Childhood Memories of Lake Tahoe

In 1955 my mother rode a bicycle down Hwy 50 in South Lake Tahoe with me on the back to find a babysitter while she worked at Harrah’s Casino running a bingo game. I was five years old and about to enter life in the Sierra at its best. She did find a family named the Doyle’s that lived on Knox St. in an old log cabin that still stands. Mike Doyle had a shoe repair shop in a small white building at Hwy 50 and Sierra Blvd. He worked for many years taking care of the custodial duties for the schools. I was like their adopted son, and they invited me back every summer until I was in high school.

In those early days at the Lake two casinos dominated Stateline, Nevada. Harvey’s and Harrah’s were two-story wooden buildings across the street from each other. Few people traveled on Hwy 50 then, and I remember seeing a car go by the Truckee River by the Outdoorsman about once every half hour.

The Truckee River and cattle grazing lands were our playgrounds. The land that surrounded the Upper Truckee River belonged to an old cowboy named Elwood Johnson, whom we would see riding his horse to check on his cows in the meadows. This hero on a horse was about the closest thing you could get to Ben Cartwright and definitely had the Marlboro Man beat. His family went all the way back to the Gold Rush and made Johnson’s Cutoff at Echo Summit.

He loved all the kids in the neighborhood and knew that we would catch and ride his horses that were left in the meadow. That was quite a trick in itself. We used our belts to slip around the horse’s neck while standing on a rock or fence. Then we would jump on and hold the mane for dear life as the horse sped off at a full gallop. We would get bucked off, thrown into the river and sometimes ended up hanging in a barbed wire fence. We loved it to death!

We had a good swimming hole on the river where all the kids in the neighborhood would hang out in summer. It was the scene of a lot of romantic activity in the high grass that afforded the younger kids the opportunity to sneak up and become voyeurs.  We would get the heaviest kid on the block to stand on the end of a plank board for some superb diving maneuvers. Then we would run through the thick willows on the paths that the cows made and sometimes encounter a huge bull that would chase us screaming back into the river.  As the massive bull snorted, lowered its head and pawed the ground, we grabbed fresh-water mussels from the sandy river bottom to throw at him.  After they constructed the airport upstream, those mussels disappeared-just like the Washoe people that originally inhabited the area.

How fortunate the Washoe were to have been able to hunt, fish and camp every summer at the most beautiful high altitude lake in the world. You wouldn’t have seen them swimming and playing in the lake like tourists do today, because they feared the “water babies.”

Water babies were said to be small creatures two or three feet tall with long black hair that floated behind them when they walked. “They are gray in color and soft and clammy to the touch and possess immense power.” If the water babies didn’t get the people, then they had to worry about giants and wild men in the mountains and forests. To the Washoe people these supernatural creatures are very real and present today.

In the 1950’s, Tahoe was so clear and clean that you could drink the water right out of the lake without any fear of getting Giardia. There was no algae on the rocks then like there is today after millions of gallons of raw sewage has spilled into the lake from failed pump stations along the shoreline. Other massive developments like the Tahoe Keys wasted an entire wetland. When the first stoplight was installed on Hwy 50, we knew it was all over for the old way of life at the Lake. tahoe

In 20 years the population went from 3,000 to hundreds of thousands with new homes around the entire shoreline. The Squaw Valley Olympics in the 1960’s and the creation of Interstate 80 changed everything at Tahoe like the transcontinental railroad did before them.

Despite all the development, Lake Tahoe is still one of the most beautiful places on earth. The spirit of the Washoe is still there. Camp out sometime on the lakeshore and watch a fabulous pink sunrise on a calm summer’s morning-one that you will never forget. And remember, as they say up at the Lake, “The party’s still at Harvey’s!”

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One Response to “Childhood Memories of Lake Tahoe”

  1. David Parks Says:

    Great story. I shared your childhood like dreams in the same meadows and enjoyed riding the pack mules in the Johnson meadow. I grew up on Omalley Drive, just across the street from the Johnson Meadow. My parents first moved there in 1946 – 1952. We then moved there again in 1966-1983. We enjoyed our years in this paradise.

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