The first three decades which followed the arrival of white civilization on the shores of Lake Tahoe constituted an era of vast exploitation. The Tahoe Basin's resources - namely the forests - were a commodity vital to the success of the silver mining which commenced in the virtually treeless environs of Virginia City, Nevada in 1859. Here the shoring up of deep shafts and long tunnels of the mines required a nearly exhaustible supply of timber.
The proximity of the Basin's silvan wealth represented a reasonably inexpensive source of such wood products, and soon armies of lumberjacks and mill hands, answering the call for workers, were flocking into the area to accomodate the demand. These bluecollar laborers were to dominate the Basin's demographic profile through the early 1890s. But a few years into that decade, the waning of the Basin's timber industry, which coincided with (and was in part brought about by) the decline of silver mining in Virginia City, had cleared the way for commercial ventures of quite a different sort.
In the summers between 1890 and 1920, Tahoe was becoming (to an even more marked degree than today) a playground for the very rich. The average wage earner of the time did not enjoy anything like a paid break from work, and if he did, could hardly have afforder travel. Thus Tahoe's second demographic wave was essentially the "upper crust" of San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley, well-heeled capitalists who had made their fortunes in the industries and markets of westward expansion.
One of the spoils afforded by this newly-acquired wealth was the luxury of repairing, for the few intolerable months of summer, to an uncrowded alpine paradise where one could enjoy a serene yet vigorous dignity before autumn mandated a return to the oppressive obligations of life in the Valley or by the Bay.
Initially, these summer sejourns were to private lakeshore resorts, for the alternatives beyond their civilized oases would have required a tent and a bedroll - hopelessly declasse in that opulent era. The earliest Tahoe resorts to cater to this elite clientele were A.J. Bayley's Grand Central Hotel (on the bluff overlooking Tahoe City's waterfront) and Elias "Lucky" Baldwin's Tallac Hotel, on the south shore.
Several other caravansaries existed around the Lake during this period, all providing satisfactory accomodations. But it was these two which shared the patronage of those who demanded the finest. In 1901, these were joined by Tahoe Tavern, the grand resort newly constructed by Duane L. Bliss, who had enjoyed tremendous financial success in the local timber industry.
Guests invariably spent at least a fortnight, for travel to and from the Basin was still slow by our standards. A month was all the better, and staying the entire season was not uncommon. Among the amenities offered at these grand Sierra hostelries were guided horseback expeditions into the hinderlands, cards, afternoon teas, and of course fishing and excursions on the Lake.
For those of a romantic persuasion, a moonlit evening of dancing on the Lake was among the social offerings. A gaily-decorated barge, towed by one of the several steamboats which still towed log "booms" by day, would typically travel from resort to resort, picking up celebrants at each. With a scaled-down orchestra providing the music, and liquid refreshments flowing freely, carefree couples waltzed and two-stepped beneath the stars as the entourage glided along toward its next port of call. By dawn, the floating dancehall had completed its circuit, returning the dancers to their respective resorts.
Thus in the early years of this century many of the West Coast's elite becale acquainted with the virtues of summering at Lake Tahoe. So enthusiastically was this new seasonal wateringhole received that soon a number of former resort resort guests had built or were planning to build their own summer residences, thereby setting the stage for a new social era at the Lake.
In spite of the absolute isolation and primitive surrounding of Lake Tahoe at that time, the nouveaux rich who purchased property there were determined to adapt their "normal" style of life but little, preferring the expense of overcoming obstacles to the inconvenience of enduring them. No electricity nor public utilities existed, and so it was up to the individual land owner to provide his own water system, electrical power and other services. However, with the aid of the best engineering money could buy, elaborate and costly solutions to these privations were devised and implemented, and so on arrival at their summer residences, the transplanted cosmopolitans could expect to enjoy all the conforts (if not the cultural advantages) of life in the city.
From Lakers and Launchers by Carol Van Etten
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