Eccentrics of Lake Tahoe: Part I

Dating back to the 1860s, Lake Tahoe has attracted unique and unusual characters, independent thinkers and entrepreneurs. Like today, some made a living by providing services for residents or tourists; others invested their wealth in Tahoe to build estates and summer resorts often as an escape from the city. A few, who had little money, left their legacy in colorful quotes and remarkable stories.

 

Elias “Lucky” Baldwin

Elias “Lucky” Baldwin wasn’t just lucky. He knew how to make money, lived a life of risk and adventure and left a scandalous trail of marriages, divorces and affairs in his wake. One biographer called him a “Comstock plunger, real estate promoter and glamorous libertine, who loved most, after a sharp trade, to squeeze three girls at once.”

At Lake Tahoe, he is best remembered for the legendary Tallac Hotel that he operated near South Lake Tahoe in the late 1800s. Baldwin’s legacy lives on today at the Tallac Historic Site, a stretch of century-old, beachfront estates near Baldwin Beach, a few miles south of Emerald Bay. The site is free and open to the public for bike rides, strolls and swimming.

Baldwin’s infatuation with Lake Tahoe began in the summer of 1879, when he visited a hostelry near Emerald Bay owned by Ephraim “Yank” Clements. Baldwin walked beneath the unspoiled stands of old-growth timber and along the soft, sandy beach. The demand for tunnel supports for the Comstock mines had already taken a terrible toll on the majestic Sugar Pine forest that once cloaked the mountains in the Tahoe Basin, but here the trees still stood tall.

Despite Lucky Baldwin’s unsavory personal traits, lovers of Lake Tahoe owe him a debt of gratitude for giving us beautiful Baldwin Beach and protecting old-growth forest.

The next year in November, Baldwin bought Yank’s 2,000 acres that included 1 mile of lakefront property. The deal also comprised a three-story, 40-room hotel and saloon, along with horse barns and a general store. Baldwin announced: “My land acquisition will save this vast forest from the beauty-destroying ax of the woodsman so that the magnificent pines and cedars may be admired by generations to come.”

His upscale hotel and casino would also boost Tahoe’s reputation as a destination resort for travelers looking for luxury accommodations rather than the rustic backwoods fare common at that time.

Ironically, Baldwin’s moniker “Lucky” came from a windfall of more than $2 million realized from his investments in those very Comstock mining operations that had decimated the Tahoe Basin. Back in 1866, Baldwin had invested heavily in Hale & Norcross mining shares. The stock price plummeted, but Baldwin was unwilling to take a steep loss. That spring, Baldwin accompanied British sportsmen to hunt big-game animals in India. Baldwin instructed his broker to sell the shares if they ever rose to the price he originally paid for them. While he was away, Hale & Norcross miners struck a rich vein of silver and the stock soared in value, but Baldwin’s broker was unable to sell as ordered because Baldwin had taken the combination to the safe with him. When Baldwin returned to San Francisco, his stock was now worth a fortune and the nickname “Lucky” was his for life.

When Baldwin purchased “Yanks” hotel in 1880, he re-named it “Tallac House” for the 9,785-foot mountain to the southwest. Tallac is the Washoe word for “Great Mountain.” Baldwin’s new resort soon became the pride of Lake Tahoe. Baldwin added a luxurious gaming casino in 1899. His visionary enterprise turned South Lake Tahoe into a world-class vacation spot for the rich and famous.

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. Two paramours attempted to shoot him, including his much-younger cousin Veronica Baldwin after he allegedly assaulted her and then terminated her employment at his San Francisco hotel. Baldwin’s always claimed, “My public reputation is such that every woman who comes near me must have been warned in advance.”

At Baldwin’s funeral in 1909, a San Francisco Examiner reporter 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, “Lucky Baldwin’s reputation will survive. He was one of the greatest pioneers of the West, the most spectacular of libertines, and the most contradictory of characters.”

Despite Baldwin’s unsavory personal traits, lovers of Lake Tahoe owe him a debt of gratitude for giving us beautiful Baldwin Beach and protecting old-growth forest.

 

Hank Monk

During the early days of Tahoe, stagecoach driver Hank Monk was as well known for his drinking ability as his driving skills. Despite his reputation as a man dedicated to the bottle, Monk was the most famous of all the whips for Wells Fargo, the preeminent banking entity in San Francisco.

Monk was skilled, courageous and sharp tongued. So many stories have been told about him that it is sometimes hard to tell truth from fiction. Born in New York in 1826, Henry J. Monk had always loved horses and he came west in the California gold rush to become a stagecoach driver. After the 1859 silver discovery in Virginia City, Nev., Monk joined a new stage operation that began running daily coaches from Placerville to the Comstock over a hastily cut road south of Lake Tahoe.

Passengers marveled at how Monk handled the reins with finesse as he guided his team of six muscular horses across the rugged Sierra passes. For years as a side job, he took summer tourists up to Lake Tahoe, but they were often as interested in hearing Monk’s tall tales as seeing Big Blue. Always meticulously dressed, he wore a wide-brimmed felt hat, yellow driving gloves, a frock coat and carried a silver-handled whip.

Monk’s level of imbibing stood out in an era when many men consumed alcohol before breakfast and continued to drink for the rest of the day. Remembered as a man who could drive when he couldn’t walk, he was sometimes carried from the saloon to the waiting coach to resume his run. The phrase “to drink like Hank Monk” still survives in Virginia City saloons.

When Monk died in 1883, hundreds attended his funeral in Carson City, Nev. The presiding reverend said, “Too much credit cannot be given a man who follows a humble calling and takes an honest pride in doing all his work well.”

Monk would drink to that.

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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.