Elevation: 6,050 feet
WHAT TO DO IN TRUCKEE
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Get there via the California Zephyr and relive the glory days of the Snowball train runs.
Take a dark walk on abandoned railroad tracks in the snowsheds. Look for Indian petroglyphs (and mind where you walk) on your way in.
Learn about the Donner Party’s horrific winter at Donner Memorial State Park. Then stand in front of the Pioneer Monument to get a sense of how deep the snow was that doomed them.
Look for stray railroad ties as you walk across the tracks to get to the other side of town.
The Transcontinental Railroad’s Mightiest Challenge
Truckee’s got a well-known claim to fame as one of the snowiest cities in the country, and though it’s known for winter fun (as well as stunning alpine lakes and historic charm), the core of its identity is deeply linked to the railroad tracks that cut through town. Because they did something really remarkable — they opened the West.
Traveling one of the emigrant trails was a grueling journey and even if you were brave enough to take it on, there were good odds it could kill you. And if it didn’t before you reached California, a towering mountain range was a dispiriting hardship on top of lots of other hardships. The intrepid souls who finished the trip then had to build their lives in pretty isolating circumstances because those peaks they’d struggled across now cut them off from the rest of the country.
So a Transcontinental Railroad that could make east-west travel and transport easier and safer was a necessity, but also a major feat of engineering. How to construct it over a massif extending 400 miles? The short answer is lots of Chinese labor and tunneling with drills, sledgehammers and explosives.
Even as many people still considered it impossible, Truckee marked the place where the Sierra was officially conquered on April 3rd, 1868. On that day, Central Pacific Railroad’s tracks extended across the crest to reach what would become the transportation hub of the West. The most difficult part of the project now completed, workers then continued laying track east, and six years later the cross-country line was completed with the golden spike in Utah.
More Big Business in Truckee: Ice
In advance of Truckee getting up and running as a booming rail town, lumber was its major industry. Truckee logging supplied wood not only to build the railroad, but also the mines in Virginia City. Overzealous logging depleted those resources, but another source of commerce was waiting in the wings.
Ice was a luxury before the days of home refrigeration and in California’s early days, one imported from far-off locales. The concept of harvesting ice from lakes and rivers in cold-weather climes originated in Boston, and Beantown’s chilly resource was shipped far and wide, making its way to California by 1850 for use mainly in cold drinks served in hotels and bars.
Later, California would import ice from a closer source — Alaska. But demand was growing. As California’s agricultural industry began to thrive and the railroad enabled transporting goods east, ice was used to make refrigerated train cars for produce. And it was in demand in Virginia City, too, where miners sweltered in triple-digit temperatures below ground and cooling stations were literal life-savers.
Meanwhile, frigid Sierra winters produced plenty of ice around the Truckee River and some got wise and entrepreneurial. Nearby Boca is now a shell of a ghost town, but an interesting one still worth a quick stop to wander the cemetery. Originally a construction camp for the railroad, it got another boost in 1868 when ice harvesting started up there. Not only did the cold winters create plenty of ice, the railroad was right there to transport it. So big blocks were cut from the Boca ice field every winter and stored in huge icehouses or loaded onto the trains for shipping. Until 1927, by which time refrigeration technology made ice-harvesting obsolete.
California’s First World-Famous Beer: Boca
At the time that Boca’s main industry was ice, a smaller business gained world-wide fame. The same conditions that made Truckee so well-suited for ice harvesting also made it prime to brew lager. Doing so required ice, cold temperatures and spring water. All things Boca had in spades. And a position near the railroad tracks again became an important advantage. Not only could Boca brew a lager, it could share it with beer-lovers far and wide. Which it did.
Boca’s lager made its debut in 1876 and by 1883 was being celebrated at the World’s Fair in Paris. But 10 years later, the brewery burned to the ground and the world-famous beer was done. Until more than a century later, when Anchor Brewing resurrected it with a 2012 release of its own homage. The Grizzly on the label also highlights the railroad’s importance around Truckee. Like the products its trains carried east, Boca’s bruin is headed the same direction — the opposite direction of the bear on California’s state flag.
Winter Wonderlands in Truckee
The railroad was obviously the driving force in sustaining Truckee’s fortunes even as fires nearly destroyed it numerous times in its early days. And so it was rebuilt post-blaze numerous times, and traffic continued to pass through.
But there was opportunity to position Truckee as more than a place to pass through, and its harsh winters held the key.
The Snowball Express
The Sierra’s frigid snowy season was the stuff of legend with tales of the Donner Party, and trains provided a safe way for those who lived in California’s easier climates to travel there and experience winter. Central Pacific offered its first mountain getaway excursion in December 1867, the inaugural run for what would become the “Snowball Express” for winter weekend getaways in the mountains.
The Winter Carnival
The concept of Truckee as a winter wonderland was further solidified by Charles McGlashan. By 1894, he was thinking of ways to revive the economy when the area fell on hard times after Virginia City mining wound down. His forward thinking about how else to support Truckee was especially timely given that the surrounding forests were being stripped and ice harvesting would soon be rendered unnecessary.
Envisioning winter sports as a magnet that would create year-round tourism, McGlashan got the ball rolling for an annual Winter Carnival. His first move was to create a special spectacle. Hosing down a tower of chicken wire with water to create thick frozen walls, he made a giant icicle, which he then lit at night for added drama that would attract the attention of train passengers cruising past.
The next year, he took the idea further and created an ice castle that even had its own ice rink and toboggan run. The pinnacle of icy architecture came in 1913, when a huge ice castle was erected that included a dance hall, individual rooms with fireplaces and a welcome sign that read “Glad-U-Kum.”
The winter wonders were repeated each year until they morphed into a hugely popular winter carnival that attracted visitors with other additions like ski jumps, toboggan runs and dog-sled races. Jack London even made an appearance one year. Southern Pacific provided funding to promote Truckee’s winter festivities and transported train-fuls of tourists as more and more people came to experience Sierra winter and get hooked on snowy sports. Thus Truckee was born as a winter destination before Tahoe, which lacked the easy access of a railroad.
A few decades after the Snowball Express excursion trains established winter tourism in the Sierra, Southern Pacific Railroad (which took over after Central Pacific ceased operations in 1885) was running regular “Snowball Specials.” This later route expanded the action to Tahoe, with trains making stops in Norden, Truckee and Tahoe City, which had the first ski area closer to the famed lake. Originally called Olympic Hill, it now goes by Granlibakken, a fitting Norwegian name that gives a nod to that country for popularizing skiing as a sport.
The weekend Snowball Express runs from the Bay Area started with a late-night ride so that visitors could arrive in the morning for a fresh start on skiing, skating, sleigh rides, snowshoeing and other winter play. As the train chugged toward the Sierra, they could grab a meal in the dining car, and if they were willing to splurge a bit more money above the standard $4.45 round-trip ticket, they could rest in a sleeper car. The Snowball Express ran regularly from 1932 until 1940, by which time there were better roads, automobiles were more prevalent, and California road-tripping was underway.
Charles McGlashan: A Man with Many Curiosities
McGlashan wasn’t just Truckee’s first major booster. He was also a teacher, attorney, historian and author, journalist, astronomer…and a lepidopterist.
Mariposa may be named for butterflies, but Donner Summit boasts a seriously impressive butterfly population. More than 100 different species flit around in these parts. Such butterfly diversity is a boast that in North America, only Colorado’s Front Range can share.
As an avid student of butterflies, McGlashan and his daughter Ximena (who made her living as a “butterfly farmer”) amassed a massive collection of the winged creatures (and moths). It’s one of the largest in the world, with the specimens arranged in artful displays and preserved in glass. The collection was an attraction at Donner Memorial State Park for quite some time before being relocated to the Truckee Community Recreation Center.
Some Scientific Ah-Has
McGlashan also made discoveries central to Sierra lore. He accurately figured the depth of Lake Tahoe using a champagne bottle and, as the first renowned Donner Party historian, brought to light just how brutal the conditions were that stranded the group. Several tall stumps surrounded the camps they made at Donner Lake and Alder Creek. Reasoning that the trees were cut above the snow, McGlashan deduced that the accumulation ranged from 10 feet to as deep as 20 in some spots. His calculations were used to determine the height of the base for the Pioneer Monument at Donner Memorial State Park. The emigrant statues were positioned so that they would stand for eternity above the snowline that trapped the Donner Party.
The Rocking Stone & His Crystal Palace
For a curious man of refinement, McGlashan’s home in downtown Truckee matched his persona. But his many-windowed grand mansion was actually an add-on. First came a tower, built to protect a 17-ton rock that is a natural wonder.
The rocking stone is one of only a couple dozen around the world. Also referred to as “logan stones,” they’re glacial erratic boulders or other large weathered stones so precisely perched that just a small amount of force will cause the massive rocks to tip back and forth. It’s thought that Indians used the one in Truckee to store food where it wouldn’t be taken by animals. Later, it was a town oddity to be scaled for fun.
Enter McGlashan, who worried that the commotion might dislodge the unique rock and someone would be hurt. So he purchased the land and built an ornate circular tower above the even more massive boulder where the rocking stone sits. It would become his museum, housing not only the rocking stone, but the butterflies, Donner Party artifacts and other treasures. The house, built in the same style as the tower, went up years later and was connected with a bridge. Still big on spectacle and illumination, McGlashan ensured that the many tall, arched windows in his home and tower were always well-lit at night, earning the mansion the nickname “McGlashan’s Crystal Palace.”
The fancy homestead was short-lived, though, with the house burning down in 1935. The rocking stone is still there, but the museum is gone, replaced by a gazebo-like structure. And the stone no longer rocks, having been cemented to the base.
And Some Very Shabby Treatment for the Chinese Who Helped Make Truckee Happen
Charles McGlashan’s legacy as a beloved Truckee figure does have a black mark, however.
Chinese in the Sierra: The Railroad Builders
First, a quick history lesson on the Chinese in California. Like so many around the world, scores of them came in search of gold and when they didn’t strike it rich, they sought their livelihoods in other vocations. But their adopted home did not prove friendly and many faced severe prejudice, making it difficult for them to make a living.
The general air of hostility persisted as train tracks were being laid in the Sierra, but “Big Four” railroad boss Charles Crocker argued that Chinese should be recruited for the work because they would accept lower wages and had proven themselves adept at stonework based on the Great Wall of China. What’s more they were easier employees who worked hard. So more and more Chinese workers were put to work by Central Pacific, which even advertised in China to add to the ranks.
When the railroad work was done, many Chinese settled in Truckee, which once had a Chinatown almost as big as that of San Francisco. Yet you don’t see much trace of it today.
Persecution & the Truckee Method
And that’s in part due to Charles McGlashan, who called the Chinese immigrants “an unmitigated curse to the Pacific Coast.” After the trains were running through Truckee, the Chinese were competing for jobs in its other flagging industries, including those on the ice fields and with logging companies. With opportunities dwindling, racism against the Chinese intensified, along with persecution.
Anti-Chinese legislation made it difficult for them to find work and other Truckee residents harassed them, going so far as to damage their settlements and burn their homes to drive them out. A vigilante crew even took up arms and conducted raids to scare the Chinese away.
Charles McGlashan was among the anti-Chinese and devised a plan whereby they could be starved out of Truckee. His so-called Truckee Method was less violent than other tactics and therefore touted as lawful, and it called for a boycott in which merchants would not only not offer work to Chinese, but not sell them goods. And his plan worked. Unable to find jobs or buy food and supplies, most of the Chinese who had tried to build a life in Truckee were gone in a matter of weeks. And Charles McGlashan would put his promotional skills to use again, going around the state to tout the Truckee Method as a strategy to ward off Chinese settlers.
The Wild Days
Like other Sierra towns plagued by fires that nearly wiped everything out in early days, Truckee has few original buildings remaining. But the old jail is one of them, fitting for a town that has a good amount of rowdiness in its past, including red light districts, gambling, gangsters and saloons masquerading as soda fountains during Prohibition.
Today the building houses the Tahoe Historical Society Museum, but it used to detain notorious toughs like Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson and the first woman to die in a California gas chamber, Juanita “Ma” Spinelli. She would have had to be held on the second floor, which was added to house lady prisoners.
Hollywood Connections: Truckee & Donner Summit as Movie Sets
The railroad brought Hollywood to Truckee, too, with the tracks making it easy to use what had been remote Sierra terrain as a mountain backdrop. Filming around Truckee began in 1914, and into the 1940s, many movies were shot around Truckee and Donner Summit.
Charlie Chaplin came to shoot 1925’s The Gold Rush, Clark Gable was around for The Call of the Wild (1935) and John Wayne filmed his 1953 aviation flick Islands in the Sky around the area. If you’re into more modern cinema and want to see Truckee’s celluloid roots, check out Misery or True Lies to name a few.
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