Lucky brought good fortune to Tahoe |

Lucky brought good fortune to Tahoe

Gregory Crofton

If anyone brought Tahoe roaring into 20th century it was Elias J. Baldwin, a man who built the first casino at the lake and was worth more than $20 million when he died in 1909.

A native Ohioan, Baldwin was 25 years old in 1853 when he came West. By 1875, he had made millions in precious metal stocks and was the first president of the Pacific Stock Exchange.

Balwin poured money into California real estate. From 1875 to 1880, he snatched up 56,000 acres in southern California and 8,000 acres in South Lake Tahoe, which included shoreline property from Taylor Creek to upper Truckee River.

On land alongside Lake Tahoe, what today is the Tallac Historic Site, Baldwin began assembling “The Grandest Resort in the World.”

Its first piece was established around 1880, when Baldwin bought an existing hotel called the Tallac Point House. Baldwin remade the everyday man’s saloon hotel into a bastion for upper class families from San Francisco and Virginia City.

By 1899, Baldwin had built his own resort, the luxurious Tallac Hotel. It was three-and-a half stories high, with a tower and covered porch. It had indoor plumbing and heating, and meals consisted of 8 courses, with a string orchestra at dinner. It cost $32.50 to stay at Tallac for a week at a time when most earned $20 a week.

A walkway lined with electric lights called the Promenade joined the new hotel and the Tallac Point House. Wealthy women walked the path several times a day in the latest fashions. Miners often came from Virginia City to whistle at the women.

To get to the resort from San Francisco, guests took a train to Truckee, a stageline to Tahoe City and then a steamer across the lake. Vessels were greeted by a pier, which held a saloon, clubhouse and stone fountain.

The hotel was a success, additions were made and eventually Baldwin built his own house off the Promenade around two old-growth pines, symbolic of his respect for the forest. He also had his own steamer built, which he named Tallac.

Baldwin added a waterfront casino to his resort in 1902. It housed a ballroom, billiards for men and women, four bowling alleys, a stage and sun parlors.

Gaming was illegal but Baldwin took advantage of a “grapevine” warning system that sent word ahead of the sheriff when he came from Hangtown, now known as Placerville, for a visit. That gave employees time to hide the slots and roulette tables.

Baldwin died seven years after his casino opened at his home in southern California. Anita, one of his daughters, closed the resort in 1919 because it pumped sewage into the lake and its buildings were deteriorating. In the early 1920s, Anita had the buildings demolished.

In his life, Baldwin married five women and had seven children.

“Baldwin was a peculiar man. He was shrewd and persistent but he was poorly educated, and he was shy,” said Jim Marvin, a former Baldwin employee, who described the tycoon’s character to C.B. Glasscock, author of “Lucky Baldwin: The Story of Unconventional Success.” “His reputation for being a gay dog with the women was given to him by the women themselves rather than earned, though I believe he seldom refused what they offered … I made up my mind that they were chasing him a lot more often then he was chasing them.”

He may have earned the nickname Lucky while big-game hunting in India, according to Glasscock. Before he left to go across the ocean, Baldwin instructed his broker to sell shares of stock when they reached his purchase price of $800.

The broker failed to sell the stock because they were locked in a safe and Baldwin had taken the key. By the time Lucky Baldwin returned, the stock had gone up from $800 to about $10,000 a share.

Today, the Baldwin-McGonagle Estate, a home built in 1921 by Baldwin’s granddaughter, Dextra, remains the only monument to Lucky.

Beside Dextra’s house, which is now a museum, there are two other homes at the Tallac Historic Site: the Pope Estate and the Valhalla Estate. The Site, a 150-acre parcel of land managed and owned by the U.S. Forest Service, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

The Forest Service pieced together the land starting in 1965 when it bought the Pope Estate for $750,000 from family members. In 1969, the Forest Service spent $650,000 for the Baldwin house. In 1972, purchased Valhalla for $550,000 after it failed as a boating and social club.

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