Robert M. Watson: Tahoe City Lawman

Robert “Bob” Montgomery Watson, an important and influential early resident at North Lake Tahoe, was appointed Tahoe City’s first constable in 1906 at the age of 52. The growing community of Tahoe City had been spared the violent history experienced by the nearby town of Truckee in the late 19th Century, with its street gunplay and aggressive vigilantism, but hiring a lawman seemed a prudent idea. Bob Watson had the reputation as a “gentleman jailer” and played a grandfatherly role for local children, but despite his genteel manners and easy-going attitude, Officer Watson effectively enforced the law in Tahoe City for 26 years. Besides being the local cop, he also worked as a mountain guide, mill operator and historic trail sleuth.

Watson and his wife, Sarah Cunningham, moved to Tahoe City in 1875 when Bob was 21 years old. The couple leased the Tahoe House, which they operated as a popular inn for about a decade. The couple had five children during this period, but in 1897 news reached the United States that gold had been discovered in Yukon Territory, Canada. Watson and his oldest son, Frank, joined in the great rush to the Klondike to secure their fortune in the gold fields. Watson Sr. returned to Lake Tahoe in 1900 while Frank remained in the Yukon to work their mining claim. Watson built a small house near the Tahoe Dam, which became the abode of the gatekeepers who controlled the flow of water down the Truckee River. He also constructed the first school in Tahoe City and built the picturesque log cabin (Watson Cabin Museum) on the bluff overlooking Tahoe Commons as a wedding gift for his youngest son, Robert H. Watson, and his bride, Stella Tong.

Tall and lanky, Constable Watson was known as a “gentleman jailer” because he often let miscreants and all but the worst offenders sleep on the floor at his house as opposed to serving time in the 12-foot-square, windowless concrete jail.

Tall and lanky, Constable Watson was known as a “gentleman jailer” because he often let miscreants and all but the worst offenders sleep on the floor at his house as opposed to serving time in the 12-foot-square, windowless concrete jail located at the Tahoe Commons beach (the jail still sits on Commons Beach). Tahoe City suffered little in the way of violent crime; most of Watson’s constable workload involved taking care of rowdy drunks. A noted horseman and conservationist, Watson was in high demand as a guide and wrangler for guests at the luxurious Tahoe Tavern hotel located just south of Tahoe City. He kept a stable of horses on his acre-sized corral on the main street and had little use for the ever-increasing popularity of automobiles. He stated that as long as he had his horses, he “didn’t need no gasoline eatin’ critter.”

Explore Tahoe history 
Watson Cabin, built by Robert M. Watson, is open for tours in the summer. See Sightseeing for details.

Unfortunately, Watson’s last horse, Patches, was struck and killed by one. Constable Watson’s many community improvement efforts included the creation of Tahoe City’s Trail’s End Cemetery where he and Patches are buried.

Over the last years of his life, Watson had located traces of an old pioneer route over Squaw Valley and “re-blazed” it for others to follow. From Emigrant Pass at Squaw Valley, the route followed a primitive trail down to Yankee Jims on the Foresthill Divide near Auburn. Improved in the early 1850s, it was called the Placer County Emigrant Road. Primarily built as a conduit for westbound pioneer families with wagons and carts pulled by mules and oxen heading for the gold diggings, it later became a vital artery for commercial freight traffic between west slope communities and the Comstock boomtowns in Nevada Territory. The popularity of the Emigrant Road would not last long, however, because the completion of the first transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass meant the demise of the rugged trail and it slowly weathered away.

In 1930, less than two years before he died, Watson constructed a granite monument near Emigrant Pass, a piece of history that still stands. Incredibly, Watson’s homemade commemorative marker, dedicated “to pioneers and men who served their country in wars and settling the country” at an elevation of 8,774 feet has withstood 87 winters at the top of Squaw Valley. Today, the Emigrant Road is now part of the 100-mile Western States Trail Race, an internationally renowned ultra-marathon endurance race for equestrians and runners.

Watson died on April 3, 1932, at the age of 77 due to complications from a fall and pneumonia. On the afternoon of his funeral, all businesses and schools closed to honor Tahoe City’s beloved leader. For the final ride to the cemetery, the casket was transferred from a hearse to a toboggan. The casket was followed by three other toboggans filled with flowers. The funeral procession passed between two lines of schoolchildren saluting and holding wreaths of flowers. Watson’s daughter Alice described her father as “a man who never fought with man or beast, but gave of himself to improve the place where he lived, be it through planting trout in a mountain lake or marking a trail for the joy of a horseman.” Nearby Watson Lake and Mount Watson are named in honor of this revered pioneer who did so much for his community.

After Watson’s death, Tahoe City deputy sheriff and owner of the Tahoe Inn, Carl A. Bechdolt, was appointed to serve as constable until a new one could be elected. Bechdolt was still serving as constable two years later when the notorious gangster George “Baby Face” Nelson came to town. During the summer of 1934, Nelson was eluding a nationwide dragnet, hiding out in Northern California, Reno and Lake Tahoe.

In July, the murderous fugitive convinced someone at the Tahoe Inn to give him $200 in exchange for a gold pocket watch. Two months later, Baby Face returned to the Tahoe Inn where he checked in for the night. That evening Nelson left word with the cashier that he would be leaving early the next morning. By 4 a.m. Nelson had slipped out of the hotel, just three hours before FBI agents arrived searching for him.

Two months later, Baby Face Nelson died in a furious shootout with federal agents near Chicago, Ill. Today, Nelson’s hocked pocket watch is in the protective custody of the Gatekeeper’s Cabin Museum near the Tahoe Dam.

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Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author 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.