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The Tahoe Tavern
1901 - 1964

"Opulence and Isolation"
The role of the Tahoe Tavern in Tahoe City's history is so basic that a discussion of the town's development is incomplete without mention of it. To its patrons, the Tavern was a grand hotel-the showplace of Tahoe. Yet to the community which was its neighbor, the Tavern was also a force which provided recreational and social opportunities, trained its leaders and inspired a sense of self.

By the 1890s, the decline of the Basin's lumber industry was closing Glenbrook's mills, and a mass relocation of the once bustling east shore community began. With the waning of the local lumber industry, Basin slopes had been almost totally denuded of timber. However, the Bliss family, whose extensive interests had dominated the Glenbrook (and the Basin) economy had wisely spared the magnificent stand of trees around the Lake Outlet at Tahoe City, and it was to this location that they began to move the structures and materals which would be the basis of their new operations.

This new endeavor would be in the realm of tourism. The Bliss family's plans called for the construction of a hotel to rival any in the country, but preparations necessary to the success of such a grand undertaking would require the establishment of several key services previously unknown in Tahoe City. Most basic of these was a comfortable and dependable system of transportation. Prior to 1900, a jostling 15-mile stagecoach ride from Truckee was the last leg of a trip to Tahoe - a certain impediment to visitor travel. During the summer of 1898, architect William Seth Bliss (no relation to his employers was hired by the newly-formed Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company, a Bliss-owned venture. Bliss was hired to complete a survey of the River canyon, precedent to construction of a railroad which would connect Tahoe with Central Pacific's standard gauge line at Truckee Development of this system would make the trip to the Lake possible for all but the acutely infirm - a necessity in assuring the volume of business called for by the ambitious plans.

By the fall of 1898, all the rolling stock for the new railroad had been barged over to Tahoe City from abandoned lines in Glenbrook and Bijou. The laying of track on the new 15-mile roadbed continued through the summer of 1899, and in the spring of 1900, the line was put into tentative operation.

The first engine to be used on the line was the little locomotive "Tahoe" (now redesignated No. 1), and during the first season of operation, a number of flatcars saw double duty as freight and passenger conveyances. With the new rail system in place, sightseers could travel all the way to the lakeshore by rail. But of more immediate importance to the company, the materials necessary for implementing the second phase of their grandiose plans could be efficiently transported to the site of operations.

The pages of the Truckee Republican (later Sierra Sun) for 1901 are valuable sources of information regarding the progress of the Bliss family's plans that year. An April issue reports that D.L. Bliss. manager of the new rail line, had run the first train for the season into Truckee from Tahoe City. The 15-mile trip took several days, owing to slight repairs enroute and the diversion of snow waters from the track. However, the road was reported in excellent condition, and regular trips were scheduled to begin after May 15.

Toward the end of May, a new boxcar (the first) was added to the LTRT Co. rolling stock. and on June 15, a new observation coach was added to the two existing passenger coaches. The train left Truckee at 8 a.m. daily returning to Truckee at 5:20 p.m after the passengers made a trip around the Lake on the steamer TAHOE. (The steamer met the train at a trestle pier 1/8 mile in length. The train would back onto this trestle for the discharge of passengers, who had to take only a few steps across the pier to board the boat.

During the 1901 season, the LTRT Co. was busy relocating their Glenbrook machine shops to the Tahoe City lakefront. Barges were again the means of transportation, roads around the Lake being totally inadequate to the portage of structures. At the time of their relocation, the buildings' encroachment on the Tahoe Commons was considered a necessary evil, for the railroad's benefit to the community was critically important to its future. By mid July, all was in readiness for the announcement of the company's grand new under taking. "D.L. Bliss was here yesterday," reported the July 13 issue of the Republican, "and went out to Hobart Mills today. He is going to build a hotel at Tahoe City. It is said its construction will cost $150,00 which means a fine hotel." Time was of the essence. The bureaucratic struggle which would block a similar undertaking today was no such impediment to the Bliss Company's progress, and by late September, construction of the new hotel was underway.

The October 12 issue of the Republican reported good progress, noting that a crew of 70 men was hard at work on the project "It will be all enclosed and covered in two weeks," reported the newspaper, "providing bad weather does not set in too heavy. It is an immense affair, and will be a much needed building for the increased tourist travel and sightseers during the summer months. There is also being put in a fine water system for supplying the houses, hotels and also in connection, fire plugs for fire purposes."

The last excursion train of the season ran the following Sunday, giving sightseer a final look at the Lake - and the new hotel -until the following spring.

To finance the construction and development of their new project, the LTRT Co. mortgaged their new rail system, borrowing half a million dollars from the Mercantile Trust Co. of San Francisco in November. The term of the loan was 30 years, with the note bearing 5% interest. Considered an enormous sum at the turn of the century, the $500,000 loan proved a shrewd business arrangement, for the popularity of the enterprise it financed repaid the borrowed many-fold in the years which followed.

When the Tahoe Tavern opened for business in 1902, the diversity and durability of its success could not have been guessed at by its founders - nor, perhaps, could they have foreseen what difficulties would be involved in its establishment as an easily-accessible, self-contained resort, miles from the nearest civic center. Transportation to the isolated resort had been assured by the completion of a railway system linking it with the Central Pacific artery at Truckee. Yet, there were other, equally problematic aspects of construction still to be dealt with.

The establishment of a water system was crucial to the maintenance of the grand new resort, and not as easily accomplished as its lakeside location would suggest. The traffic of the steamers and smaller craft. which were part and parcel of the Tavern's prominence on the lake could not help but disturb the purity of its shoreline water supply - to the extent that a potable source had to be developed elsewhere and piped in.

The nearest available water of sufficient volume to sustain a seasonal population which often exceeded 1,000 was from the distant Burton Creek drainage, on the other side of Tahoe City. Developing this source of water and delivering it to the Tavern involved the construction of two reservoirs and several miles of connecting pipeline. This relay system went overland as far as the bottom of Grove Street, and from there followed the Lake bottom in a direct line to the Tavern. There, by virtue of gravity feed, it could be distributed to the multifarious accommodations of the hotel and maintenance buildings, the daily requirements of which were easily comparable to those of a small city.

Another aspect of the Tavern's development which had to be addressed was the establishment of electrical power. In 1901, there was no electric utility at the Lake, and so those desiring this modern convenience were forced to provide it for themselves. Steam-powered generators proved the solution to the Tavern's energy needs, as well as supplying heat for the public rooms (the hotel accommodations were unheated) and power to operate the on-premises laundry - a considerable consumer in its own right. This system was the basis of the resort's electrical power until the early 1920s, when Sierra Pacific Power brought the community at large into the electric age.

Communication with the "outside world" was essential to the resort's sophisticated clientele, and in addition to a telegraph office, the Tavern could even boast a telephone. In 1900, a single phone line had been strung from Truckee down the river canyon to Tahoe City, and thence along the west shore of the Lake as far as Emerald Bay. Those with sufficient interest and capital were able to tie into this line, the Tavern being one of the initial subscribers. Owing to the shared line, "getting out" was sometimes a problem, but for its time, the system was considered adequate.

With these systems in place, the high Sierra hostelry was ready for business, and with the arrival of the 1902 summer season, it was off and running. For the 62 summers which followed, the Tavern held undisputed sway as the place" to go at Tahoe (though the rivalry of Tallac, and later Glenbrook and Brockway would give it momentary competition), and to this day, the resort's longevity stands as a record which no other Basin caravansary has been able to surpass.

Story: Carol Van Etten
Dancing at the Tavern, Resting on the Terrace, De Macrae collection
Tavern exterior, Jill Beede collection
Steamer Tahoe, the Heritage Gallery

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