Today marks a momentous anniversary in the annals of Tahoe City. On April 24, 1934 the town’s most prominent landmark burned to the ground. The old Tahoe Inn, its legends as old as the town itself, had stood on a rise beside the main thoroughfare, on the parcel that today is the site of the Blue Agave restaurant. The old building had undergone many transformations in its 70 years of life, and a host of hosts. Since the destruction by fire of the Grand Central Hotel (its neighbor up the block) in 1894, Tahoe Inn had been the outpost, summer and winter, of the Tahoe traveler. The Inn’s own flaming demise was a milestone marking a new era.
I had the good fortune to interview several eyewitnesses to the event, and their accounts, which bring the blaze to life, are taken from my recent book, Tahoe City’s First 100 Years, (LINK):
The old Inn building dated back to the town’s gaslight and privy era, and its kitchen was a wick waiting to be lit. Wong the Cook was an easy scapegoat for the blaze, which broke out in the kitchen. Oliver M. Henrikson, among the eyewitnesses, painted this picture of the calamity:
“My recollection of the Tahoe Inn fire was that it occurred in the early evening of April 24, 1934. The Tahoe Lake School was having a program featuring the school orchestra. It had just begun to play, but was interrupted by someone entering the school room shouting, ‘The Tahoe Inn is on fire!’ Everyone left for the fire, to assist in any way possible. The reason the date of the fire remains so clear is that it was on my birthday.
At the fire, everyone was running in and out carrying something of value and depositing it across the road, on the Lake side of the highway. Much of the contents rolled down the steep hill toward the Lake, to be retrieved the following day. There were cameras, ski equipment, a sizeable amount of liquor, furniture and personal belongings.
A bit of humor occurred when Henry Enniman emerged from the fire carrying a small paper bag of potatoes when there was so much of value to carry out. He was confused, as with so many. The scene was not unlike a bunch of ants entering and leaving their domain. The fire did not burn too rapidly at first, so there was time to empty much of the contents of the Inn. Yet so much was lost.
Everyone was in complete sympathy with the Bechdolts, yet I remember the happy side when Mr. Carl Bechdolt took the entire school class on a tour of the new Tahoe Inn, including the basement, with the new oil-fired boiler. He was very proud of this replacement. We shared this happiness with him.”
Oliver Henrikson account 1987
David Bienert, another Tahoe City youngster who was 15 at the time of the fire, gave this eyewitness report:
“I can remember we were hauling stuff out. Apparently, the fire seemed to be heading toward Bennie’s Inn. I had taken a couple of the milkshake mixers out of there and taken them across the street. I think most of us were down there at Bennie’s, and maybe the wind was blowing in that direction, or it may have been closer to the Inn fire than the Log Cabin, because I don’t recall the Log Cabin having burned. I remember particularly the next morning, when Carl missed school because he had to go buy some clothes, because all he had was the clothes on his back.”
David Bienert interview, December 1, 1986
The old dancehall had also met its fate in the blaze, but the equally ancient Log Cabin Saloon that sat on the Inn’s uphill flank survived, as did the building west of the Inn that is today known as the Ivy Browne Cottage, its unmistakable hip roof right to the right of center in the photo below:
No one who knew Carl Andrew Bechdolt doubted for a moment that he would bounce back, but the completion of the new Inn just in time for the big Independence Day weekend of 1934 was truly phenomenal – a testament to the many favors cheerfully extended by “Pop” during his years in Tahoe City, and now reciprocated in a very timely fashion. As for the hard cash needed to rebuild, Bechdolt’s son Bill speculated thus:
“He immediately started construction, as soon as he could acquire some assistance and financing. He was a great friend of Dick Joseph in Truckee. Dick at that time was just a newcomer to Truckee, but they became great friends. Dick Joseph helped my Dad financially as much as he could. He was a gambler. He didn’t have that much (money), because he was a barber. He came to Truckee as a barber. He never told me, but I suspected something took place. He might have helped, because my Dad and Mother lost everything. They lost everything.”
Bill Bechdolt interview July 19, 1994
That summer, the new Inn was the talk of the Lake, drawing visitors from distant points to witness the transformation of Front Street. The state of the economy had curtailed elective construction for years, and Bechdolt’s new caravansary was a feast for the eyes and a vote of confidence for the future of Tahoe City. Son Bill described some of the amenities of the new facility:
“They had more rooms, and of course there was hot and cold running water. There was 22 rooms upstairs. They had a kitchen and dining room, and they added a bar. They had a barber shop, Western Union – that was about all he had then.”
Bill Bechdolt interview, July 19, 1994
By the following summer, the new Inn was an established Sierra landmark, its reputation soon to be further enhanced by Pop’s involvement in the production of “Rose Marie,” a Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy romantic wilderness adventure filmed in the autumn of 1935 at several locations around the Lake. During the filming, Bechdolt shared the job of feeding the movie company and its huge cast of extras with A.L. Richardson of Camp Richardson. When shooting ended, Bechdolt managed to acquire several totem poles used in the production, and had these oversized props prominently arranged in front of the Inn, where their irresistible whimsy often compelled motorists to stop and exercise their Kodaks … and wet their whistles.
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