In a community noted for its colorful characters, one former resident stands out as perhaps the most colorful, and certainly the best known. Harry Johanson was his name, but prior to his retirement in 1967, a simple "Harry" or "Harry Jo" would have identified him to any resident of the area.
Harry was born in 1889 in Upsala, Sweden, where, as a youth, his athletic ability was demonstrated by successes in skiing, swimming and long distance running competitions. He won 84 medals and trophies during his amateur career, including a prized 3rd place award won in a race in which the top prize went to Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish runner who took gold medals in the long distance events of the 1920, 1924 and 1928 Olympics.
As a student at the University of Upsala, Johanson studied architectural drafting and, following graduation, he joined the Swedish Air Force, where he served two years, making use of free time to tour Europe extensively by bicycle.
But neither Upsala nor the reaches of the European Continent could contain Harry, who had a yen to see more of the world. As the immigration quotas for America (his chosen destination) were full, Harry instead set sail for Canada, landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1927. Making his way west, he established himself as a draftsman in Saskatchewan, but his natural inclinations did not favor indoor work, and he was soon back in uniform, this time as an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It was in this capacity that Harry acquired his knowledge of horsemanship and dog sledding (both essential means of transportation for the Mounties), expertise which would serve him well in the future.
After several years of service with the RCMP, Harry received the papers necessary for immigration into the United States, and he was not long in leaving Saskatchewan bound for El Centro, California, where he again took work as a draftsman. But his Scandinavian constitution fought against the Imperial Valley heat, and it took little to convince him to head north once more, this time toward the cooler climes of the Sierra.
Here destiny seemed to take Harry's hand, for on the very day that the Nordic nomad arrived in Tahoe City, the community was laying its most revered citizen (Constable Watson) to rest, leaving a vacancy in the office of Constable. Harry soon found work as a caretaker for the west shore estate of W.W. Mein, Sr., winning the favor of his employers and the town's residents with his accommodating manner and myriad back woods skills. What's more, he had finally found a place that was to his liking. In December of 1934, Harry received his U.S. citizenship, and two months later, following the temporary- tenures of two substitute constables, he took the oath as the town's second official holder of that office.
From the beginning, it was clear that Constable Harry Edward Johanson's would be a memorable term of office. The area of his jurisdiction included over 200 square miles of rugged terrain, and Harry's experience with the use of a dogsled provided him with a means of access to the far-flung outposts of the district. The team was originally composed of male mutes, his "stable" numbering as many as 15 dogs at one point, and the exploits of driver and team were soon legend even beyond the boundaries of the district.
In the early 1930s, Hollywood had turned to Tahoe as a favored site for the era's many ad venture films which were set in the northwest. Prior to his taking over as Constable, Harry and well-disciplined canines had been celluloid celebrities in such locally-filmed epics as "Call of the Wild" (in which Harry stood in for Clark Gable), "The Country Beyond," "Thin Ice," "Oh Doctor," 'White Fang" and "Rose Marie," (in which he doubled for Nelson Eddy).
In his early years as Constable, Harry's reality built on these screen adventures, and within a few years of taking office, he had become the subject of numerous published accounts of the colorful Constable and his unique means of winter transportation.
Harry's skiing ability was well known to local residents, and on a winter's day in 1937, he proved his skills and endurance beyond all doubt by circling the Lake on skis, an unprecedented feat which, owing to the encroachments of subsequent construction and development, will not likely be equaled in the future.
Harry had been in office three years when he made the national papers as a result of a somewhat exaggerated report of starvation among lake dwellers during a prolonged series of storms which isolated them from the outside world. It was Harry and another Tahoe City resident, Frank Slater, who were pictured in a Sacramento Bee photo (later picked up by the national wire service) delivering relief food packages to lakeshore residents by boat.
By this time, Harry had begun to branch out, exercising his various talents in the service of the community. At the time of his arrival in town, the local jail was a dank, filthy bunker on the railroad spur which ran along the Commons Beach, affording little in the way of security, or even shelter. In winter, offenders were mercifully transported to Truckee for in carceration, and even in good weather, a stint behind these bars was to be dreaded.
It was only through Harry's tireless supplications to the County Supervisors (both by letter and in person) that the "new" local hoosegow, set against the Commons Beach embankment at the Community Center end of the property (and these days a respository for PUD hoses) became a reality. Here his architectural training was put to task in the drawing up of plans for the structure, a two-cell bastille with central plumbing and a splendid view of the Tahoe City waterfront. His design prowess found expression in other (if less practical) uses as well, another notable Johanson creation being the shoulder device of the Lake Tahoe Ski Club. An expert skier, Harry had joined the group soon after his arrival in town, and his original design for the decorative identifying shoulder patch remains in use today. Harry served several terms as president of the historic club, and in 1949 he became Chief of the National Ski Patrol for the Tahoe District.
Harry was a skilled worker in wood, carving both whimsy (in the form of Scandinavian figures) and scale models (professional-quality renderings of Viking vessels). He also devoted his efforts to building his own dog sleds as well as several items of furniture (a number of his chairs, webbed with rawhide and decorated with ancient Swedish characters, still exist).
In the early 1950s, Harry's civic bent led him to perhaps his grandest undertaking Ñ the renovation of Trail's End, Tahoe City's cemetery. Through neglect, the plots had fallen into deplorable condition, but his efforts to record burial information, locate graves and replace headmarkers gave the cemetery an attractive appearance while preserving knowledge of its earliest inhabitants.
In the spring of 1967. Harry resigned as Constable, citing the necessity of some relax ation and the desire to walk barefoot along the Commons Beach and enjoy life. His retirement dinner, held at Sunnyside Lodge, drew nearly 200 well-wishers, including many county officials with whom he had served in his 32 years in office. The duties of Constable had gradually shifted from peace officer to process-server, and the opportunity for "color" was all but gone.
Harry retired to Sparks, Nevada to live out his final years which were plagued by a painful hip injury (incurred, ironically, out of the regular line of duty). When Harry passed away on the last day of 1980, his obituary in the town newspaper where he had spent 35 years of his life was written by someone who never knew him, and besides misspelling his name, devoted only a single brief paragraph to his many colorful years as Constable of Tahoe City.
STORY & TOP PHOTO: from Carol Van Etten's Tahoe City Yesterdays - used here with permission.
HAND-TINTED PHOTO (we "think" is Harry Jo): from the Heritage Gallery - used here with permission.