By Mark McLaughlin ·
Lora Josephine Knight’s legacy is enshrined in the magnificent Scandinavian castle, Vikingsholm, which she had built at Emerald Bay in 1929, but her first property at Tahoe was located at Chinquapin, a sheltered cove just east of Dollar Point in Carnelian Bay.
It was 100 years ago, in 1914, that Mrs. Josephine Moore (eight years before her marriage to Harry Knight) purchased the land at Chinquapin from descendants of Lake Tahoe timber baron Duane L. Bliss. It was there that Mrs. Moore built a charming lakefront estate that she called Wychwood.
The name Chinquapin is an American Indian word for a nut-bearing bush or scrub tree originally from the Virginia Algonquian Tribe. At nearby Dollar Point (named for shipping tycoon Robert S. Dollar Sr.), Washoe Indians used white clay they found there to decorate their bodies. They called the place “white paint river.” The fish, seeds and berries that the Natives harvested in the area were an added bonus.
Later, a map produced in 1863 by engineer John Kidder for a California commission, trying to determine the boundary line between the Golden State and Nevada Territory labeled it Chinkapin Point. The location has enjoyed other monikers, as well, such as Old Lousy Point and Observatory Point. The term Old Lousy has at least three possible sources: the spot was “lousy with trout;” the point was lousy because it was difficult to navigate around in high wind; or because of an 1872 land squatter living near the point called Old Lousy by locals for his bedraggled appearance and revolting habit of picking lice off his skin in a Tahoe City bar.
Regardless, the name Old Lousy was short lived because in 1873 a master surveyor and ambitious engineer named Alexis Von Schmidt recommended the point for the installation of the world’s most powerful space telescope.
Von Schmidt was already well known in Tahoe because three years before he had proposed constructing the “World’s Greatest Aqueduct” to divert water from the Truckee River, through a Sierra tunnel, to San Francisco. His grandiose scheme failed when federal courts ruled that most of the water belonged to Nevada, but Von Schmidt soon got involved with determining the best location to build the newly proposed James Lick Astronomical Observatory.
James Lick, a thrifty Pennsylvania Dutchman, first struck it rich in the California Gold Rush and then parlayed his luck into a fortune by investing in the booming San Francisco real estate market. Lick was a skilled craftsman, trained in making custom cabinets and pianos, but he had always been interested in astronomy. He had spent many evening hours in his adult life gazing at the celestial firmament though a friend’s telescope.
By the 1870s, however, Lick was in poor physical and mental health, but fiercely determined to build the world’s most powerful telescope. The high-profile project would help advance a science that he felt passionate about while also leaving behind an important monument as Lick’s legacy. Many parties were interested in Lick’s $2 million estate and bringing the soon-to-be famous telescope to their own region. Astronomers from around the world told Lick that a high-altitude mountain location made the best sense as it would be above most of the dust and water vapor that obscures the sky at lower elevations.
There were many suitors for the prestigious and expensive project, but Alexis Von Schmidt thought Lake Tahoe was the perfect choice and he spent some time scouting out basin topography. He chose a site 300 feet above the lake on Old Lousy Point and renamed it Observatory Point in anticipation. The owners of the land, Duane Bliss and his business partner Henry Yerington, supported the effort and deeded over the necessary land for free.
Von Schmidt also envisioned turning the 300-acre plot into a park and a summer campground. Unfortunately, citizens in Virginia City, Nev., protested the location, as did civic boosters in Grass Valley and the Bay Area, who insisted that they were better suited for an observatory than snowbound Lake Tahoe. At first, James Lick was inclined toward Von Schmidt’s recommended choice, but the dying philanthropist designated a committee to make the best determination among all the competing proposals.
After years of bickering, the Lick Observatory was constructed in 1888 on the 4,200-foot summit of Mount Hamilton east of San Jose. It was the first permanently occupied mountaintop observatory in the world and for nearly 10 years its telescope was the largest ever built.
When the dust finally settled, Bliss and Yerington regained title to their land at Observatory Point and resumed logging operations. In 1914, Lora Moore acquired the land from the heirs of the deceased Duane Bliss and built her Wychwood Estate.
According to Helen Henry Smith’s book, “Vikingsholm: Tahoe’s Hidden Castle,” Lora was born in Galena, Ill., in 1864. She was of English descent and not Scandinavian as many assume from her famous Vikingsholm castle, and one of four daughters with a brother.
Lora’s father, Edward Small, was a corporate lawyer who took on two brothers as partners in his law practice — William Henry Moore and James Hobart Moore. As fate would have it, Lora married James and her sister, Ada, married William. After Edward Small’s death, William and James took over the firm and formed the Moore Brothers partnership. The sibling entrepreneurs eventually amassed quite a fortune with controlling interest in a number of large American corporations such as the Rock Island, Chicago & Pacific Railroad, the Diamond Match Company, U.S. Steel and National Biscuit (Nabisco), the maker of Oreo cookies.
In 1884, Lora gave birth to their only child, a son, Nathaniel, who later married Helen Fargo, daughter of William Fargo and heiress to the legendary Wells Fargo banking dynasty born in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. “Nathan” was an avid golfer and a participating member of the American Olympic team that won the gold medal at the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, Mo. Nathan apparently knew how to have a good time, dying at the age of 25 of “natural causes” after spending the previous night at the Everleigh Club, Chicago’s most famous and expensive brothel.
Stay tuned for Part II and more about Lora Knight’s Tahoe adventures.
Special thanks to Rob Reis, Bob Duffield, Ralph Coppola and others for their help with this untold history of our Tahoe heritage.
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 his blog at tahoenuggets.com.