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Lake Tahoe History

The first people who lived around the Tahoe area were the Washoe and Paiute Indians. They were hunter gatherers who harvested pine nuts, hunted and fished the lakes, and although getting enough food was a constant challenge, they developed a relatively peaceful culture and triumphed in the skill of basket weaving. (Visitors to area history museum can see an awesome basket made by one of the last Washoe experts. It took an entire year to craft.

Famous trapper Jedediah Smith met and befriended these Native Americans early on, so they were welcoming when John C Fremont and Kit Carson came through the area exploring for the U.S. Army. The two men were amazed by the crystal blue water and noted that the only river to feed out of the lake was the fish-rich Truckee, a name it was later given to honor a native American trail guide. They also observed that the flats north of the lake were relatively mild in climate, and that a nearby shortcut lead quickly through the mountains. That pass was later named the Donner pass in honor of a group of people who were trapped there in winter on their way west and were forced to turn to cannibalism. Survivors were later forgiven and allowed back into society.

Lots of people wanted to go to California and Nevada during the 1840s and 50s when the Comstock load – a gold vein – was discovered in nearby Virginia City. (See day trips, for information on this enchanting “ghost town”). Shortly later locals discovered that the bluish mud surrounding the gold was actually silver. At this news more miners started pouring in from all over the world, and those around Lake Tahoe started cutting down timber to supply to the many mines that were springing up. These loggers would transport the wood by water and then on to the mines using new railroads, the building of which spurred more development in the area. About this time the Anglos started having trouble with the desperate Paiute who were getting pushed aside by all the development tragic results – the explosive violence. Few Native Americans were able to remain in the region. After the precious metals ran out in the 1860s and 70s the miners left, but robber barons and wealthy San Franciscans as well as other people who had been exposed to the beauty of Lake Tahoe came to live or develop real estate on the scenic lake. Luxury resorts thrived, and mansion sprung up.

At about the same time, Reno was gaining prominence as a divorce capital of the nation. The laws for residency in Nevada had been made very loose to accommodate the many miners who came and needed to settle quickly. You could still come to Nevada, get a residency in a few weeks and sue for divorce quickly. To help out all those wealthy widows dude ranches and lodgings became popular. Also because of the wild west history of the area, gambling was legal in Nevada, with the occasional restrictions imposed, then relaxed. In the 1920s gaming in North Lake Tahoe at the Cal-Neva resort attracted the rich and famous from all over the world. More lodges were built to serve the demanding needs of the social elite. Bill Harrah’s and Raymond Smith and son saw an opportunity to turn gambling into a serious business and actively bought and built appealing Casino resorts on the Nevada side of the lake.

In the 1960s the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley brought world attention to Lake Tahoe. They opened Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Reno, and people started pouring in. Visionary resort developers began creating their majestic masterpieces and the rest is .well, history.

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