The legendary Tahoe Tavern, Part I

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Tahoe Tavern, circa 1908. | Courtesy Mark McLaughlin

The Tahoe Tavern condominium properties located south of Tahoe City is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer as the reincarnation of the original Tahoe Tavern Hotel & Casino built at the turn of the 20th Century. The contemporary version of the Tahoe Tavern was mostly completed in 1965, but before we look into that story, let’s revisit the visionary efforts of Duane L. Bliss, the man who built the Tavern and singlehandedly established modern tourism at Lake Tahoe.

Duane Leroy Bliss was a man of integrity, ability and vision; positive character traits that would manifest themselves at Lake Tahoe. Born in Savoy, Mass., in 1833, Bliss completed his schooling by age 13. Tragically, this accomplishment was quickly followed by his mother’s death, so he signed up for a two-year stint working as a cabin boy on a ship traveling to South America. He returned home in 1848 to teach in a Savoy school, but the following year, news of the Gold Rush swept New England. Bliss quit his job and boarded a California-bound steamer.

Duane Bliss was barely 17-years-old when he reached California in 1850, but with hard work he made money on a small mining claim. He used his earnings to acquire interest in a general store and hotel in Woodside on the San Francisco Peninsula. Over the next decade, he gained much-needed business experience and in 1860 Bliss moved to Gold Hill, Nev., where he was hired to manage a quartz mill at Silver City. The Comstock mining excitement was in its infancy and the men who controlled capital would soon control the land, as well as the logging and mining industries that were just getting started.

Over the next eight years, Bliss tried his hand at all aspects of Comstock industry. He supervised large construction projects, ran mining and ore milling operations, and held executive banking positions. By the time Bliss was 30-years-old, he had earned a reputation for his sound judgment and strong, ethical principles.

Bliss became a partner and manager for a Gold Hill banking firm, but the company was acquired by the Bank of California. The bank’s directors were ruthless when it came to gaining control of Nevada’s mining operations. They used low-interest loans to leverage takeovers of money-strapped mine and stamp mill operators. But Bliss wasn’t out of a job. The hard-nosed executives at the San Francisco-based Bank of California knew that they were held in low esteem by Comstock communities. But Duane Bliss was well known for his honesty and good standing in western Nevada, so the bank retained him as chief cashier.

In 1868, the Bank of California initiated the construction of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, and they appointed Duane Bliss as right-of-way agent, responsible for acquiring the necessary properties for the project, as well as enticing investors. D.L. Bliss wasn’t being a stooge for the hated bank; he was in the process of obtaining forestland in the Tahoe Basin. Bliss realized that the valuable timber needed to sustain Comstock mining operations was located on the slopes surrounding Lake Tahoe, and the new V&T railroad would economically transport it to Virginia City.

In 1873, Bliss and a group of investors formed the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company with Bliss as president, general manager and largest stockholder. The company had three divisions: logging, wood milling and railroad transportation, with its center of operations at Glenbrook on Lake Tahoe. Over the next quarter century, this consortium removed most of the old growth timber in the Tahoe Basin. It was a massive amount of wood – nearly 750 million board feet of timber, and 500,000 cords of firewood. At one point, the company owned nearly 80,000 acres, including miles of pristine Tahoe shoreline. Bliss had purchased much of the land for as little as $1.25 an acre. Famed Virginia City journalist Dan De Quille said it best: “The Comstock Lode was the tomb of the forests of Tahoe.”

By 1880, mounting damage to the Tahoe forest drew protests from visitors, newspaper editors and politicians. A movement toward mitigating exploitation of Tahoe timber gathered popular support. Duane Bliss ordered loggers on his timber tracts to spare all trees under 15 inches in diameter in order to protect a portion of the forest and accelerate its eventual re-growth.

Eventually, the Comstock went bust for good. The local economy collapsed and people deserted the region in droves. When the dust finally settled, it was apparent that the clear-cut logging operations had decimated much of the region’s natural beauty. At the south shore of Lake Tahoe, abandoned logging camps, empty flumes, rusting railroad equipment and silent mills haunted the denuded landscape.

But Duane Bliss wasn’t giving up on the magic of Lake Tahoe. He realized that the lake had everything to support world-class tourism and he had a vision for how that would happen. His scheme required three interrelated projects – a stylish passenger steamship, a railroad to connect Tahoe City with Southern Pacific’s transcontinental line in Truckee, and the Tahoe Tavern, a luxury hotel.

Bliss started with the “SS Tahoe,” a 169-foot-long beauty that he launched in June 1896. This elegant watercraft was built for comfort and capable of carrying 200 passengers, plus mail and freight. The sleek steel hull was comprised of eight, watertight compartments, which made the ship virtually unsinkable, and with a top speed of 18 knots, she could circle Lake Tahoe in less than eight hours with stops. Known fondly as “The Queen of the Lake,” she would transport thousands of passengers over nearly 45 years of service.

To facilitate easier access to North Lake Tahoe, Bliss built a narrow gage railroad from Truckee to Tahoe City. He formed the Lake Tahoe Railway & Transportation Company with all of its capital stock held by members of his family. Duane appointed his oldest son, civil engineer William Seth, to survey the proposed railroad route along the Truckee River. Unlike previous logging railroads in the region, his was purposed toward tourists. It operated from May 15 to Nov. 15 and visitors comprised the bulk of its business.

The centerpiece in the Bliss plan was the Tahoe Tavern Hotel & Casino, which opened in mid-1902. Designed by another Bliss son, Walter, it was considered the finest hotel between San Francisco and the Rockies. Stay tuned to next week’s column.