By Mark McLaughlin ·
The community of Kings Beach is going through big changes as the streets are improved, sidewalks and traffic circles installed, and other pedestrian-friendly amenities take shape this summer. With Kings Beach getting such a dramatic facelift, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the neighborhood’s history.
Joe King came to Truckee from Texas during the 1920s. He was a big, tough guy with only one eye; the other, many people assumed, had been lost in a fight. King was reputed to have killed someone in Texas, but that allegation was never proven and King was always private about his past. At the time, Dick Joseph owned the Pastime Club in downtown Truckee. The Pastime sported a big Game Room in the back where Dick had installed slot machines and hosted card games like poker. With all the tough, unsavory characters that patronized his establishment, Dick hired Joe King as a body guard and bouncer. Later, the two men became partners in the business. It also has been reported that King ran a speakeasy called the Squirrel Inn at Homewood, and made bootleg whiskey at his “goat ranch” on the Truckee River.
Despite his intimidating appearance, King was respected and well-liked by many in the Truckee-Tahoe community. He had a reputation as a cracker jack card player and he made serious money in the Pastime’s back room. He also was a good business man and used his earnings to buy land along Trout Creek in east Truckee, as well as other properties around town.
These are a few of the tidbits that Frank L. Titus recently wrote me about Joe King. Titus was born in Truckee in 1922, the same year that King arrived from Gormon, Texas. King knew young Titus growing up because Frank was a close friend of Levon Joseph, Pastime owner Dick Joseph’s son. King also was friends with Frank’s dad, Deputy Constable Frank A. Titus. About 30 years later, Frank L., by now a trained pharmacist, ran Loynd’s Pharmacy at Kings Beach. King was good friends with “Peanie” Loynd, Frank’s boss. King had built a large shopping center in the heart of town near the beach, which included a grocery store, beauty parlor, a movie theater, meat market and Loynd’s Pharmacy. The drug store was on the east end of the complex and Joe Kings’ home, where he lived with his wife, Lillian, was in the back of Loynd’s and right on the beach.
Kings Beach wasn’t the first development near this location. According to Susan Lindstrom, a consulting archaeologist from Truckee, the earliest commercial enterprise was a large log cabin built in 1864 by George W. Wiggins as the headquarters for his logging operation. By 1872, Wiggin’s Station had been taken over by John Griffin, who built a saw mill along current-day Griff Creek. Griffin moved his family into the rear of the building and added several shacks for his work force, along with corrals for draft oxen and other livestock. Teams of oxen were used to pull cut trees out of the forest and to the saw mill for conversion to lumber.
Many people think that King won the money to buy the land at Kings Beach in a poker game with the eccentric millionaire George Whittell Jr. who had purchased most of the Nevada side of the lake in the early 1930s. That may have been the case, but it’s more likely that Joe King won the money in a high stakes card game with wealthy San Francisco real estate developer Robert P. Sherman who, in partnerships, owned much of the land that became the Tahoe Vista, Brockway and Kings Beach neighborhoods. Sherman had built the original Cal-Neva Lodge on the state line in 1927, which he used as a real estate office and guest house to woo prospective clients. The winnings from Sherman, combined with profits received when King cashed out his partnership in the Pastime Club, better explain the source of income needed to purchase and develop the land.
Sherman subdivided his North Tahoe properties into 40,000 lots during the stock market frenzy of the 1920s, but he didn’t intend to sell them to his rich friends in San Francisco. Instead, he wanted to offer the plots to somewhat more modest income earners who could afford $500 for a small piece of Lake Tahoe. By the time the stock exchange crashed in 1929, nearly 17,000 lots had been sold and it looked like North Tahoe was set for a population and development boom. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, most of the property owners lost their land when they couldn’t make their loan payments during the Great Depression that followed the crash and development stalled.
Frank Titus still has fond memories of Joe King as a man who left his mark at North Lake Tahoe. He remembers how Joe tried to sell him a lakefront lot, but the pharmacist was only earning $450 a month in wages. King offered him a generous payment plan with no interest until Titus could pay him back. When the men looked at the lot, Titus complained that it had a large sand dune almost up to the water’s edge and he turned down the offer. Joe King told his reluctant friend, “There are only so many feet around this lake, and someday Tahoe shoreline property is going to be worth real money.” Truer words were never spoken.
King didn’t discuss his gambling activities with Frank Titus, but there is no doubt that Joe knew Captain Whittell quite well. One time, Joe and Frank were talking when Titus mentioned that he had heard so much about Whittell and he wondered what the man looked like. A few days later, King entered the pharmacy and told Titus that Whittell was strolling down the street toward them. Within a minute, in walked a man dressed in white pants and a beat-up yachtsman’s cap. George and Joe King had a friendly conversation before the captain bought an issue of Life magazine and left the store. Frank never got introduced because he was too busy with customers.
Ultimately, Kings Beach developed into a flourishing community. Frank Titus told me more about Joe King, and there other stories about how the North Tahoe Event Center was once a bowling alley and popular concert venue that hosted iconic rock bands like the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Muddy Waters. Stay tuned for Part II.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at [email protected] Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.