History of Tahoe piers runs deep
March 16, 2006
Piers on Lake Tahoe are more to Bill Bliss than a place to park a boat.
The Carson City descendant of one of Tahoe’s most prominent pioneer families grew up at Glenbrook – as a child, swimming, fishing and jumping off the original pier that’s since been renovated.
“We used to ride our bikes off it and have to fish them out,” he said. “We’d get lectures (from the adults).”
The highlight of the day was the SS Tahoe delivering the mail and passengers every day at 1 p.m.
“It was the big event of the day – a big part of my family,” Bliss said, adding that his father christened the steamship when he was age 2. Bliss also reflected fondly on the times motorists would drive their Model Ts up on the pier.
The steamship was one boat using the pier in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During the Comstock era, a milling operation with three mills running around the clock used the railroad-track-laid pier to transport logs to the east, west and south shores. To the west, the family – known for D.L. Bliss State Park, which was named after his grandfather, Duane – ran the Tahoe Tavern lodge in Tahoe City. The railroad chugged up to Tahoe City, making the tavern the hotspot for a by-gone era thought of for its work-hard, play-hard philosophy.
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Piers have come and gone through the years. About the same number existed in the last century – 768 – but the old platforms seemed livelier and longer. For instance, the former Taylor’s Landing pier off the Bijou area shoreline jutted out 1,800 feet.
“They did a lot of stuff by boat,” historian Betty Mitchell said.
The need for waterborne transit before the lake roads were built fed their importance.
“Piers were a critical component to life on the lake – not just a cosmetic feature. They were a functional, practical and necessary part of life,” longtime Forest Service historian and ranger Don Lane said.
Many shoreline homeowners today may have an investment in their piers as a place to take their boat in and out. But about a century ago, logging was a mainstay here.
And the wealthiest residents of the lake congregating on the south and west shores used their piers for recreation and entertainment. Camp Richardson, Tallac and the Pope Estate – some families hosted lavish parties on them. At the end of where Sacramento Avenue ends, Al Tahoe-area land baron Frank Globin built a chalet off his pier.
Several lake property owners built clubhouses, a salon, dance halls and even a buxom mermaid stature on them. That was John Drum’s assurance of safe passage to boaters near Meeks Bay. Across the lake, George Newhall staged boat races from his east- and west-side piers, just for fun.
And the idea of the public pier is a misnomer. Piers were built by the private sector.
“They’d want to get fresh milk, so it would be nothing to be on the lake and there’s a cow on a boat,” Lane said. “You have to remember – if you came out (to the lake) in the Victorian era, you’d have to have three trunks of clothes. Women changed their clothes three times a day.”
Newhall and Drum weren’t alone in their shows of opulence. Before the Knight family erected the Vikingsholm estate in Emerald Bay, the Kirbys built a floating dancing pavilion off the south side of the bay.
Lane and federal heritage expert Michael Weichman recounted how as an architectural school graduate Frank Lloyd Wright tried to build a village complex with a floating platform for a family in the heart of Emerald Bay, but it was considered too complicated.
“It was understood back then everybody needed a pier,” Lane said. “Now there’s a perception of a value change. There’s a sensitivity to the scenic impacts of piers.”
Life on the lake has been rough on piers. So much of the history lies below – and this goes beyond the SS Tahoe sunk off shore in 1940, five years after it was decommissioned. The old pier pilings provide the evidence.
Lane, Bliss, Weichman – those who share a nostalgic view of piers – approach the subject with melancholy.
“The reality is, Tahoe is so invested in looking at tomorrow they don’t have the appreciation for what we had. So much of the culture is different,” Lane said. The subject is near and dear to his heart – he wrote last year’s Tahoe Tales as a way to honor the lake’s history.
These days, boaters rely on the piers – even unexpectedly.
Coast Guard Auxiliary Officer Glenn Smith recounted a time in which a fellow member had a stroke on a boat about 20 years ago. The driver was forced to dock at a private pier next to El Dorado Beach.
Smith said piers come in handy for boater safety, a notion Tahoe City Coast Guard Operations Officer Mike Faiver agreed with.
“They’re a valuable asset. We have staging areas for medivacs, but sometimes there’s not enough time to get to them so we have to go to a private pier,” he said.