By Don Lane
The Lake Tahoe Basin was formed around 25-million years ago, when geologic forces pushed the Sierra Range to the west and the Carson Range to the east upwards to become mountains, and a valley was created between both crests. As time passed, rain and melting snow combined to fill in the valley, forming a lake. Approximately 10-million years ago, active volcanoes erupted around the region, flowing lava forming a barrier across the lakes natural outlet and reshaping the landscape.
Within the last several million years, extensive glaciation was to sculpture the mountains and valleys overlooking the lake. Twenty-two miles long and 12-miles wide with 72-miles of shoreline, the surface area of the lake covers 191 square miles. Lake Tahoe is the 3rd deepest lake in North America and the 10th deepest in the world. It's greatest depth is 1,645 feet and it averages 1,000 feet in depth.
The first people to be here were the "Washoe" Native Americans who came each summer to hunt, to fish, trap and gather the bounty of food that could be found in and around the meadows and waters of the basin. But they didn't spend their winters here. There was too much snow, so they migrated to the lower valleys, to wait until the next spring. Then it was time to return again to the high country, to Lake Tahoe.
Mark Twain came here in 1861 and proclaimed the lake to be "the fairest picture the whole earth affords!" He also marveled at the purity of the mountain air, and declared that he must be in heaven, since it was the same air the angels breathed.
The first European American to see the lake was Lt. John C. Fremont. He "discovered" the lake on February 14, 1844, Valentine's Day, and put Tahoe on a map for the first time. But the Tahoe area was quiet for a few more years, with few outside visitors and no permanent settlers. And it may well have stayed that way for many more years, although a nearby discovery was to change the nation.
On January 24, 1848 James Marshall at Coloma, California discovered gold. And soon the cry rang out across the country, and they came west. The trappers, traders, teamsters, the whisky peddlers, the doctors, lawyers, farmers, ranchers and gamblers. They came to California. Many traveled past the Tahoe Basin, and nothing was the same anymore in the "golden state."
But surprisingly, at first, little changed around the basin, as there was no gold strike here to attract the argonauts. A few settlers appeared at the lake, but it seemed that Tahoe would be spared the environmental devastation from the rush to find gold. But another, similar event, another discovery was to occur, and this time the Tahoe Basin would never be the same.
In 1859, the Comstock Lode near Virginia City, Nevada was discovered and the rush was on again. They called it the "The Rush to Washoe." This time the fortune seekers, the schemers and the dreamers went east, stampeding past the lake to the Great Basin. To get to the waiting gold and silver ore, mines were dug deep into the earth, thousands of feet down. And timbers were needed to shore up those mines. Timber was also needed to build the cities and the railroads and fuel the steam engines. And the Tahoe Basin was where they went to find the needed trees. And so the basin became a logging camp, and the forests were cut down to send to the Comstock. Over a 40-year period nearly two-thirds of all of the basins forests were removed, and only stumps and unwanted fir trees remained.
By the end of the 19th century, the Comstock Lode had played out, and a new era began to dawn with the next century. The forests were beginning to re-grow, and renew themselves, and the resort era was about to begin. Resorts began to spring up around the lakeshore, and an expanding and improving transportation system began to evolve that allowed people from all over the country to visit this once remote mountain lake. And as the Tahoe Basin faces another new millennium, it still remains as the fairest picture the whole earth affords, visited by millions of people each year, facing new challenges to its clarity that agencies like the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency are working to protect and preserve, so that Lake Tahoe, in the words of another early day visitor, Thomas Starr King, will always be a "mass of pure splendor."
For over 30 years, Don Lane has worked for the US Forest Service at Lake Tahoe. For most of those years, he has been a member of the recreation management team, responsible for the National Forest's wilderness, trails, campground, beach and backcountry areas within the Basin. Lane has taught a number of natural history, recreation, and forestry courses at Lake Tahoe Community College; has authored a score of newspaper and magazine articles about Tahoe's history, and in the early 1980's began a history segment on a local radio station.
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