You are here

The History of Lake Tahoe... and where to learn more!

Related Items: 
Tahoe Information

Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area has a fascinating cultural and natural history. Formed about two million years ago by the convergence of three faults, Lake Tahoe is the second deepest freshwater lake in the United States. There are many ongoing efforts to protect the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe, and UC Davis’ Tahoe Environmental Research Center leads the charge. You can learn more about the Tahoe Basin’s natural history and the efforts to protect it at the Tahoe Science Center. Tours are offered daily. You’ll also enjoy interactive exhibits and the award-winning 3-D film “Lake Tahoe in Depth.”

Lake Tahoe has been enjoyed by people for thousands of years, initially used as a summer camp by the Washoe Native American Tribe. This tribe called the lake “da ow ga” which means “the lake.” This moniker is thought to be the source for the name “Tahoe.” The Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City offers fascinating insights into Washoe culture, and features a large Washoe basket collection.

John C. Fremont was the first non-native person to see Lake Tahoe, laying eyes on it in 1844. He dubbed it “Lake Bigler” after the California governor at the time. Governor Bigler was a secessionist, and in the midst of the Civil War in 1862, the lake was renamed “Tahoe” in support of the Union government. Sand Harbor and many other state park beaches have interpretive plaques that explain Tahoe’s cultural and natural history in detail.

In the 1860s-1890s, gold and silver were being discovered nearby in Virginia City and Auburn areas. North Lake Tahoe served as a resort community for miners, and logging in the Tahoe basin at this time caused significant deforestation. For a peek into daily life in North Tahoe at the time, visit the Watson Cabin in Tahoe City, which is recognized as the oldest building in Tahoe City. Period furniture and tools set the scene, and docents are available to answer any questions.

In the mid to late 1800s, Tahoe and Truckee became a transportation hub. The ill-fated Donner Party attempted to cross the Sierra in the 1840s, and just 20 years later, in 1869, a railroad was built through this rugged terrain. A crew of primarily Chinese laborers bored through Donner Pass, completing the section in just two years. You can learn more about transportation and the early settlers and laborers in Truckee at the The Emigrant Trail Museum at Donner State Park. The Truckee Railroad Museum, which occupies the decommissioned caboose of a Southern Pacific Railroad train, also offers interesting insights into railroads and infrastructure construction in the region.

Despite attempts to classify the shoreline of Lake Tahoe as a state park in the early 1900s, the shores of Lake Tahoe soon became a playground for wealthy and often famous travelers. In the roaring 20s, opulent estates were constructed around Lake Tahoe. There are a handful of these impressive structures still standing. Spend a day exploring Vikingsholm Castle, located at the mouth of Emerald Bay. This mansion was built by Lora Josephine Knight, who chose the site because it reminded her of the fjords she had visited during her travels in Scandinavia. The Hellman-Ehrman Mansion located at Sugar Pine Point State Park also offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of visitors to Tahoe during the 1920s. This house was at the time a modern marvel, built using the latest electrical and plumbing systems.Visit Thunderbird Lodge to explore the stunning grounds of an estate built by George Whittell Jr., an eccentric San Francisco native. George Whittell Jr. had a fondness for animals, for card games, and for speed - tours on his iconic Thunderbird Yacht are a must-do.

Speaking of boats, The Tahoe Maritime Museum offers tours, information, and insight into watersports on Lake Tahoe. Book a tour on their StarDust wooden boat, and explore the shores of Lake Tahoe in style.The museum also features displays of decommissioned watercraft and hosts many workshops and special events.

We would be remiss not to mention the importance of winter sports in the region. The Squaw Valley Olympic Heritage Museum features exhibits and memorabilia from the 1960 Winter Olympics, which were held at Squaw Valley. This museum is located at High Camp at Squaw Valley. You’ll enjoy views of the slopes, the skating rink, and the valley where Olympians came to compete for gold in 1960.

Lake Tahoe’s history is truly remarkable. Come see for yourself today! Book your stay.