Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about Charles McGlashan. To read the first installment click here.
This summer the communities of Truckee and Tahoe City are both celebrating the 150th anniversary of their founding in 1863. In honor of the event, this column is chronicling some of the historic people, events, and industries that have made an impact on the growth of these two colorful Sierra towns.
Joe Gray was the first pioneer to settle the Truckee area, but Charles Fayette McGlashan is considered the town patriarch. When McGlashan died on Jan. 6, 1931, all major California newspapers recognized his contributions as historian, newspaperman, scientist, educator, and lawyer. McGlashan played a pivotal role in the establishment of Truckee as a hub for winter sports. Many of his noted accomplishments are still part of our lives today.
After training as a teacher and studying law at a progressive Massachusetts seminary, in the spring of 1871 McGlashan returned to Placerville, Calif., where he had spent much of his childhood. He was 23-years-old and had been hired to teach at Placerville Academy, but in a short period of time, McGlashan fell in love and married a pretty, local girl named Jennie Munson. In 1872, the newlyweds moved to Truckee, where Charles had accepted a position as school superintendent. In July they stepped off the train at Truckee, a raucous, often violent town that harbored transients, a large Chinese population, and a red light district. The confident young couple strode into the dust of Front Street, ready to embrace their new life in the rough-and-tumble railroad town.
McGlashan takes a ‘suicide run’
Energetic and curious, McGlashan immersed himself in his new job and colorful hometown. His role as superintendent necessitated him visiting the school at the little town of Boca five miles down the Truckee River. At Boca he discovered a library full of law books and he soon began studying at night for the California Bar Examination. Schoolmaster McGlashan also began writing humorous articles for The Truckee Republican and Sacramento Record-Union newspapers. The Truckee Republican editor Dave Frink believed that entertainment was as important as news in a lively community paper. The editor of the Record-Union, W.H. Mills, was also happy to pay for these mountain-based articles and he encouraged McGlashan to go out and experience new angles for his stories. During a severe snowstorm in January 1880, McGlashan climbed aboard a Central Pacific snowplow to see how railroad men endured mountain blizzards. Engine crews called the snow-clearing shifts a “suicide run.” Powered by 8 to 12 locomotives at full throttle, the lead plow plunged into the first drift at speeds in excess of 40 mph. Hitting the dense snowpack was like racing into a pile of bricks. Derailments were common, as were shattered windshields smashed by flying chunks of icy snow.
A dangerous place
Truckee was a dangerous place in the 1870s, plagued by criminals and vagrants attracted to the seamy red light district on Jibboom Street and strip of saloons and dance halls on Front Street. In 1872 McGlashan joined a secret vigilance committee called the “601” formed to eradicate lawless elements and chase them out of town. These vigilantes, who were often respectable local businessmen, protected their identity by wearing masks over their faces. In the 1870s, the silver mines at Virginia City slowly began to play out and unemployment grew among Truckee’s workforce.
The newly jobless white workers became less tolerant of Chinese immigrants as men scrambled for any job they could get, including some of the low-paying work performed by Orientals. CP had employed thousands of Chinese workers and when railroad construction ended, about 1,000 settled in Truckee. These hardworking laborers were very active in the regional logging and ice harvesting industries. In fact, Truckee’s Chinatown was the second largest on the West Coast. In 1875, Truckee’s Chinatown section burnt to the ground. Little damage was done to Anglo-owned buildings, but residents had suffered devastating fires before and anti-Chinese sentiment and legislation increased.
McGlashan became a vocal leader in the community for the removal of the Chinese. A vigilante committee that called itself the Caucasian League formed to rid the town of Asians. Through violent tactics that included murder and arson, by 1886 virtually all Chinese inhabitants had left Truckee.
In 1884, after marital trouble, McGlashan quit his job as school superintendent, separated from his wife Jennie, and left for Sacramento where he met with his Record-Union editor Mills. On Mill’s recommendation, McGlashan traveled to Utah to write a story about the notorious 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre when virtually everyone in a California-bound wagon train was murdered.
The culprits turned out to be Mormons dressed in Indian garb. His investigative report was published in the Record-Union to wide acclaim. Afterward, he returned to Truckee, reconciled with Jennie, and opened a law office.
More information can be found in “Give Me a Mountain Meadow” by M. Nona McGlashan, 1981.
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. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.