Look Up, Truckee! A Walking Tour of Truckee, California
by Doug Gelbert
There is no better way to see America than on foot. And there is no better way to appreciate what you are looking at than with a walking tour. Whether you are preparing for a road trip or just out to look at your own town in a new way, a downloadable walking tour is ready to explore when you are.
Each walking tour describes historical and architectural landmarks and provides pictures to help out when those pesky street addresses are missing. Every tour also includes a quick primer on identifying architectural styles seen on American streets.
It is hard to imagine a town getting off to a less rousing start than Coburn Station. The bad vibes started 17 years before there was even a settlement here, in 1846, when 87 pioneers who had set out in wagon trains from Missouri became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Donner Party took shelter in three cabins that had been constructed two years earlier up by Truckee Lake. With food running out and winter promising little relief fifteen men and women tried to cross the mountains on handmade snowshoes but became disoriented in the sea of white. Seven members survived to be rescued and finally a third relief attempt brought 48 of the original travelers to California. The tragedy of the Donner Party would have been a tragic footnote among the hundreds of thousands of overland emigrants to Oregon and California but almost immediately stories of cannibalism by the survivors began to leak out. With the fire of sensationalism lit the saga of the unlucky Donner Party would be recounted over and over with varying degrees of luridness in magazines, books and popular culture for decades. Around Truckee landmarks abound with the Donner name - a state park, the mountain pass the settlers never made it through, the main road in town and on and on. Truckee Lake is now Donner Lake.
Whatever bad karma existed here for potential settlers was trumped by the advantages in the location. The Truckee River is the only outlet from Lake Tahoe and provided super clean water in the valley. And the Truckee Basin was a natural stopping point for east-west travelers - you could tie up your horse and rest up before tackling the intimidating Sierra Nevada if heading west or you could recuperate coming down out of the mountains traveling east. So, in 1863 Coburn Station got under way in earnest around the only stage road through the Sierras - and five years later it mostly burnt to the ground.
The town rebuilt quickly and the first order of business was the Transcontinental Railroad that was being built right by its front door. Unimaginable quantities of lumber were needed to complete the 19th century’s greatest building project - for buildings, trestles, bridges, railroad ties, tunnel supports and, for the track near Truckee, enormous wooden “snow sheds” constructed over the tracks to enable the trains to run in winter. There were sheds shielding forty miles of track in the Sierra Nevada mountains above Truckee. The giant virgin stands of lodgepole pine came down so quickly that twenty-five sawmills were operating along the Truckee River trying to keep up.
Everything was built soon enough and industry drifted away from Truckee but the travelers kept coming. In the 20th century skiing became a popular winter pasttime and word got out that Lake Tahoe is the best lake in America. The old stagecoach path became Interstate 80 and Truckee established itself as a resort town.
Not much new has been built in town lately and many of the Victorian structures now house tourist-related businesses. Our walking tour of Truckee will start not on today’s main drag but a block away on a more historic avenue where the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road once ran, where the largest red light district of any small town in the West once flourished and which is named for the wooden spar on a ship that extends past the bow...
- Doug Gelbert, August 2012
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