The Backyard Traveler: Lake Tahoe story told at South Shore museum

Lake Tahoe has fascinated people for a long time.

Its original residents, the Washoe, considered it a special place because of its importance as a source of food, shelter (from its bushes and trees) and clothing (from animals attracted to its waters).

The tribe even developed a series of colorful legends to explain its many natural mysteries.

They told stories of a terrible monster that lived at the bottom of the lake, to help explain why the bodies of drowning victims are rarely recovered from the lake. They also talked of the lake as being bottomless to help rationalize its great depth - it is 1,645 feet at its deepest point.

Later, the lake's natural beauty captured the imaginations of visitors, including a number of writers. For example, Mark Twain described it as "the fairest picture the whole earth affords," while G. Wharton James gushed about "the rare and astonishing color of its water."

Today, visitors can learn about the legends, history, development, and people of the lake at the excellent Lake Tahoe Historic Society Museum, located at 3058 Highway 50, South Lake Tahoe.

A large wooden farm wagon, used in the late 1800s in nearby Meyers, is parked in front of the museum and serves as a kind of historic signpost for visitors.

While relatively small, the museum offers displays describing everything from the lake's earliest settlers, the Washoe, to the development of its world famous tourism industry.

The first display details the tradition of basket making by the native Washoe Indians of the area and includes a collection of the works of Washoe basketmaker Susan Jackson. Adjacent, a case displays Indian tools and arrowheads.

Next to that is a small hands-on children's exhibit with a grinding rock (which shows how nuts and grains were ground into a type of flour) and a row of suspended nails (which you tap to hear various sounds).

Another display outlines the role of the pathfinders who first explored Lake Tahoe, including John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, as well as early pioneers such as Snowshoe Thompson, who introduced skiing to the Sierra Nevada.

Other exhibits describe the early industries at the lake, including cattle, logging, ice-cutting and the railroads. There is also a recreation of a typical ranch shop, including wood planes, drills and other tools.

Historic photos show historically significant businesses, including the Meyers Hotel.

Assorted artifacts from other phases of the lake's development are found throughout the museum. For example, you can find a worn wooden luggage cart once used at the Tallac Hotel, a 19th century pipe organ, and a slot machine, circa 1940s, from Harvey's Resort.

There is also a nice model of the steamer Tahoe, once the largest and most luxurious boat on the lake. Historic photos and videos tell the story of this magnificent boat, which was sunk decades ago yet continues to intrigue.

Behind the museum, the historic society has restored two buildings that have special significance to the lake's history.

One, which is simply called the Log Cabin, was originally a vacation home built in the 1930s using construction techniques and styles brought from Sweden.

The wooden cabin, which served as the museum's home for many years, is typical of this type of Lake Tahoe architecture and is considered the least altered remaining structure of its type.

Next to the Log Cabin is Osgood's Toll House, the oldest standing structure at Lake Tahoe. Built in 1859 by Nehemiah Osgood, it originally served as a toll station on the road below Echo Creek.

The wood shanty was abandoned in 1898, when toll roads were eliminated. The building was washed from its foundations in a flood in 1911, and later moved and rebuilt at Meyers. It was moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1973.

The Lake Tahoe Historic Society Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $1 for adults, 50-cents for children 5-14, and free for those under five. For information, call 530-541-5458.

Richard Moreno is the author of The Backyard Traveler and The Backyard Traveler Returns, which are available at local bookstores.


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