Tahoe Paradise one man’s dream
Any account of bona fide movers and shakers in the history of the Lake Tahoe Basin would not be complete without the story of Jim A. E. Wilson, the original developer of Tahoe Paradise.
“Some people have called him crazy or referred to him as a wild dreamer, but I don’t think that’s fair,” said Wilson’s daughter-in-law, Donna McLelland. “If that’s the case, then I guess Harvey Gross and Harvey West were crazy. If anything, Jim Wilson was a genius.”
When Martin Smith established a trading post in Meyers in 1851 (which would later be known as Yank’s Station), it would be the first, and last, significant development in the area at the base of Echo Summit for more than 100 years. That’s when Wilson, a Sacramento developer who specialized in housing subdivisions, arrived on the scene with plans to create a community in the mountains.
Wilson, who co-owned a dairy farm with his father in North Sacramento, had noticed how the land surrounding the farm had become valuable city property in only a few years. So teaming with a local businessman, he created Wilson Builders, Inc., which went on to develop home subdivisions from Sacramento to Redding.
Wilson had regularly visited Lake Tahoe since childhood, enjoying the area on hunting and fishing trips with his father. But after getting into the development business, the idea hit him – why not build homes in Meyers?
But Wilson’s dreams turned out bigger than that. In 1953 he gathered 14 other businessmen to create the Tahoe Paradise Corporation, drafting two successive 20-year plans for the eventual use of 4,500 parcels of property over 1,600 acres at the base of Echo Summit. The Meyers area is what real estate people call “a sleeper” – an unnoticed area which, with the right man in charge, would be a community people would flock to.
In addition to residential development, Wilson foresaw a mile and a half of commercial accommodations with a golf course, ski area, recreational park, stables, man-made lake and Swiss-Bavarian- style hotel.
By 1960, plans were in full gear, and many of the projects had been completed. A housing development with 26 miles of roads, the golf course and Tahoe Paradise Park are among the projects which still stand today as evidence of Wilson’s dream.
In 1953, the year Wilson began Tahoe Paradise Corp., the assessed value of the land in Meyers was $300,000. By 1962, it was $12 million. Wilson projected that one day, 52,000 people would live in Tahoe Paradise.
By today’s standards, those ideas may seem wretched in their excess – especially considering the fragile nature of the Tahoe Basin’s natural resources.
“But that was a different time, and growth was welcome then,” said Jim Wilson’s son, Rocke. “My father loved Lake Tahoe. When he was a child, his father would take take him there on fishing trips. They would drive up from Sacramento in a Model-A Ford, when Highway 50 was just a dirt road.”
Jim Wilson brought his children – two sons and a daughter – to live in Tahoe Paradise when Rocke was 13.
“I grew up here, went to high school here,” said Rocke, a general contractor who now lives in Pollock Pines. “There was almost nothing here in those days. My father foresaw a community, and even started a college with money from his own pocket.”
Jim Wilson was very active in the community, participating in organizations such as the Elks Club, the Boy Scouts and the 20-30 Club. He also was a member of the El Dorado Country Grand Jury for several years.
But when Wilson died in 1970 at the age of 48, his dreams died with him. The Tahoe Paradise Corporation, which was a publicly-owned company, decided it could not go on without its leader. The company pulled out of the Tahoe Basin shortly thereafter.
Whether one sees Wilson as visionary or fool, it cannot be argued that the former dairy rancher and naval aviator in World War II was indeed a dynamic personality who sought to make a lasting contribution to Lake Tahoe, and to history.
And if you feel the need to say hello, just take a visit to Tahoe Paradise Park, which is another Jim A. E. Wilson project. The park, with man-made Baron Lake as its centerpiece, is Wilson’s tribute to his daughter, Connie, who died in an automobile accident in 1966.
“My father would be very happy if he knew people were still enjoying that park,” Rocke Wilson said. “That’s why he came to Tahoe. He wanted to make a difference.”
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