Treasure-trove on Commons Beach
TAHOE CITY – Archaeologist Robert McQueen holds up a brown, brittle reel of 8-mm film to the light. A faint image of a naked woman drying her hair next to a sink, each pose slightly different from the last, appears on the series of aging frames.
A 1930s stag film isn’t exactly what archaeologists monitoring the Commons Beach construction project expected to find. But out of the 30 artifacts collected at the beach last summer, the celluloid is perhaps the only surprising discovery. The rest of the relics, dating from the 1870s to the 1950s, represent Commons Beach’s various uses throughout Tahoe City’s early history.
“Nothing was really unexpected,” said McQueen. “We knew the railroad went through there, and there was a pier and the beach was a common area.”
Some of the artifacts found at Commons Beach were displayed this week at the Carson City office of Summit Envirosolutions, the firm hired by the Tahoe City Public Utility District to oversee construction at the site. Summit did not perform excavations; it only analyzed artifacts uncovered through construction to ensure that no significant cultural resources were harmed.
As McQueen said the archaeologists didn’t collect every piece found at the beach, but rather “a representative sample so we could characterize what was there.”
What McQueen and others found were a lot of beer and soda bottles – an old Coca-Cola bottle, a 1936 bottle of Royal Crown Cola (better known today as RC Cola), and a bottle of Jamaica Ginger that archaeologist Lynn Furnis says was probably sold as medicine but, in light of the Prohibition era, was most likely alcohol. The collection also includes a couple of inkwells, a quarter-pint milk bottle, and an orange jar of Cheeseborough Vaseline.
These relics date from a period when Commons Beach was a focal point for the North Shore. In 1864, three years after the first permanent white settler arrived in Tahoe, a pier was built that extended 350-feet into the lake and, in addition to serving the steamships, included a post office, saloon and billiard parlor.
Other findings that reflect the Old West nature of the time were a spittoon, belt buckles, several large horseshoes, and a bottle opener from 1892.
In 1900 the Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company built tracks through the middle of the public beach. A crank handle from a train’s brake dates from that era, as well as a 1904 fish scale hook.
By the turn of the century, Tahoe had become a popular tourist retreat. The shards of blue-and-white Japanese ceramics found at the beach reflect this period. According to Furnis, because of the dishes’ low cost, they were used to furnish second homes in the 1920 and 1930s. Known as Howowear, the plates were even given away as bonus gifts in boxes of soap and oatmeal.
“What we found covers a broad range of history and time periods,” said McQueen. “It was all really muddled.”
The only artifacts the archeologists didn’t uncover, said McQueen, were those related to shipping and fishing. He attributes this to the pier being over water. Many items probably fell into the lake and were washed away. The Summit Envirosolutions report notes many artifacts were observed in the shoreline, but as the Commons Beach project did not disturb that area, nothing was collected from the water.
While McQueen said “nothing substantial” was found at Commons Beach, more ancient artifacts were unearthed last month near the Tahoe City Dam in preparation for the TCPUD’s Lake Tahoe Outlet Lakeside Trail Crossing project this summer. Unlike at Commons Beach, where Summit staff only monitored construction, at the dam archeologists actually performed excavations, digging 6 feet down and removing 3 cubic meters of dirt. Archeologists unearthed hundreds of items, including basalt arrowheads and a soap stone net sinker.
The Tahoe City dam artifacts will eventually become part of the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s collection in Sacramento, while those items found at Commons Beach will be given to the TCPUD and turned over to the Gatekeeper’s Museum this summer.