Boca Townsite | Interpretive Trail Beer, Ice and Lumber

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Boca townsite. | Courtesy Nevada Historical Society
Snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada from the trial. | Mark McLaughlin

Deep in the heart of Truckee River Canyon east of Truckee, the pioneer town of Boca flourished for more than 60 years. It may be gone now, but its world-famous lager beer, huge commercial ice-harvesting industry and prodigious lumber production still maintain a legacy like few others in the West.

Bucket list #47

Little remains from this once-bustling epicenter of Sierra industry except for a few broken foundations, cemetery headstones, bits of colored glass and other human detritus. Luckily for us, the U.S. Forest Service established the Boca Townsite Interpretive Trail to reimagine that fascinating era. Anyone captivated by Tahoe Sierra frontier history or wishing to learn more about it will find this scenic half-mile stroll along an informative, interpretive trail through fragrant sage and rabbit brush truly rewarding.

This short, family-friendly loop trail is an easy excursion that offers unique views up and down the Truckee River Canyon, an eroded gorge that accommodated the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, highway and aviation pathway. Interpretive plaques provide historical information and photos about Boca’s industries and ultimate demise. The climate is dry here and a forest fire a few years ago destroyed trees in the area so there is no shade. Bring water, a hat and sunscreen.

Interpretive signs along the trail. | Mark McLaughlin

Central Pacific Railroad came through the canyon in 1868 and established a work camp called Boca, and connected it to Truckee, Reno and Sacramento by rail. At Sacramento, steamers took westbound passengers and freight onward by water to San Francisco. The train opened doors to regional and international markets for Boca’s signature exports of abundant, crystal-clear ice, tasty lager beer and myriad products milled from timber. Boca means “mouth” in Spanish. It can also refer to the terminus of a river. In Boca’s case, it alludes to the nearby Little Truckee River that feeds into the mainstem of the Truckee River.

By 1890, Boca boasted a plethora of profitable businesses: a grand hotel, school, library, and many fine homes. Boca’s most famous product was its beer. The Boca Brewery took advantage of natural spring water and abundant ice harvested during winter months to produce 30,000 barrels of superior lager beer each year, which became known the world over for its excellent taste and crispness. The craftsmen at Boca put out a top-of-the-line product — Boca Beer won a variety of awards at the 1883 Paris World Fair and was one of the best-known brews in the United States.

Visitors toured the famous brewery for a look at the huge operation that included a 100-barrel cooking kettle, a mill capable of grounding 3,000 pounds of malt per hour and 25 fermenting tubs, each holding 60 barrels of liquid. The plant employed up to 35 men, mostly German. The tour excursion was topped off with a frosty glass of beer and a look at the three massive storage cellars, the smallest of which contained more than 50 casks holding 50 barrels of beer each. The casks were covered with 12 feet of ice for refrigeration and all beer was aged for five months before release. Boca lost its popular brewery to fire in 1893 and the German beermakers and their families left town to practice their craft in other locales.

Boca townsite. | Courtesy Nevada Historical Society

Commercial ice production expanded operations and offered employment, but the loss of Boca’s fine beer was hard to overcome. Blocks of ice were shipped to San Francisco to make Italian water ice and to chill hand-crafted cocktails for the city’s elite. The biggest consumer of Boca ice, however, were the Comstock mines down the track at Virginia City, Nev. Tunnels were being bored thousands of feet deep into silver-rich ore resulting in scalding-hot air temperatures approaching 130 degrees. Tons of ice were used in giant blowers that blasted chilled air into the depths and miners themselves were allocated large blocks for comfort and cold drinking water during their scorching eight-hour shift. Unfortunately, with the closing of the Virginia City mines in the 1880s, Boca’s most lucrative natural ice market disappeared just as commercial refrigeration entered the picture.

By the early 20th Century, the “inexhaustible timberlands” were gone, too, and in 1908 the Boca Mill Company shut down its saws putting more men out of work. Boca was mostly abandoned by 1927, another victim of changing times and technologies. Considering its role as a major ice producer, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the site is among the coldest places in California. On Jan. 20, 1937, Boca set the Golden State’s all-time record for lowest temperature at 45 degrees below zero.

To reach the Boca Townsite Interpretive Trail, from Truckee head east on I-80 to the Hirschdale Road exit, No. 194. Exit and go north on Hirschdale Road about half a mile to a signed gravel parking area on the right. | fs.usda.gov