It may not appear obvious to the casual observer, but Tahoe City is chockful of history — more than any other community at Lake Tahoe. And much of it is on display at Lake Tahoe Dam, Gatekeeper’s Museum, Watson Cabin Museum, Commons Beach with its historic two-cell jail and Tahoe City Golf Course. Even the buildings that house our most popular restaurants have deep roots to the area’s unique history, complete with colorful backstories. It’s impossible cover it all in one article, but we’ll scratch the surface with this one, with Part II in the next edition.
Lake Tahoe Dam
At the west end of town, at the junction of Highways 89 and 28, is the Lake Tahoe Dam, the lake’s only outlet and headwaters to the Truckee River. Flow is managed by a federal watermaster who controls 17 electric gates that regulate how much water heads to the rapidly growing cities of Reno and Sparks in Nevada.
Curious pedestrians are rewarded with interpretive plaques that illustrate the region’s natural water systems, wildlife and ecology. The Truckee River terminates 121 miles away in Pyramid Lake, home to the Paiute Nation, an indigenous people who have lived in the Great Basin for hundreds of generations. Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River and its tributaries are located in the Great Basin, therefore these waters never reach the Pacific Ocean. Don’t forget to walk along Fanny Bridge on Highway 89 and look for the massive trout swimming below.
By the 1890s a Washo woman named Dabuda, who later gained the musical nickname Dat-So-La-Lee, was the most famous and accomplished of the Washo basket weavers.
Two museums in one
Adjacent to the dam is 3-acre William B. Layton Park, home to Gatekeeper’s Museum and headquarters of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society. The museum is a treasure trove of artifacts and displays that share some of the history of the region. The hand-carved log building also houses the Steinbach Indian Basket Museum with its one-of-a-kind collection of baskets, dolls and pottery crafted by American Indians from 86 tribes. Marion Steinbach spent a lifetime collecting these unique artifacts created by indigenous Americans. The grounds and exhibits here are ground zero for learning about the local Washo Tribe, the indigenous people who summered in the Lake Tahoe Basin for thousands of years.
By the 1890s a Washo woman named Dabuda, who later gained the musical nickname Dat-So-La-Lee, was the most famous and accomplished of the Washo basket weavers. During the summer season she and her husband Charlie Keyser lived near the outlet and sold her woven crafts, some of which are worth tens of thousands of dollars today.
For thousands of years the Washo spent the warm-weather months in the Tahoe Basin, leaving the western valleys of present-day Nevada each spring and walking to Tahoe to hunt, fish, harvest berries and dig for the roots of medicinal plants. The Washo people were the basin’s first inhabitants and considered the lake sacred and a key part of the tribe’s origins. They called it “Da ow.” Tahoe is a mispronunciation of this, which means “lake” in the Washo language, a great lake indeed.
Tahoe Commons & Jail
From the north side of Lake Tahoe Dam, a multi-use, nonmotorized paved pathway meanders east toward Tahoe City. The aspen-fringed trail hugs the shoreline of Lake Tahoe and enters Tahoe Commons, a former industrial hub of warehouses, freight trains and a commercial maritime industry. This land was given to the Tahoe City community in 1872 by an act under the administration of President Grant.
Recently, this parcel known as Commons Beach, was revamped into a children’s playground and picnic grounds with free public lake access. Concerts are held during the summer months (starting June 12). As you approach the commons, on your left is the old two-cell jail tucked into the landscape. This tiny calaboose with a lakeview for prisoners was built in the mid-1940s by Tahoe City’s second constable, Swedish-born Harry E. Johanson. As a young man “Harry Jo” excelled as a world-class, long-distance runner and all-around athlete. Prior to arriving in Tahoe City in 1932, he was an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but during Tahoe’s long winters the constable patrolled the region by dogsled.
Tahoe City Golf Course
Across North Lake Boulevard from Commons Beach is Tahoe City Golf Course. This is a family-friendly 9-hole and the oldest links at the lake. It has been a local’s favorite since 1917 when the legendary Tahoe Tavern Hotel commissioned Isabella May “Queenie” Dunn to design it.
Queenie was a member of England’s most famous golfing family. Born in England in 1880, she became America’s first female professional golfer and was instrumental in establishing tees for women players. In 1917 she came to Tahoe City and designed a 6-hole course that was later expanded to nine holes in 1926, the same year her brother John Dunn laid out the Old Brockway Golf Course in Kings Beach. In the 1950s both courses were popular with Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack.