TAHOE CITY, Calif. — It was a sad day for the small community of Tahoe City in the spring of 1932. Citizens dressed in black were in the process of burying the town’s first constable, the revered pioneer Robert Montgomery Watson. Watson had arrived at Lake Tahoe in the 1870s and was appointed Tahoe City’s first constable in 1906. Constable Watson served his community until 1932 when he died of pneumonia at the age of 80.
When Harry Edward Johanson rode into town on that fateful April day, he observed a somber funeral procession and Watson’s casket being drawn across the snow-covered meadow toward the Tahoe City Cemetery. Businesses were closed and school bells tolled. During the service, Watson’s daughter Alice described her father “as a man who never fought with man or beast, but gave of himself to improve the place where he lived, be it through planting trout in a mountain lake or marking a trail for the joy of a horseman.”
Harry Johanson was afflicted with wanderlust and had not planned on settling in Tahoe City permanently, but once he saw the scenery decided to stay. Born in Sweden in 1889, Johanson had demonstrated exceptional youthful athleticism by taking top honors in many skiing, swimming and long distance running competitions. He ended up winning a total of 84 medals and trophies, including a third place finish just behind future Finnish Olympic gold medalist Paavo Nurmi. Johanson studied architectural drafting at the University of Upsala and after graduation he joined the Swedish Army Air Corp. In his late 30s, Harry decided to immigrate to the United States, but the quotas were full and instead he sailed for Canada. He eventually became an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. While serving three years with the “Mounties” he learned horsemanship and dog sledding, skills that would serve him well at Lake Tahoe.
Johanson received permission to enter the United State and arrived at Tahoe to take a caretaker position at a West Shore estate. In December 1934, he received his citizenship and two months later became Tahoe City’s second constable. It soon became apparent, however, that “Harry Jo” as locals liked to call him, would be much different than Robert Watson. Watson was known as a quiet, reserved family man; Johanson was a confirmed bachelor with a flamboyant personality. Harry Jo covered his beat of 200 square miles by horseback in summer and dogsled in winter. Harry loved dogs. One of his favorite quotes was “A man’s best friend is his dog, better even than his wife.” Johanson kept up to 15 dogs at a time, most them malamutes, to pull his sled. Despite heavy winter storms that buried the region in deep snow, Harry made his rounds checking on year-round residents. Blessed with incredible endurance and an expert on cross-country skis, in 1937 he circled Lake Tahoe in one day.
During the 1930s, Hollywood directors filmed many of that era’s adventure movies at Lake Tahoe, including such epics as “Call of the Wild” (Harry stood in for Clark Gable), “White Fang,” and “Rose Marie,” (he doubled for actor Nelson Eddy). Harry Jo preferred the devoted companionship of his dogs over any commitment to a woman, but the handsome constable with wavy blond hair certainly enjoyed the “fairer sex.” His brief marriage to local schoolteacher Dorothy Zaharias produced a child, but Harry argued he was not the father and she angrily left town with the baby. Afterward, Harry said, “The more I see of women, the more I love my dogs.”
Despite his well-publicized sentiments regarding marriage and women, he nevertheless flirted with many of the eligible females in Tahoe City, always wearing his dashing uniform and service revolver, even while drinking in the local taverns. Rumor has it the beautiful actress Jeanette MacDonald, star in “Rose Marie,” was one of his conquests. Constable Johanson played an active role in regional law enforcement, not only capturing crooks (once nabbing a murder suspect in Tahoe City), but also in confiscating slot machines and shutting down local gambling operations. Johanson wore other hats too, simultaneously performing the duties of deputy sheriff, deputy tax collector, and deputy corner.
Tahoe City was a tiny community back then. When Harry bought his house (the current Wolfdale’s restaurant), some locals complained about why he lived so far out of town. After 32 years of service he resigned in 1967. More than 200 people attended his retirement dinner at Sunnyside Lodge. Harry Jo eventually moved to Reno, Nev. and died in 1980, but was buried in Tahoe City’s Trails End Cemetery, which he had renovated in the 1950s.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his new blog: www.tahoenuggets.com