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Take a tour through Truckee's initial growth

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Take a tour through Truckee's initial growth

Postby ERIC » Sun Jan 01, 2006 9:14 pm

Take a tour through Truckee's initial growth

Gordon Richards
December 29, 2005

In the beginning, Truckee was a wide spot on the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road that took freight and passengers from the end of the Central Pacific Railroad to the mines of Virginia City. The stage stop that preceded Truckee from 1863 to 1868 was known as Gray's Station. Joe Gray was the first known settler in the area. He erected a stage stop at the present corner of Bridge and Jibboom Streets.

Others followed, including Sam Coburn, who in bought and expanded another small stage stop near the present downtown roundabout, creating Coburn's Station. The Coburn's stage stop attracted more settlers and the name stuck.

Truckee's first growth

The Central Pacific Railroad arrived on June 19, 1868 when the first through train from Sacramento came steaming in. On July 30, 1868, Coburn's Station burned in the first of many destructive fires that would plague the wood constructed town over the decades.

The new town was set up where Joe Gray had settled. The railroad surveyed out new lots and renamed it Truckee. The name Truckee comes from the Paiute Indian chief who guided the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend wagon train party to the route over the Sierra Nevada that would become Donner Pass. The group was the first wagon train to roll over the mountains, that being in November of 1844.

A trip back in time

In a visit to the new town of Truckee in the first winter of 1868-69, you would have found a freshly rebuilt town that lined up on the present layout of Commercial Row and Donner Pass Road. While the buildings on Front Street, as it was known, looked decent, the back and side streets contained roughly built houses and shacks. A large ramshackle Chinatown existed behind the western end of Front Street and extended up the hill.

A visit to Truckee as Christmas and New Year's Eve approached found a busy town that contained nearly 270 buildings, about 100 of which sold alcohol. Our incredulous minds would have wondered where all the money to support such a town in middle of nowhere came from. It came from the combination of the railroad, the Truckee River and the wilderness forests that covered the hills.

The trees, which commonly grew up to four feet in diameter, were cut into lumber, railroad ties, mine timbers, fence boards and posts, shingles, telegraph poles and dozens of other products. Most of it was shipped east on the Central Pacific Railroad, providing materials for a developing interior West that had no direct access to forests. We would have seen the daily retreat of forests from the river as the hills were cleared of trees.

By the spring of 1870, 30 sawmills would be cutting lumber in the area, with Truckee being the center of commerce for miles around. Many were powered by the Truckee River. The financial success of early Truckee was directly tried to the price and demand of lumber.

A boomtown

The loggers who cut the trees continued to work all winter, such was the demand for wood products. They and their sawmill operating counterparts, came to Truckee every payday to stock up on supplies, take a bath, send and receive mail, see the pioneer doctors and pharmacies, and socialize. They did all this business during the day, mostly on Front Street.

When the sun went down and the cold seeped down from the snowcapped hills, the loggers who worked close by joined the equally hardworking railroad workers at the saloons on Front Street and the lower class dives on Jibboom Street.

We would hear the sounds from the dance halls on Second Street, soon to be renamed Jibboom Street, that was a mix of loud men, laughing women, gambling, pianos and fiddles, probably a fight or scuffle, and an occasional gunshot. The higher class of citizens were taking in a show at the Magnolia Hall, either a scene or two from Shakespeare, the traveling Western Variety Show, or a musical by the Pixley sisters.

The Christmas Ball at the Magnolia featured a 10-piece orchestra, a 20-foot tree, and an elegant banquet. Children went to the Opera House Hall to hear Rev. T.P. Sipes tell Christmas stories. A well-decorated tree and Santa Claus completed the excitement for the young children. Sipes was also making the rounds collecting donations to build a church in Truckee to compete with the saloons.

Definitely a railroad town

Our visit to the new railyard just east of town revealed up to 20 trains a day coming and going. They all would have stopped in Truckee to fill up on wood and water, and change crews. Most the loaded trains were heading east, bringing material and supplies to the ever moving end of track, pushing east to meet the Union Pacific Railroad in Utah.

During the snowstorm we experienced, a monstrous 20-foot-tall snowplow, pushed by three locomotives, rattling through town heading for the deep drifts of Donner Pass. The roundhouse was a scene of constant activity, as the steam locomotive force was maintained and repaired.

The common sounds of the railroad were punctuated by yelling as a runaway flatcar, loaded with firewood, from up the track west of Truckee, got loose and rolled through town. In this case an alert switchman in the yards switched the runaway car to a vacant track preventing the demolition of a waiting locomotive.

Business is king

The Cross brothers were proud to show us the 5-foot-long mountain lion they had shot and killed the week before. Instead of prowling the forests for deer, the lion was now stuffed and holding court in their Grey Eagle Saloon.

We have our choice of fine restaurants, the reason being that as passenger trains stopped for crew and locomotive changes, the passengers disembarked for a good fast meal, bringing some of the best cooks in the West to town. Young & Martell operated the Chop House, serving choice meals at all times of the day or night.

The closest high class meal was at William Campbell's Truckee Hotel, which was on the south side of the tracks. Campbell was just finishing up a 60-foot long, two story addition to his hotel, being sure that Truckee had a bright future. This was also the passenger depot and had the finest rooms to sleep the night away, despite the constant rumble and shriek of trains a dozen feet away.

Campbell tried to get us to go on a sleigh ride into Martis Valley, but the wet snow and rain that day postponed that trip to another day. Horse drawn sleighs were the primary method of travel if you wanted to beyond the town limits. Stage lines north to the Sierra Valley were leaving town on a weekly basis keeping communication lines open despite the snow.

We were made well aware of the gossip of the day, which was about a case of smallpox. A railroad man in from Donner Summit was diagnosed and quickly treated by both Dr. Jones and Dr. Weed. The man was taken out of town to an isolated house and the residents breathed easier.

In a visit to Charles and Fred Burckhalter's new grocery store, we bought fresh fruits and vegetables shipped in daily from California, fresh local game and beef, Truckee River fish, as well as a full array of tobacco products. Our sweet tooth was satisfied by a trip to Henry Steele's store full of nuts, candies, and all sorts of confectionary delicacies.

Our visit about over, we would make our way through the plaza, as it was questionably called, between Front Street and the tracks. It was a mix of mud, boulders, garbage, and debris from the fire last summer. Stacks of lumber still sat, waiting the merchants to complete construction of their buildings. A gigantic firewood pile was stacked in the street, waiting for the railroad to load it up and ship it out to points both west and east.

A seemingly mass of confusion reined as people crowded the depot at the Truckee Hotel to attend to the biggest excitement of the day. The daily passenger train westbound was whistling its way into town, so we would have hurried to make sure we got good window seats. Once settled on board we would reflect on our visit to the new town of Truckee and agree it was a place to return to again.

Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com. Check out "Echoes From the Past" in the Sierra Sun archives at http://www.sierrasun.com.

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Postby SteveB » Mon Jan 02, 2006 12:31 am

Other points of interest include the Ice Works at Boca: in the late 19th and early 20th century, ice was transported down-river from the upper elevations to the Boca area, where it was cut into manageable blocks and sold for various cooling purposes, not the least of which was for serving a nice cool drink! At highway level, one can easily miss the foundations that still remain above the Truckee on the Boca flat, but taking a walk up to the remnants of a Boca cemetary on the hill overlooking the flat, one can easily make out the old foundations!

Also, scattered throughout the Tahoe NF, one can still come across the occassional timber trestle, used to transport timber from higher elevations to the lower. Many are still intact, and make for a remarkable photographic opportunity. I've spent many days searching the forest north of Truckee for these trestles: it's quite thrilling to come across these relics from a century ago, still standing amidst the overgrown trees! :)
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