History of Lake Tahoe

United States > US City Index > Lake Tahoe > History

Shifting, grinding, sliding. Imperceptible, perpetual movement. Volcanic explosions, glacier formations and ultimately their disappearance, massive amounts of snow. This makes the basic recipe. Let it rise, the Sierra Nevada Mountains are created. Let it fall, the Tahoe Basin is formed. Time consuming, yes! Maybe 25-million years, give or take a few years, to form the bowl. Another 10,000 to form inlets to fill the bowl with melting glacial ice. The resulting masterpiece is known as 'the Jewel of the Sierras.'


The elevation of Lake Tahoe is 6,229 feet, making it the highest lake of its size in the United States. The water depth measures 1,645 feet at a portion of the lake in the Crystal Bay area. Thus, it is the tenth deepest lake in the world and third deepest in North America. Amazing clarity to depths of 75-feet. The lake covers a surface area of 191 square miles with 71-miles of exquisite shoreline. The Nevada/California border traverses lengthwise with a greater portion being on the California side. The average snowfall in some areas is 300-600 inches. Melting snow finds its way to the lake via 63 streams entering the basin. Oddly, there is only one outlet, the Truckee River. Because of the huge volume and constant movement of the water, Lake Tahoe never freezes despite the drastic winter temperatures.


Summer vacationers began arriving more than 10,000 years ago when the Washoe tribe camped along the cool lake shores. One of their favorite places is known today as Camp Richardson. The men of the tribe were skillful hunters and took advantage of the abundant wildlife. The Washoe women were noted for their intricate and artistic basket weaving. This idyllic lifestyle spanned generations of the peaceful tribe, however, it would not last.

Perhaps the first European American to see Lake Tahoe was John C. Fremont whose exploration party was led by Kit Carson in 1844. The Carson Pass or Mormon-Emigrant Trail became the main east to west route from Utah to California. In 1859, with the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, the face of the lake would change forever. With mines, towns and the railroad invading the territory, wood was needed to supply building materials. The east shore, from what is now Incline Village to Glenbrook, became a vast logging empire and the ravages of clear-cutting would remain evident for years to come.

A multitude of wealthy people were created during the California and Comstock mining days, and many were attracted to the pristine lake. Thus, the start of tourism and the resulting resorts soon to dot the lush landscape. The Tahoe Basin managed to remain in relative obscurity until the 1950s when Bill Harrah and Harvey Gross built the first casinos on the south shore. With their gaming expertise in Reno, they knew how to attract business for their establishments and became mainstays to this day. Harveys and Harrahs still remain as popular as ever. In 1960, the Winter Olympic Games were hosted at Squaw Valley on the west shore. With the resulting publicity, the area was soon recognized as a world-class winter playground, as well as the premier summer vacation venue. The Olympic Rings still remain at Squaw Valley Resort and the place is renowned for year-round sporting activities for all ages to enjoy.

The shoreline now bustles with casinos on the Nevada side of the lake. Perhaps, one of the most notable being the Cal-Neva Lodge, famous for hosting the rich and famous. Frank Sinatra, once part-owner, and Marylin Monroe were familiar faces here. John F. Kennedy also enjoyed cavorting at this star-studded establishment. Members of the 'mob' were reported to have ties to the casino and were often visitors.


While it took natural forces millions of years to create this exquisite masterpiece, man has managed to partially destroy the beauty in little more than a century. Through the years, casinos and resorts and the resulting visitors have upset the balance of nature. We are now in an age were we realize our mistakes and trying to remedy them. The rebuilding and new construction on all sides of the lake is based on blending harmoniously with the alpine surroundings. Comprehensive studies are being done to find ways to restore the area and keep it as nature intended. In October of 2000, the United States Congress and the House of Representatives authorized $300 million to restore the lake. The work will include restoration of clarity that has waned throughout the years, wetland restoration, erosion control and improving the health of the forest.