Truckee boasts a thriving downtown vibe as visitors and locals cruise the profusion of popular restaurants and bars, enticing gift shops and niche retail stores. Over the past few decades, the community has transformed itself far beyond drive-through status to become a destination resort in its own right.
But even as the town recharged its vitality and charm with new buildings and architectural upgrades, community and business leaders passionately embraced its colorful past. Evidence of Truckee’s rich history is never far away. The Commercial Row District on Donner Pass Road is ground zero for a glimpse into the visceral roots of this old logging and railroad town, where historically minded pedestrians can enjoy notable historic structures that reveal secrets from the storied past.
Truckee was first settled by Euro-Americans in 1863 when pioneer Joseph Gray erected Gray’s Toll Station along the Truckee River in order to serve Comstock freight traffic using the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road. But for thousands of years before that, Native Americans relied on the life-sustaining Truckee River as a vital resource for survival. During summer they hunted game, fished and foraged for berries and medicinal plants along its banks. The Washoe Tribe called the Truckee River “a’wakhu wa’t’a” and the current townsite was an important Washoe village. The name Truckee became official when the railroad came through 150 years ago in 1868.
To get a feel for Truckee’s early economic lifeline — the transcontinental railroad — stroll over to the Amtrak train depot across from Commercial Row. The current depot was built in 1900 after the original 1869 structure burned down, a fate common to many of Truckee’s early wooden buildings. Walk to the south side of the building and step outside to ponder how thousands of Chinese laborers leveled the rocky terrain so Central Pacific Railroad could lay track in 1868. You don’t have to stand there long before a freight train will come barreling through. The railroad opened up the isolated mountain hamlet to winter-sports enthusiasts. Truckee soon became the capital of winter sports on the West Coast with a popular Ice Carnival crowded with hundreds of snow-starved tourists that Southern Pacific RR transported via special Snowball Express excursion trains.
On Jibboom Street behind Commercial Row, you’ll find the original Truckee jail, built in 1875 and used continuously until 1964. Chockful of photographs and memorabilia, this venerable bastille is operated by the Truckee Donner Historical Society and open for visitors on summer weekends. In the late 1800s, Jibboom Street was the center of a notorious Red-Light District, crawling with drunks, prostitutes and miscreants of all stripes.
The 1882 Bar & Grill at River Street Inn is located near the Truckee River bridge. Built around 1870 the building has housed many families and restaurants over the years, including a rumored stint as a bordello. In 1920, the Besio family bought the wooden building and upgraded it. The Besio’s were skilled Italian stone masons and their beautiful rock work can be seen in detail from the sidewalk. If you look carefully, you may find a small icon of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus embedded in the stone arch above one of the ground floor windows. Comic actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin stayed there while shooting a movie in Truckee. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the building housed La Vielle Mason, a restaurant famous for its garlic-themed menu – including the wine. Legend has it that the building is haunted.
Straight across the river from the 1882 Bar & Grill is the original building that housed a Chinese herb shop. Constructed in 1878 of brick to ward off fire, the South River Street building harkens back to a dark era in Truckee’s past when anti-Chinese discrimination and racism turned ugly. Truckee’s first Chinatown just west of the commercial center had caught fire and nearly decimated the business district. In response, a citizen’s safety committee pushed to remove the immigrants to the south side of the river. Housing lots to accommodate the evicted were purchased by local businessmen. The Herb Shop sold locally produced Chinese vegetables and imported delicacies, as well as opium, which customers often smoked in the cellar below. Two Chinese nationals died in the cellar after they refused to evacuate during another fire in the 1880s.
There is much more to explore in downtown Truckee, which I’ll write about another time.