TAHOE CITY, Calif. — In 1909, 24-year-old Clarence William Vernon was playing the coronet in a Riverside, Calif., band when his bandleader suggested he join a music group at Lake Tahoe for the summer.
The Tahoe Tavern had just added 80 rooms, a casino and a ballroom, and wanted a music group to play on its pier. The young man’s 500-mile journey to Tahoe City launched a legendary 70-year career that gave the North Shore settlement its many footings for success.
If not for Bill Vernon’s leadership, Tahoe City residents might not have created the town’s first local government, the Tahoe City Public Utility District, when they did in 1938.
If not for Vernon’s mix of skills as manager, the TCPUD might have floundered from laissez faire or misstep, and the town wouldn’t have been poised to make the most of the expansive 1950s and the 1960 Olympics bonanza.
He was a Tahoe City Rotary founder, a North Lake Tahoe Historical Society founder and a lifetime member of the Lake Tahoe Ski Club. He helped form the volunteer fire department, and served as Justice of the Peace. But his most lasting contribution was to the water district.
“We started with nothing but a determination to succeed in the face of some doubts,” Vernon reflected in his memoir, “History of Tahoe City’s Water Supply.”
Wrestling with disarray and dissension, and thwarting more than a few disasters, he decidedly stamped out those doubts.
He was a Tahoe City superhero.
Born July 26, 1884 in Iowa, and raised in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Vernon inherited a jack-of-all-trades aptitude from his homesteading father, who was a farmer, pool hall owner and builder.
When Vernon married Ethel Joslin in 1911, they honeymooned in mile-high adventure, circumnavigating Lake Tahoe by rowboat, and sleeping in tents and cabins on the shore.
Settling full-time at Tahoe in 1923, the Vernons bought a lot in Tahoe City’s first subdivision, the Bittencourt Tract, built a house, and swirled into politics.
In 1938, Vernon eased the TCPUD into existence. Both leader and laborer, he was the district’s first board president as well as its first manager. Paid $40 per month for his part-time district job, he maintained water lines, cleaned storage tanks and managed the finances.
He juggled other jobs to make ends meet, including working as a night watchman at Tahoe Tavern and managing the Truckee Tahoe Lumber Company when its owner, Charles Cross, left to fight in World War II.
In the beginning, Vernon earned what he called a “starvation salary.” Through hard work, and one particular stroke of luck, he eventually had enough income to swing some of his own finances toward the projects he loved.
Early on, he made a name for himself in public safety. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Vernon organized volunteers to join 1.5 million other U.S. citizens enrolled by the U.S. Army to scan the skies from watchtowers, looking for enemy aircraft.
Placer County Sheriff Elmer Gum deputized Vernon and others as the first “Tahoe Rangers.”
Meanwhile, the town’s population grew. During the 1940s, new subdivisions went in around the future Tahoe City Golf Course.
Vernon’s salary more than doubled to $85 per month as the water district expanded to meet homeowner requests for service. He received an extra $15 per month for using his own truck.
In the same decade, the TCPUD took over responsibility for the lakefront park, Commons Beach, which was being neglected by Placer County. Vagrants and unruly types were leaving garbage all over the property. Vernon’s duties now included picking up after them — and cleaning toilets.
In 1947, the man of many talents ran for Justice of the Peace and was elected. He bought a building downtown and moved his family in upstairs. Ethel operated a souvenir shop downstairs, while he held Justice of the Peace hours in another front room and used the back section as the utility district office.
It took less than a decade for Vernon’s district salary to nearly double again to $150 per month in 1953.
“His request for a telephone in the name of the district was granted,” his memoir, written partly in the third person, reads.
He deserved the pay, because he was now chief of the biggest project of his life, the building of a sewer system to deliver human waste away from the lake.
That messy work was spectacularly rewarded by chance. One day in 1954, Tahoe City’s superhero played a round of bingo at the Crystal Bay Club — and walked away with $10,000 in winnings. Life could hardly get any better.
After the Squaw Valley Olympics, the district expanded south to the Episcopal Church to serve new subdivisions. It was time to build a new 500,000-gallon tank to replace the three old 12,000-gallon tanks. The district began chlorinating water.
In 1964, 25 years after he accepted the TCPUD job, Bill Vernon retired. He was almost 80.
While Vernon played many public service roles in Tahoe City, he also generously gave financial support when needed: He lobbied Placer County Supervisors for a new library, and donated a chunk of his own cash to build it; he pushed for a six-foot boardwalk above Commons Beach, and pledging $1,000 for it; he argued to keep the original Gatekeeper’s Cabin intact after part of it burned, and threw in $1,000 of his own for expenses.
In his memoir, Vernon is humble about his legacy.
“Supplying Tahoe City Public Utility District, probably the smallest such district in the United States, with the needed water and sanitary sewer service, had been a long and tedious job, especially the sewer service, but it was now finished and we had a feeling of satisfaction,” he wrote.
Leader, hard worker, man of many gifts, Bill Vernon lived until he was 97 and a half. He is buried in Tahoe City’s Trail’s End Cemetery.
Information for this story came from Vernon’s memoir, his oral history at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Carol Van Etten’s book “Tahoe City’ First 100 Years.”The TCPUD invites readers to send their own facts and recollections to Laura@ReadWriteShoot.com. The next installment in this series will appear July 26. Laura Read is a freelance writer in Tahoe City.