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Comstock-bound traffic had become constant in the early to mid-1860s, but few travelers had taken much time to admire the beautiful scenery around Lake Tahoe.
A string of hotels, corrals, trading posts and businesses along the lakeshore catered to miners, lumbermen and other business travelers whose interests centered primarily on financial gain. While these numerous way stations and inns met the needs of overnight guests, they lacked the amenities demanded by wealthy travelers and genteel visitors looking for a quiet place to relax among the beauties of nature. A few rough and rustic establishments like Yank’s Station at Meyers, Sierra House and Friday’s Station at the southern state line added rooms or built entirely new buildings to attract customers, but because they didn’t provide a view and/or any easy access to the lake, they never developed into bona fide tourist resorts.
Until workers completed the Tahoe Railway in 1900, tourists from San Francisco, Sacramento and Reno disembarked at Truckee and boarded a stage for the rugged and bumpy, 14-mile journey to Tahoe City. Few complained, however, knowing what lay ahead. One such traveler called the trip a “beauty-bordered ride.”
“Never a summer sky bore so intense a blue as does this shifting water,” he vividly wrote of Lake Tahoe. “Only gray and brown and blue in the color scheme, from the log at your feet to the distant mountains, and yet there is infinite variety in tone and tint.”
Tahoe City’s elegant, new Grand Central Hotel, erected in 1871, offered a panoramic view of the lake and “all the home comforts so much coveted by the weary traveler.” By 1880, A.J. Bayley’s chic resort on the North Shore flaunted stylish walnut furniture, Brussels carpets and an ornate cast-iron kitchen range. The luxury hotel also sported a saloon and meat market, sponsored tennis and fishing tournaments, chartered boats, and offered horseback riding and wagon tours.
Meanwhile, Glenbrook House, built in 1863 as a vacation spot for wealthy Comstock investors, now featured horse racing on the beach, “shoreline bathing,” hikes in the mountains and picnics at Spooner Lake. Its celebrated spa and picturesque surroundings welcomed honored guests like William T. Sherman, President Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. One of the first telephone lines on the Pacific Coast was installed here. Affluent visitors to the town of Glenbrook also found first-class accommodations at both the Lakeshore House and the Jefferson House. Wealthy guests enjoyed carriage rides and steam excursions to Carnelian and Emerald Bay. Nearby, at the Lake Exchange Billiard and Bowling Parlor, they purchased fine cigars and tropical and California-grown fruits.
Also looking to capitalize on Lake Tahoe’s grandeur was millionaire Elijah “Lucky” Baldwin. He acquired thousands of acres along its southwestern shore, including Yank Clement’s Tallac Point House. Baldwin proceeded to renovate the old and “crude” hotel to suit his garish style. He intended to draw only well-to-do guests and designed his hotel with elegant style, right down to its lavish casino. Soon, a 150-room hotel and several cottages graced the lakeshore. Baldwin added a telegraph, post office, tennis courts, lawns for croquet, boat docks and archery fields.
Baldwin’s flashy “retreat for the wealthy” quickly became the most flamboyant of the dozen or so luxury resorts that mushroomed around the lake in the late 1800s. Yet, while its formally clad patrons dined on a “cuisine equaled by many, excelled by none,” the dawning of a new century brought significant changes to the tourist industry at Lake Tahoe.
Part Two: Check back in July for more about the evolution of Lake Tahoe as a tourist destination!