Walking Through Lake Tahoe's History

16th October, 2020

Lake Tahoe is world-renowned for its beauty and endless outdoor activities, but did you know it has a rich history filled with interesting facts? There are many historical sites and plaques throughout Lake Tahoe that bring history to life and let you walk where the early settlers once journeyed. Shake it up and make learning history interesting, fun, and enjoy amazing views along the way. Read up on all the rich history that makes Lake Tahoe special, then visit the many sites around the area where history has taken place.

Mt Tallac Field

Lake Tahoe History

Lake Tahoe over 2 million years ago from shifting plates in the earth crust, forming the tallest peaks in Lake Tahoe to take shape: At 10,886 ft., Freel Peak is the tallest peak in Lake Tahoe with Job's Sister behind it at 10,823 ft, followed by Mt. Rose at 10,778 ft. in third place. During the Ice Age, glaciers shaped the surrounding landscape to the shape we see today. The ice rivers carved smooth U-shaped valleys forming Emerald Bay, Cascade Lake, Fallen Leaf Lake, Echo Lakes, and Truckee River.

The Native American Washoe tribe is considered the original Lake Tahoe locals, and their presence can be traced back to two thousand years. They inhabited the Lake Tahoe basin and Cave Rock became one of their most sacred cultural and spiritual sites. Religious ceremonies would be held inside the largest section of the cave.

historic cave rock photo

During the 1800s the Discovery of gold and silver attracted people from around the world to the American West, and most notably Explorer John C. Fremont. He was the first early settler to view Lake Tahoe in 1844 from the top of Red Lake Peak at modern-day Carson Pass. He originally named it Lake Bigler, but it was widely unpopular and later changed. But the Washoe tribe was first to name the lake “Da-ow-a-ga”. The name translates to “the lake”, and the word Tahoe is the result of a mispronunciation of the first two syllables of the Washoe's word.

Snowshoe Thompson

Way before the invention of the internet or telephones, mailing letters was the only way for people to communicate with each other. During the 1800s Gold Rush, there was a demand for communication between California and the eastern United States. This created the need to establish an overland mail route between San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

John “Snowshoe” Thompson answered an ad placed by the Placerville postmaster to carry the overland mail through the dangerous Sierra Nevada mountain range to the Carson Valley. As a child in Norway, John’s father had made him Scandinavian snowshoes (ski-shaped) so he could ski to school which made him was very skilled as an adult. He agreed to carry the 90-pound mailbag on a 180-mile round-trip twice a month. Thompson rescued many stranded people from certain death during his 20 years as a mail carrier. His exploits are considered one of Lake Tahoe's greatest legends, and today he is remembered as the father of California skiing.

Emerald Bay

In 1868, Ben Holladay Jr. was the owner of the land surrounding Emerald Bay where he built the first private house on Lake Tahoe. In 1913, a highway around Emerald Bay (Highway 89) was constructed which brought in more visitors to the Lake Tahoe area. In 1969 Emerald Bay officially became a National Natural Landmark. Then, In 1994, California State Parks included the water of the bay as a part of the national park. This makes Emerald Bay one of the first underwater parks of its type in the state, protecting the various wrecks and other items on the bay's bottom. The famous Rubicon hiking trail extends between the Vikingsholm Castle and D.L. Bliss State Park.

Vikingsholm Castle

When driving around Emerald Bay you notice the little island sitting in the middle known as Fannette Island (Lake Tahoe’s only island). It is the teahouse for the Vikingsholm Castle nestled down on the shore of Emerald Bay. In 1928 Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight purchased two hundred acres of land at Emerald Bay. Mrs. Knight set out to build a wondrous structure that would incorporate the design of an old Nordic Viking castle. She thought Emerald Bay reminded her of the fjords she had seen during her travels to Scandinavia.

She commissioned her Swedish nephew Lennart Palme to design the home. The Vikingsholm Castle was completed in the fall of 1929 and is considered one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the United States. It is now a part of the Harvey West Unit of the Emerald Bay State Park. During the Summer months, the house is open for tours, but the area can be enjoyed year-round.

Tallac Historic Site

The Tallac Historic Site was once known as the "Grandest Resort in the World," and held summer retreats for the San Francisco Bay Area elite. The resort included two major hotels, a casino, and numerous out-buildings. Summer estates sprang up around the Tallac Resort during the good times of the roaring 1920s. Guests at the Tallac Resort enjoyed saloons, boat rides, and an incredible dance floor mounted on springs.

Today, the remains of the resort and the restored estates attract visitors to recapture this golden era in Lake Tahoe's history. The Pope Estate was built in 1894 and the 19 other historic structures including three rustic mansions date back to 1873 through the 1920s. The Pope, Baldwin, and Valhalla Estates are open to the public throughout the year for guided tours and art exhibits. You can stroll through the historic site and step into the deep Lake Tahoe history.

Tallac Historic Site

Click here for a fun guide to learn more about Lake Tahoe!