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Discover the History of Truckee, CA

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Truckee, California has the laid-back vibe of a mountain town, with a main street that looks like it could be the set of a western film. Shops and restaurants abound, and Truckee lives up to its slogan of “A base camp for a big life.”

The first recorded use of the Truckee area dates back to 10,000 BC by some estimates. Washoe, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute tribes are all thought to have used the area in their nomadic wanderings. Petroglyphs from this era can be found on Donner Summit and in Hobart Mills. The name “Truckee” derives from a Paiute guide who assisted travelers in the mid-1800s. He would tell travelers “Tro-kay,”which roughly translates to “everything’s all right” in Paiute. Restaurant Trokay in downtown Truckee gets its name from this friendly guide, and serves up innovative and locally-derived cuisine that takes inspiration from the natural beauty of Truckee.

In the mid-1800s, Truckee saw a number of travelers, mostly emigrants from the east trying to shave mileage off of the Oregon Trail. The most famous (or perhaps infamous) of these was the Donner Party in 1846. More can be learned about this ill-fated party as well as other travelers to the region at the Emigrant Trail Museum in Donner State Park.

Throughout the 1860s, Truckee saw a massive influx of settlers to the region. Transformed from a comfortable, but primitive, stage-coach stop called “Coburn’s Station,” Truckee grew to a bustling town of about 300 buildings after the first train passed through in 1869. Over 1,400 Chinese laborers were commissioned to construct the railroad through Donner Summit--a daunting task that required dangerous and difficult work. You can visit the Truckee Railroad Museum to learn more about the construction of the railroad and its impact on the region.

Life in Truckee was as raucous as one would expect from a wild west town. Jiboom Street, located just one block up from Donner Pass Road in downtown Truckee, was home to bars, saloons, and a thriving red light district. You can visit the Old Jail Museum on Jiboom Street in Truckee for a glimpse into law and order during this period. The jail was used continuously from 1875 through 1964.

With a bounty of forest-land and easy shipping via rail, lumber was the next industry to take Truckee by storm. The first lumber mill was built in 1866 by Joseph Gray and George Schaffer near downtown Truckee, but was later moved to the valley at the base of present-day Northstar California resort. The area is still called Schaffer’s Mill today.

Around the turn of the century, Truckee became known as a winter sports destination. Ski resorts like Donner Ski Ranch cropped up on Donner Summit, and Truckee became a playground for wealthy visitors. You can still visit Cabona’s in downtown Truckee. Today, Cabona’s is a purveyor of mountain casual apparel, but it got its start in 1918 as general store operated by Dave Cabona. If you’d like to learn more about ski history in the region, the Western SkiSport Museum on Donner Summit is a great resource. The Squaw Valley Olympic Heritage Museum also offers a fascinating glimpse into ski history in the Sierras--specifically, the 1960 Olympics that cemented the area’s prominence in the winter sports world.

To take in the ski history and to enjoy a delightful dinner, visit Cottonwood Restaurant on the hillside above Truckee. The Hilltop Lodge in which Cottonwood Restaurant is situated was the site of one of the nation’s first mechanized ski lifts and was also host to a number of winter festivals and exhibitions. The warming hut near where Cottonwood Restaurant stands today was constructed out of railroad ties--an homage to Truckee’s vibrant railroad and winter sports heritage.

Today as you walk through downtown Truckee, the roots of the town are still tangible. You’ll hear the whistle of the train that still passes right through town. You’ll enjoy eating or drinking at one of the many restaurants and bars that line the streets. You’ll find warm mountain hospitality, and a quaint downtown that still bears the covered sidewalks and tall store facades from one hundred years ago. Stay close to Truckee, and experience all that this mountain town has to offer. Book your Truckee vacation rental.