Tallac Hotel and old growth trees. | Mark McLaughlin
Lucky Baldwin made a lot of money investing in Nevada silver mines, but his 1880 purchase of a hostelry near Emerald Bay helped save some of the last of Lake Tahoe’s old-growth forest. In the 1860s and 1870s, Tahoe’s extensive stands of virgin timber had fallen to the woodsman’s axe in order to support the tunnel system of the Comstock Lode. Today, locals and visitors can enjoy the Tallac Historic Site, which is free and located near South Lake Tahoe on land deeded to the U.S. Forest Service by grandchildren of the wily financier.
“It took the capitalistic vision of a notorious racehorse gambler, mining speculator and admitted womanizer named Elias Jackson Baldwin to protect this relic of Old Tahoe for future generations.”[/blockquote3]
In addition to several historic grand estates from the early 20th Century, strung like pearls along a beautiful beach, the dog-friendly Tallac site also showcases the remnants of the giant conifer forest that once graced the Tahoe Basin. Ironically, it took the capitalistic vision of a notorious racehorse gambler, mining speculator and admitted womanizer named Elias Jackson Baldwin to protect this relic of Old Tahoe for future generations.
E.J. Baldwin was known as a shrewd horse trader and dealmaker long before he packed up and joined other wagons leaving Indiana for California in 1853. Traveling with him were his first wife, Sarah Ann, and their 6-year-old daughter, Clara. The Baldwin’s journey across the plains was uneventful until they reached Salt Lake City. Baldwin had stocked his wagon with brandy, tobacco, tea and coffee to sell to the Mormons at Salt Lake. After meeting with Church of Latter Day Saints’ leader Brigham Young, Baldwin sold all his tobacco, tea and coffee at $1 a plug. The merchants referred him to Brigham Young’s brother for the sale of his brandy, which brought $16 a gallon. Baldwin earned a profit between $3,000 and $4,000. Shortly after leaving Salt Lake City, the Baldwin family survived a surprise Indian attack in the Utah Desert — an action Baldwin claimed was instigated by Brigham Young’s brother in order to steal back the proceeds from the brandy sale.
Later, Baldwin’s gambling style earned him the moniker “Lucky” and millions speculating in Nevada mining stocks in the 1860s. Over time, he became the powerful Bank of California’s largest creditor. From there he built an empire. He erected a lavish hotel and performance theater in San Francisco, and then decided to bring his Midas touch to Lake Tahoe. Baldwin spared no expense building the elegant Tallac Resort, but he wasn’t satisfied until he added a new casino in the summer of 1899.
The casino was complemented by a 100-guest hotel and 75 cozy white cottages. Drinking water was piped in from nearby Fallen Leaf Lake. Hotel guests enjoyed steam heat and electricity in every room. Outdoor flower gardens surrounded arching fountains and rock-lined paths connected quaint, ornamental ponds. A classical string orchestra entertained at lunch, tea and dinner. There were two bars on the pier staffed by “white-coated, mustachioed barkeeps” and stocked with the finest liquors and wines. There was even a long-distance phone available in the lobby for the financially successful clientele to whom Baldwin catered.
A plethora of exciting alpine activities pleased any taste. Guests could take a refreshing swim, try their luck fishing or trek to the summit of towering Mount Tallac for its exhilarating view. Horseback riding, trapshooting, canoeing, sailing and “just plain promenading” rounded out the typical day. After all this activity, famished tourists enjoyed a succulent dinner in a large dining room. The eight-course evening meal was followed by gambling, evening walks or spirited dancing with music provided by the orchestra. Gambling was illegal, but the casino operators had an inside line to the sheriff’s office in Placerville. They were never surprised by revenue agents.
Baldwin’s visionary enterprise had turned South Lake Tahoe into a world-class vacation spot for the rich and famous. The chic summer resort was open from June 1 to Oct. 1 and boasted: “The finest casino in America for the amusement of its guests; it is 176 feet long and 72 feet wide, 2 stories high, all finished in natural wood with hardwood polished floor throughout; contains ballroom, ladies billiard and pool room, four bowling alleys and $10,000 worth of French plate mirrors and 500 electric lights.”
All that luxury didn’t come cheap: it cost a skilled laborer nearly two week’s pay for the smallest room. Baldwin had no intention of making his resort “affordable.” He wanted a place where the rich could flaunt their money and social status. There was a resident physician and to insure the health of resort guests, “absolutely no consumptives” (people suffering from tuberculosis) were allowed.
The Pacific Ocean’s summer fog bank often chased San Francisco’s ailing wealthy to therapeutic health asylums established around Lake Tahoe, but even the richest were turned away from Baldwin’s resort if they were sick.
Lucky Baldwin’s womanizing escapades are legend. He married five times, had countless affairs and illegitimate children and fought numerous breach-of-promise and seduction suits. His much-younger cousin Veronica Baldwin shot him after he allegedly assaulted her and he then fired her from his employ. Baldwin’s national reputation as a philanderer was well deserved, but the libertine always claimed, “My public reputation is such that every woman who comes near me must have been warned in advance.”
J.B. Marvin, first chief clerk of the famous Baldwin Hotel agreed, “Baldwin didn’t run after the women; they ran after him.”
Lucky Baldwin died in 1909 at the age of 81. After his death, the Tallac Resort slowly slid into ruin. In the summer of 1927, his daughter, Anita Baldwin, ordered most of the surviving buildings demolished and the salvage sold for scrap. The expansive tract is now publicly owned and open to visitors.
Baldwin’s callous personal and business habits earned him few friends. After his funeral, San Francisco Examiner reporter Al C. Joy wrote: “His was the only funeral of a famous man I ever covered where not a sob was heard nor a tear seen.” But historian Arthur M. Ellis stated that “Lucky Baldwin’s reputation must survive for generations to come as that of one of the greatest pioneers of the West, the greatest builders of California, the most spectacular of libertines, and the most contradictory of characters in our annals.”
Despite Baldwin’s unsavory personal traits, lovers of Lake Tahoe owe him a debt of gratitude for giving us beautiful Baldwin Beach.
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 or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.