February 26, 2010
This postcard image introduced summer visitors to Tahoe’s second season. The Village Store building is now home to Tahoe Dave’s.
Winter at Tahoe ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, the white season was regularly one of isolation and hardship, testing the mettle of those who chose to spend it above the snowline. In those days, the decision to “winter in” represented a serious commitment to self-reliance – quite a different world from the casual, come-and-go lifestyle that prevails in the 21st Century. Although only a few remain who can describe the ordeal first-hand, tales of that huge winter linger to remind us of what a different world Tahoe was then.
This is not to say that when Mother Nature decides to pitch a temper tantrum, life at Tahoe can’t still be very trying. Today the warning beep of a loader fills the air, buses run late, and there’s orange equipment at every turn, mandating a slow-down of our busy lives. Many modern Sierra travelers consider themselves put out when CalTrans closes the road or requires that their vehicles be chained up. However, these inconveniences are mild compared to the trials experienced by their counterparts of more than half a century ago, when the “Winter of ‘52” made life hard in the high country.
Local residents who can recall the winter of 1951-52 describe it in respectful tones, sometimes referring to a certain mark on yon tree trunk that has not been surpassed by any snow since. That mid-century meteorological milepost was The Big One, and was far beyond what most folks who now call the Lake Tahoe Basin home can possibly imagine. It was the Winter of the Second-Story Window, when six weeks of almost continuous snowfall made virtual prisoners of one and all.
It all started off unremarkably enough. Mid-October 1951 brought an early-season storm that left about 18 inches of snow at Lake level. Another winter system over the Thanksgiving weekend left two more feet, a portent of the winter to come. However, further foul weather held off until Christmas week, when it began to snow hard. On December 26, 1951, the Tahoe Basin lost power due to a slide that wiped out high voltage towers as it swept down the mountain. Though skies cleared on New Year’s Eve, Highways 40 (now the route of I-80) and 50 remained closed, and the respite was short-lived.
On January 10, 1952 a weather disturbance (later billed as “the worst Sierra storm in 60 years”) began, continuing without letup for eight days. Records of the USFS Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit show that the storm left 12.8 feet on the summit during that time – the third largest Sierra storm in recorded history. By this time, the repercussions of the storm had gone far beyond the plight of several hundred residents of the Lake Tahoe area. A slide near the summit had buried the railroad tracks in both directions, and on January 13, Southern Pacific’s express train, “The City of San Francisco”, became stuck in the formidable drifts, making national headlines as rescuers struggled for days to free the trapped rain.
The enormity of the local snow-moving challenge was recalled by Jim Williamson, then a resident of Tahoe City and an employee of the Placer County road Department. He recalled:
“Placer County had two rotary (plows). One was here (in Tahoe City). I had a contract with the County to operate and maintain this one machine. And then there was another one at Kings Beach – a similar machine. And that worked that area and I worked this area.
I was cutting through County roads and here’s an auger box that’s six feet high and there’s twenty-some feet of snow on the road. It’s like punching sand down a rat hole. So it took me forever and ever. I had to hire laborers to go up and break the snow. I would tunnel under it, back up, and then break it off with the shovel. It would take all day to go a city block.”
The going was even slower in the cleanup of a major slide at Deer Park (near the present entrance of Alpine Meadows.) Williamson recalled:
“At Deer Park, when those big drifts built up, they slid. It took boulders the size of this room and two- and three-foot (diameter) trees right on down the canyon into the road. So it wasn’t just removing the snow. They had to remove the snow and here’s a boulder – and go get a jackhammer and drill it, break it, take a loader, pick it up, take it out and so on. Then they came to a tree, with a chainsaw, and so forth and so on. So it wasn’t just blowing the snow out of the way. There were boulders and trees intermixed with the snow, and there were 30- to 40-foot slides through there.”
The River Road was reopened on January 30, but it was only a matter of time before it closed again. Several more systems of less ferocity continued to pummel the region through the end of January, each one adding to the load on local roofs. The January 31 issue of the Sierra Sun noted that a 60-foot wing of the Tahoe Tavern had crumbled under the weight of the snow, and a porch on the dormitory at the Forest Inn (now Black Bear Tavern) had also collapsed. However, the efforts of road crews continued, and by noon on February 2, one rotary had reached the gates of Bliss State Park, and was starting back toward Tahoe City through five to six feet of hard-packed snow.
February 3, 1952, the Rotary Plow reaches Meeks Bay on the return leg of its trip to Bliss State Park. Photo courtesy of Fred L. Kehlet
Donner Pass, which had been closed for nearly a month, was reopened to vehicle traffic on Friday, February 8, and with a link to the outside world re-established, local life seemed to be once again under control. The February 10 issue of the Sacramento Union reported:
“In Tahoe City, the worst is over, for the road from Truckee was opened 12 days ago, but there is still a huge clean-up job facing residents and highway crews.
“Snowdrifts 15 feet deep are piled against the sides of houses with automobiles and other equipment buried under them. Many people still are using second story windows for front doors Others have cut gorge-like paths from their front doors to the street.
“Damage has been heavy to summer homes and buildings in the Tahoe City area. At least a half dozen are known to have been caved in by the heavy snow, and others that have not had the snow scraped from their roofs may cave in.”
Such conditions continued to work their hardships on local residents, and the rent in the clouds was not a large one. February 15 brought another storm, and little was seen of the sun between its departure and the arrival of the next weather system. By February 21, the Sierra Sun was reporting 35 inches of new snow from the previous week’s storm, and both major highways into the Central Sierra were once again closed. They were destined to stay that way for some time. By the end of the month, snowfall on Donner Summit had reached an impressive 49.2 feet, with 18.7 feet of this still on the ground.
Meanwhile, the nearly round-the-clock effort to keep the snow off roads within the Tahoe Basin was taking its toll on machines and their operators. Both County plows were soon out of commission – one near Tahoe City, the other in Kings Beach. Parts were ordered, and arrangements were made for them to be delivered by airplane – the only means of access available. Williamson recalled the calamity that ensued:
“So they airdropped some parts. (The plow in Kings Beach) needed a rear-end and I needed a transmission – same type of part. So naturally they dropped the rear-end here and the transmission in Kings Beach. So we played a kind of a game. One had hit on the Gold Course. Of course the rear-end was so heavy, and it was a small chute – a chute for a 150-pound person -and the rear-end weighed 800 pounds. It came down like a bullet, and when it hit the Golf Course, it just kept going.
“I had to build a wood platform over the snow and dig known and use come-alongs to get the thing back up to get it on a toboggan to get it out of here. Then I found out that it was the rear-end instead of the transmission. And the one in Kings Beach – good shot. They hit a two-story house right in the center.
“So then we had to dismantle them. They were too heavy to put into the boat. So I dismantled the rear-end and I would take 150-200 pounds of parts to Kings Beach in a rowboat (with an) outboard and swap for 200 pounds of my transmission and brought it back. So back and forth and back and forth and finally I got the parts swapped. It took a week or so to do that.”
The two Placer County Rotarys were back in service not a moment too soon, since the first three weeks of March would see the season’s snowfall statistics almost double, forcing continued use of second-story windows as temporary entrances to local dwellings. What was ordinarily a few minutes’ stroll became the labor of a full day in 20 feet of powder snow, and in the Basin, mobility was gauged by the distance one could travel on skiis.
Deprivations brought on by the Winter of ’52 were for the most part comical rather than life-threatening, though they were real enough for local residents. While most knew from experience to provision themselves for winter’s inevitable confinement, the 50-plus days during which storms rages almost constantly prevented the regular arrival of fresh produce and dairy goods. Some found the constant necessity of shoveling tolerable only by frequent interruptions for fortification, and evidence of elevated conjugal activity began to appear in early September – nine months after the meteorological nightmare began.
However, the days were passing, each a little longer that the one before, and it appeared that the benchmark winter was slowly winding down. By the middle of April, the much-welcome sun had reduced the snowpack on the flat in Tahoe City to a mere 100 inches (just over eight feet). For those who had survived the siege, things were improving. By Herculean effort, a California Department of Transportation crew was able to meet the traditional Memorial Day opening of the Emerald Bay road, cutting through snowbanks as high as 16 feet at some points along the route.
A decided down side of winter’s wrath began to reveal itself with the receding snow as owners of summer cabins arrived for the traditional opening of the season. Roofs of countless structures had caved under its tremendous weight, and property damage was considerable.
Some of the winter’s horrors took even longer to reveal themselves. The body of an employee of the Squaw Valley Land & Livestock Company, reported missing following an avalanche near Tower20 on December 29, was not recovered until late June, so deep were the drifts in Squaw Valley.
But, as pages were torn from the calendar of that epic year, the sentiment of local residents grew. Inconvenience and toil were forgotten as survivors of the deluge began to look upon themselves as heroes who had battled the elements and emerged in triumph from the ordeal. The epic “Winter of 1952” gave these stalwarts their share of meteorological memories, many of which are now preserved in the archives of the North Lake Tahoe Historical society’s Oral History Program. When this season’s snows have melted away, plan a visit to the Gatekeeper’s Cabin Museum in Tahoe City, operated by the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, where more photos and accounts of that epic winter await.
Fire Chief Al Henry pilots a Sno-go over the monumental 1952 snowbanks on the present site of Heritage Plaza in Tahoe City. Photo courtesy of Al Henry
January 17, 2015
Postcard Courtesy of North Lake Tahoe Historical Society
Among the institutions identified with Homewood down through the years is a man by the name of William C. Johnston. One and all knew him as just plain “Bill,” and few people could remember Homewood before he came there.
Johnston was a friendly, unassuming man, accustomed to the backwoods and not inclined to speak of himself, and thus despite his wide circle of friends, few were acquainted with the facts of his life. However, we can learn a few things about him from Eleanor “Swanee” Swanson, a West Shore neighbor who wrote his obituary.
According to “Swanee,” Johnston first found his way to Tahoe in 1896, where he fell head-over-heels in love with the place, taking up immediate residence on its western shore and joining the sun-baked fraternity of market fishermen who earned their livings by the harvest of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of trout. Hunting, trapping and fishing were Johnston’s passions, and whether for profit or for the sheer pleasure of the activity, he was always ready to set off with rod, gun or a gunnysack full of traps in pursuit of fish, game or hides.
In the summer of 1931, the inveterate trapper earned a mention in the Truckee paper when he managed to capture a 2-month old timber wolf pup, which he named Jerry. Johnston kept the young creature in a cage at his store, where it was among the rarities providing great fascination for his patrons.
from the Tahoe Tattler, Author’s Collection
Though the Tahoe winters were notoriously severe, Johnston would usually “winter in,” supplementing his few store-bought staples with meat and fish he killed or caught. Indifferent to the primitive conditions in which he lived, Johnston made his winters pay, bringing home a variety of furbearers from his trap line and tanning their pelts to sell in his little store at the corner of Cedar Avenue (now known as Highway 89) and Fawn Street.
A veritable “crowd” outside the old El Campo (That’s Bill in the hat, dark shirt, suspenders and smile, behind the pair shaking hands. Wearing knickers, with bottle raised, is Carl Bechdolt, Sr. Between Bechdolt and Johnston is Chris Boyiarides of Tahoe City. A Rubicon Springs Stage timetable to the right of the door dates this photo about 1925-30.)
Photo courtesy of North Lake Tahoe Historical Society
Just exactly when Johnston began to derive income from the rental of tents is unknown. However, in July 1920 he is mentioned in the Truckee Republican as half of the partnership of Broyer & Johnston, doing business in Homewood as “El Campo.” The enterprise seems to have been a simple one, allowing Johnston ample time to pursue his passions and remain in the running for the title of “local character.” Broyer apparently vacated the partnership soon after its formation, and Johnston continued as sole proprietor into the mid-1930s.
El Campo “Office” in 1937
Photo courtesy of Mrs. J. Donald (Jeanette) Orsi
In addition to its rustic charm, El Campo had the virtue of allowing Johnston’s mother and sister to spend their summers out of the valley heat and within yodeling distance of their Bill. Jesse Grimshaw Saner, whose childhood summer were spent at her family cabin, a few doors south and across the street from the original El Campo store, had this reminiscence:
“Bill Johnston and his mother – I can remember her so well. And his sister used to come from Sacramento – Mrs. Fischer (sp.) She was an Opera singer. I don’t know if you can say Opera, but she sang in a group in Sacramento and she was a performer in San Francisco. And Bill was quite a character. They were Swiss people, so I was told, and his mother was just a little, tiny thing. And then Bill was there a good part of the time. And then his sister, really, is the one that, you know, took care of things.
“Bill was still doing a lot of fishing at that time. He’d go out at daybreak, and you’d hear him yodel, and on the water, it just sounded beautiful. And he had these big, deep wrinkles on his face, and my mother always called them “sun grins.”
“Yea, he was a real tall, slender man, but very generous, and he had oodles of friends. He’d give you the shirt off his back, if he thought you needed it. He was very devoted to his mother. There were just the three of them – the sister and the mother and Bill. And I don’t know where he came from. He was just, like, part of Tahoe, you know? He was just there for ever and ever.”
1926 California Division of Highways map of “downtown” Homewood
Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society
Don Huff, Sr., who with his wife Bernice owned and operated the Hotel Homewood from 1940 to 1968, recalled Johnston’s impeccable honesty:
“You’ve probably heard people speak of Bill Johnston. Well, he was just a real nice old man. He was this kind of fella: He lived here year-round, and he would be the only one in here for six months, ‘cause winter was winter in those days. The roads were closed and that was it. There was nobody coming in and out of here.
“I closed up one year, and in my excitement of getting closed and everything like that, I left a cottage door wide open, and went home for the winter. And he was walking around the place the next day or so, and he dropped me a postal. He said, “In case you’ve forgotten, you left Cottage 10 door open. But don’t worry about it.” He said, “I locked it up. I’ll see you next spring.” That was the kind of fella he was. But he was a bootlegger in the early days up here, and he used to supply the market in San Francisco with mountain trout, which was against the law, too.
“But he ran the old store, El Campo, and there used to be showshoes hanging on the wall which he would use in the wintertime – things like that. But that was the kind of people we had in those days. He was a good man. Sure, he was breaking the law, but so were the people breaking the law that bought his bootleg. (Laughs)”
Robert L. “Bob” Callender, whose uncle Benjamin F. “Ben” Callender later purchased “El Campo” from Johnston, described Johnston’s typical fishing regime:
“Martin Lowe was a vital part of Bill Johnston’s Homewood saga. They were fishing partners and drinking partners, and both of them were great fishermen. They’d start out, the two of them, one from Meeks Bay and one from Homewood, and they would get off of Sugar Pine Point and in their slightly drunken condition, they would fish and yodel. That was a legend of the area.”
Two old fishing buddies “hanging out” at Callender’s Homewood boathouse
Photo courtesy of Robert L. Callender
Callender also recalled how he learned of the source of some of Johnston’s fabulous fishing “luck.” It seems that Hal Jennings and Bill Johnston were catching a lot of very nice fish from Hidden Lake, and Bob, hoping to mimic Johnston’s good results, pestered Bill to draw him a map of how to get there. Johnston finally drew him one, and Bob followed it to the lake, where he discovered discarded boxes of explosives, the secret behind Johnston and Hennings’ tremendous angling success.
As illustrated by the 1926 California Division of Highways map earlier in this post, Johnston’s original store sat at the very edge of Cedar Avenue. This had not been of concern when the thoroughfare was little more than a line scribed on a parchment. But private automobile travel was increasing steadily during the early 1920s, leading to better roads, more commercial activity and in turn to more travel. Greater speeds and more traffic meant a wider right-of-way was needed, and in 1925 the State of California condemned an additional 15 feet through Homewood on either side of the center line, putting nearly half of Johnston’s store in the well-traveled portion of the roadway.
In November 1936, Johnston moved the grocery store building some distance to the west, nearer the base of the present-day ski hill, setting it on a concrete foundation and apparently adding considerably to its size. The towering cedars that had bounded the original site at one time line the length of Fawn Street, where some can still be found to this day.
El Campo’s main building after relocation (Compare this with the same scene, shown below 70 years later.)
Courtesy of Mrs. J. Donald (Jeanette) Orsi
Homewood ski hill from the south edge of the parking lot in October 2008 CAVE Photo
By the mid-1930s, after 40 years at the Lake, Johnston was ready to hand the responsibilities of El Campo’s operation over to someone else. In those days before air conditioning, residents of hot climates sought relief from the heat by escaping to the high country for the torrid months of summer. The partnership of Orsi & Ceccarelli, two Sacramento restaurateurs who saw the advantages of a summer at elevation, arranged to lease Johnston’s enterprise. They called their venture El Campo Inn, embellishing on his simple operation by making food a prominent feature. Ceccarelli was a silent partner, with management of the operation in the hands of Joe Orsi.
Joe Orsi and the famous Homewood Cedar
Courtesy of Mrs. J. Donald (Jeanette) Orsi
Joe Orsi’s son, J. Donald Orsi, described the nature of the operation during the years his father and Ceccarelli leased El Campo:
“(My dad, Joe Orsi, and Ceccarelli) must have acquired it about 1935 of ’36, and they sold it just before the War broke out, so this would be in – what? – ’42? My dad ran the whole operation and Ceccarelli actually lived down in Sacramento and he would come up occasionally. But my dad ran the whole thing up there.
“It was a great big, long building, and at one end it had a grocery store. Next to the grocery store was a dining room, and on the other end was a bar, and up above were rooms. And that’s where we actually lived, was upstairs, and we rented out the other rooms.”
El Campo Inn about 1937
Photo courtesy of Mrs. J. Donald (Jeanette) Orsi
“The building, I would say, was probably 100 to 125 feet long, and as far as depth, it was probably 40 to 50 feet in depth – quite a large building. And the property – as far as I could remember – I was so small at the time. There was a roadway that went down on one side, and went back to some cabins back in there. And on the other side, there was a stables. And on either side of the building, there was two great big redwood (sic) trees. And one of them I remember had a sign on it that said it was 600 years old. The other one didn’t have a sign on it. It was probably about the same age. They were both very tall trees.
Photo courtesy of Mrs. J. Donald (Jeanette) Orsi
“Bill Johnston was more or less like a caretaker. He lived in a little house that was behind the building, and he did a lot of trapping, and he was an old timer. I remember him very well. I used to spend a lot of time with him.
We didn’t have any tent facilities there. May have been somebody else had some back in there. There was a couple of homes back in there. A “Bake” Benson used to come up in the summertime and would take people on fishing trips out on the Lake. They were German folks.
“There was a service station across the street that we owned also. It was a Standard Oil Service Station. It was a very small building, with a couple pumps. You know, the old-fashioned pumps that you had to pump by hand? And there was a road that went down to the lake. And then we had some frontage down there – I don’t know if we owned it or what, but I used to swim down there all the time. There was no buildings right down there.”
El Campo’s Standard station, with Bill Johnston as Agent, was only one of three gas sations then operating in Homewood. It sat on the parcel now occupied by Homewood High & Dry Marina.
Photo courtesy of Mrs. J. Donald (Jeanette) Orsi
At the conclusion of Johnston’s lease with Orsi & Ceccarelli, his old property languished in disuse. With Wartime rationing in effect and the use of gasoline seriously curtained, no one wanted to begin a business venture in a remote resort area.
Johnston himself was feeling his age. He had passed the biblical “four score and ten” in 1948, and had neither the will nor the energy to resume proprietorship himself. In 1946, Michael J. Fleury assumed the lease, continuing the various elements of the Orsi-Ceccarelli operation even to the detail of the Italian Dinners. On the lakefront lot across the State Highway, the filling station was still selling gas, with local brothers “Bix” and Bob Solinsky manning the pumps.
from Tahoe Topics, Aug 16, 1946 issue
However, in 1949 the Fleurys’ tenancy came to an untimely end when son David was badly burned in an accident at the gas station, and later that year when Ben Callender, owner of The Hut (a popular nightspot a few hundred yards down the road), offered to buy Johnston out, the old fisherman accepted.
Callender renamed the operation Callender’s West Shore Lodge, and under his able direction, the rustic edifice continued as a homey destination for Tahoe travelers for nearly a decade.
The old El Campo building in 1950
Photo courtesy of Robert L. Callender Courtesy of Robert L. Callender
Callender’s son, William “Bill” Callender, described the general nature of the facilities and business:
“(My parents) build a small apartment for themselves upstairs, and there was a room which I occupied in the summer, when I was a bartender. And I think there was one more room that they might have rented out. They had a small liquor store, a bar – obviously – and then a small restaurant.
“They did have one-two-three cabins in the back that they rented. They were about, I’d say, a couple hundred yards back (west of the lodge). As I recall, they had a little kitchen and I don’t remember whether they had one bedroom or two bedrooms. My mom and dad took trips, but basically, they lived there, in this apartment on the second floor.”
A hallmark of the Callender‘s Lodge bar was its décor, as Bill Callender remembers: “Dad put together kind of a rustic false roof over the bar, and he lined it all with horseshoes – all of course facing up, for good luck. He had a whole bunch of old horseshoes which he had found or kept or whatever for years going back, so he nailed them all up on the wall.”
By 1957, the International Olympic Committee’s selection of Squaw Valley as the site of the 1960 Winter Olympiad had precipitated a serious upturn in local construction activity. Hopeful entrepreneurs were rushing to erect new buildings and renovate old ones in preparation for what would be the region’s debut in the international limelight. Ben Callender had by this time survived thirty years in business in Homewood, and appreciated the rare opportunity represented by the Games. In 1959 he began construction of a new Callender’s Motel on a lakeshore parcel across Highway 89 from the old El Campo. The modern two-story motel opened just in time to take advantage of the Olympic crowds, who exceeded the capacity of local accommodations and spilled over into locations as distant as Reno and Auburn.
Ben Callender’s new motel in 1960
Photo courtesy of Robert L. Callender
In October 1964 Helen Alrich, who during the early 1960s had acquired most of the property between Fawn and Silver streets in Homewood, applied to the Placer County board of Supervisors to build a ski hill, chair lift and rope tow on the old el Campo and Hotel Homewood properties west of the present Highway 89. Under several subsequent ownerships and expansions, the parcels west of the highway have continued in this recreational use to the present day.
By the time of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Bill Johnston, the man who had played such an important role in the life of the early Homewood community, had long since gone to his rewards, taking with him many mysteries. El Campo’s founder died in August 1952 at age 74, closing a colorful chapter in the history of Lake Tahoe’s west shore.
# # #