraged for berries and medicinal plants along its banks. The Washoe and Northern Paiute tribes routinely fished for the large cutthroat trout that abounded in the clear, cold mountain water, an important addition to their limited diet of pine nuts, grass seeds and small game. The Washoe called the Truckee River “a’wakhu wa’t’a” and resident archeologist Susan Lindstrom has reported that before downtown Truckee was built, the site was a Washoe Indian village named “K’ubuna detde’yi.”

Chief Truckee  |  Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

Truckee’s name
There are variations on the origination of the word “Truckee.” One account claims a Canadian trapper named Baptiste Truckee discovered the river while searching for water with an exploration party led by Joseph R. Walker in 1833.

Another is that a friendly Paiute Indian chief known as Tru-ki-zo frequently said “tro-kay” during encounters with early pioneers. When Chief Tru-ki-zo met early settlers heading west, he would volunteer to lead them to safety. As they scouted the forbidding terrain, the chief repeatedly spoke words that sounded like tro-kay or something phonetically similar. It wasn’t long before his frequently spoken phrase became Truckee and eventually the chief adopted it as his common name.

Truckee’s granddaughter, Sarah Winnemucca, wrote that the Paiute word “Truckee” means “all right” or “very well.” It makes sense that the friendly chief would reassure wary emigrants with words that essentially meant, “Everything’s going to be OK.” After Chief Truckee guided the 1844 Stephens-Murphy-Townsend wagon train up the Truckee River Canyon and into California, the grateful emigrants named the river after him.

In 1865, anticipating the construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass and east into Nevada, a blacksmith from Dutch Flat named S.S. Coburn set up a stage station, with a restaurant and saloon, just west of Gray’s business. In a short time, Coburn’s Station was crowded with men assigned to work at the advance camp for Central Pacific Railroad. Joseph Gray expanded into the booming lumber industry with George Schaffer, an experienced businessman from Carson City. Due to all the lucrative timber and railroad activity, the small hamlet along the Truckee River known as Coburn’s Station grew rapidly.

In April 1868, newspapers reported that the residents of Coburn’s Station had changed the name of their town to “Truckee.” Two months later, when much of it burned down, including Coburn’s structures, the name Truckee achieved permanent status.

Train traffic through Truckee, circa 1911  |  Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

Early years
The construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass and along the Truckee River in the late 1860s was an economic boon for the community. The booming Comstock operations and Central Pacific’s track construction generated intense demand for lumber, while the railroad gave Truckee-based businesses an efficient and convenient transportation system to ship wood products to distant markets. To supply cordwood for CP’s steam-powered locomotives and Nevada’s smelting furnaces, scores of sawmills were built in the Truckee area. Truckee provided lumber and building materials for towns throughout the arid West, extracting an estimated 7 billion feet of timber and 10 million cords of fuel wood. For nearly 75 years, the mountains reverberated with the sound of loggers’ axes and whining saws, until there was nothing left to cut.

In the 1870s, the silver mines at Virginia City slowly began to play out and unemployment grew among Truckee’s workforce. The newly jobless white workers became less tolerant of Chinese immigrants as men scrambled for any job they could get, including some of the low paying work performed by Orientals. CP had employed thousands of Chinese workers and when railroad construction ended, about 1,000 settled in Truckee. In 1875, Truckee’s Chinatown section burnt to the ground. Little damage was done to Anglo-owned buildings, but residents had suffered devastating fires before and tension between the races increased. A vigilante committee that called itself the Caucasian League formed to rid the town of Chinese. Through violent tactics that included murder and arson, by 1886 virtually all Chinese inhabitants had left.

During the summer months of the 19th century, tourism injected money into Truckee’s local economy. Stagecoaches and the railroad delivered many visitors thrilled to enjoy the pleasant climate and stunning scenic beauty. Tourists ate at local restaurants, drank and danced at Commercial Row saloons, and slept in nearby hotels. The long winters, however, proved more challenging for finding employment.

In the late 1870s, commercial ice companies began to establish operations along the Truckee River from Verdi to Donner Lake. Water was dammed and natural ice was cut and stored by the thousands of tons. Much of it was used in the Comstock tunnels to cool and refresh miners working in extremely hot temperatures. Railroad companies purchased huge quantities of it for refrigerating California produce shipped to Eastern markets, and as far as Hawaii and South America. By the 20th century, however, most of these natural ice operations became uneconomical with the growth of mechanical refrigeration plants. Truckee would have to find some other industry to replace the lost jobs associated with the demise of the ice business.

Winter tourism
In the mid-1890s, civic leaders, led by Charles McGlashan, Truckee’s noted pioneer historian, newspaperman, scientist, educator and attorney, organized a winter carnival based on similar venues in Minnesota and Canada. An ice palace that housed an indoor ice skating rink was built downtown. The wooden structure was wrapped with wire mesh and sprayed with water in subfreezing temperatures to create a shimmering veneer. In 1910, an old steam engine from an abandoned lumber mill was converted into an uphill lift at Hilltop for tobogganists and skiers. It was the first of its kind in the United States. Southern Pacific Railroad offered “Snowball Express” train excursions that brought thousands of tourists every winter weekend. By 1930, Truckee boasted a towering scaffold ski jump and activities of all kinds for winter enthusiasts. Today, California’s winter sports industry pumps nearly $1.4 billion into the state’s economy, but it all started with Truckee’s home-grown winter carnival.

150th celebrations
Throughout 2013, the Town of Truckee is celebrating 150 years since establishment and 20 years since incorporation.  In 1863, the first settlers established the community and on March 23, 1993, the first Town Council was sworn into office after a vote to incorporate the Town the previous November.

Join the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Truckee at Truckee Thursday in downtown Truckee on June 20. Union Pacific Railroad will be designating Truckee as a Train Town as part of its Train Town USA project at 5 p.m. on the stage in front of the Train Depot in downtown Truckee.

As well, children, families, residents and guests are invited to participate in a railroad history game, which includes stops at the Truckee Donner Historical Society’s Old Jail Museum, the Truckee Donner Railroad Society Museum in the caboose next to the Train Depot, and a performance by the Railroad Regulators.  Stop by the Town of Truckee booth at the June 20 Truckee Thursday event to pick up a map and game instructions to experience Truckee’s railroad history first hand and receive a commemorative anniversary coffee mug.


Previous articleSummer’s musical bounty
Next articlePineapple Lamb Kabobs
Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.