These days Truckee boasts a thriving downtown; visitors and locals enjoy lively restaurants and bars, enticing gift shops and niche retail stores, all strung like jewels along its main drag. Over the past few decades the community has transformed itself far beyond its early role as a gateway to Lake Tahoe to become a destination in its own right.
But even as the town recharged its vitality and charm with new businesses and architectural upgrades, community leaders and shop owners passionately embraced its colorful past. Evidence of Truckee’s rich history can still be experienced in the memories hidden in many of the town’s 19th Century buildings.
The oldest structure in Truckee today, the Capitol Building, has enough engrossing history by itself to fill a small book. One of the town’s first brick edifices, it was built in 1870 by William H. Hurd. He’d been successful in California’s gold excitement in the 1850s and wanted to start a business. When the 26-year-old miner arrived in Truckee by train shortly after a devastating 1868 fire that had wiped out the town’s commercial storefronts, he decided to stay and invest in its future. The red-brick exterior of Hurd’s Capitol Saloon was designed to mitigate the frequent fires that repeatedly destroyed the downtown district, either set intentionally by arsonists — an all-too frequent occurrence – or by accident from hot sparks flying out of wood-burning stove flues.
Two businesses currently inhabit this two-story building in the heart of Commercial Row, each with its own entrance below the large Art Truckee sign. The door to the left is the entrance to dressed…a boutique for women, a trendy clothing store. Fashion displays occupy the first floor. The second floor of the Capitol Building is now occupied by Art Truckee Gallery & Wine Bar, accessed via the door to the right.
For more than a century there was a long, drinking bar on the first floor of the Capitol Building, complemented by a hand-carved bar-back. The ornate bar-back framed a large polished mirror that stretched nearly 15 feet along the west wall. After winning an award at the 1873 Chicago Exposition, the finely crafted piece was transported intact by ship nearly 15,000 miles from New York City around Cape Horn to Virginia City, Nev., after which Hurd acquired it for his billiard saloon.
When I moved to Truckee in the 1970s, that impressive vintage serving bar in the Capitol Saloon was the most popular watering hole in what was then a blue-collar biker town. The Capitol emanated loud music and outlaw energy and hosted a seemingly endless cast of characters that exuded a raucous pioneer spirit. At the time, it was the edgy heartbeat of downtown Truckee. Today, the historic back-bar can be seen in the dining room at Bar of America on the corner of Bridge Street at the east end of Commercial Row.
In the 19th Century, Hurd’s restaurant earned a reputation for serving the best food between Sacramento and Oden, Utah. Considering the number of extravagant high-end restaurants thriving in Virginia City during the 1870s Comstock boom, Hurd must have run a very sumptuous chophouse indeed. In one 1876 advertisement published in the Truckee Republican newspaper, Hurd’s Capitol Saloon & Restaurant offered “fresh oysters, chickens, turkeys and wild game, as well as fine wines, liquors and cigars constantly on hand.”
On the spacious second floor above the restaurant-saloon, Hurd installed an elevated theater stage that became the community’s central meeting place for important cultural events and social gatherings. Beneficial fraternal orders such as the Oddfellows and Freemasons held frequent meetings at Hurd’s Hall. In 1873, these two groups sponsored a Grand Formal Ball to raise money for a new cemetery. The Truckee Republican’s editor proclaimed the event the “grandest and dressiest ever held in Truckee.” More than 100 tickets were sold to supporters as far away as Reno, Nev., and Sacramento for an evening of fine dining and dancing until dawn. Virtually every prominent Truckee resident attended the extravagant gala.
Secret, racist, vigilante groups such as the Caucasian League and Order of Caucasians also gathered at Hurd’s Hall for more nefarious reasons — their role in cleansing Truckee of its substantial ethnic Chinese population. In 1872, Truckee’s first district court convened upstairs to arraign and fine miscreants for criminal behavior, another unfortunately frequent activity in the rowdy frontier railroad town. During election years, political committees held get out the vote rallies in Hurd’s Hall and used it as a polling place. Indicative of the famed room’s versatility, it also served as an indoor rolling skating rink.
Over the decades, Hurd’s first-floor saloon saw plenty of bloody poker brawls and deadly shootouts. In 1874, David B. Frink, founding editor of the Truckee Republican newspaper and a secret member of the town’s vigilance committee, was accidently shot and killed by a fellow vigilante. His masked corpse was later clandestinely laid out on a table at Hurd’s Hall for authorities to find. On Nov. 6, 1891, two Truckee lawmen settled a long simmering feud by blasting away at each other at Hurd’s Saloon. Constable Jacob Teeter was mortally wounded by fellow lawman James Reed who successfully pled self-defense.
In the 1920s and 30s, Hurd’s Hall housed a silent-movie theater upstairs, a fitting tribute to the region’s important role as a favorite location for Hollywood directors. Actor-director Charlie Chaplin filmed scenes from his silent classic “The Gold Rush” and likely patronized Hurd’s Saloon during several weeks of shooting. Movie stars Douglas Fairbanks, John Wayne and Buster Keaton all spent time at Hurd’s while taking breaks from filming in the area. Overall, more than 100 movies and TV commercials have been shot in the Tahoe Sierra.
In the 60s and 70s, the Capitol Saloon emanated the soul of downtown Truckee. The restaurant kitchen on the first floor was utilized by various local entrepreneurs to serve up cuisine as diverse as lobster or pizza. Upstairs, however, headliner bands drew rowdy fans anxious to hear The New Riders of the Purple Sage, Elvin Bishop, Norton Buffalo
or The Quicksilver Messenger Service perform their latest hit songs. Cedro Willy and Sutro were frequent guest bands that always enticed locals to come out and enjoy their upbeat tunes. The Capitol Saloon may be gone, but on warm summer nights you can almost hear its heart still beating.