Friday, July 28, 2006

Summering at Lake Tahoe in the Gilded Age

This is where I’ll be the next few days. This is the house Isaias built, Isaias being the subject of the biography I am writing. Isaias Hellman was the president of the Nevada National Bank when he bought 2000 acres and two miles of shoreline on Lake Tahoe in 1897.

Lake Tahoe was not yet a popular tourist destination for people living in the Bay Area. It took about nine hours by overnight train to reach Truckee, and then travelers took a stage coach over a rocky road to reach Tahoe City. After 1900, they could take a narrow gauge rail line to the Lake, where they then had to board a steamer to get to a hotel or home. The roads weren’t very good then.

Isaias Hellman moved into this shingle style house in 1903. He was the first millionaire to construct a mansion on the lake. The tourist trade had only taken off in the 1880s and most wealthy people summered at one of the lake’s fancy hotels. Hellman and his family spent a few summers at Hotel Tallac on the southern part of Lake Tahoe. It was owned by Lucky Baldwin, who had made a fortune in the Comstock Lode, and it catered to the upper crust. Women changed their clothes four to five times a day, took strolls around the grounds and sat down to five course meals. There was great fishing – it was not uncommon to catch hundreds of pounds of trout in a few hours – and great boating.

Hellman fell in love with Lake Tahoe and quietly bought up land around Sugar Pine Point. He didn’t want to tip off speculators that he was in the market for a home. He built his house, using granite from nearby Meeks Bay and other local materials, from 1900-1903. It remained in his family until 1965 when it became part of the California State Parks System.

For the last few years a group of volunteers has put on a Living History Day at Sugar Pine Point. I am going up there to give some talks about Hellman and to revel in the sight of people dressed up in ‘30s period costume. It should be fun.


Marilyn said...

Quite a house!

Armand said...

My family used to vacation up in Tahoe (we drove up from LA) in the 80's and early 90's. I have some fond memories of the place including Ski Incline and a theme park based on the TV show, Bonanza.

This also reminds me: Roy Parvin's "In the Snow Forest" has a short story in which a character is haunted by memories of an abandoned house (a manor built by a rich logging magnate) that he once discovered while logging in the hills. In the story, he tries to find the house again, but is unsuccessful.

- Armand