The History of Brockway, California
If you can picture Lake Tahoe as the shape of a heart, Stateline Point is the indentation at the top, at the northernmost edge of the lake, bisected by the California/Nevada state line. Its history is a microcosm of the history of Lake Tahoe itself.
Brockway is an unincorporated community of about 150 people that occupies the California side of Stateline Point, between Highway 28 and Lake Tahoe. It is an enclave of homes on narrow winding lanes ranging from elaborate lakeside estates to two-room cabins, set among soaring pines and massive granite boulders, with a pink-sand community beach, offshore rocky islands and a perfect southwestern exposure.
Lake Tahoe was formed as a deep rift valley in the geological uplift of the Sierra in ancient times. The area around Stateline point was the outlet of the rift valley. The volcanic eruptions of Mount Pluto (the principal mountain of Northstar at Tahoe ski resort) closed the valley's outlet and ultimately built up into Brockway Summit. The volcanic cone on Stateline Point that is the home of the forest service lookout was part of that volcanic system. With its outlet closed, the deep lake formed in the valley from snowfall runoff, eventually rising to find a new outlent through the Truckee river canyon at Tahoe City.
During the ice age, the mountains of the Sierra were carved,smoothed and eroded. As the ice receded, immense, smoothed granite boulders ("talus") were deposited throughout Stateline point; one of its most dramatic features.
The Arrival of Humans
No one knows when humans first saw Lake Tahoe or for how long they have come there. Ancestors of the Washoe Indians apparently began coming to Brockway's unique hot springs at the edge of the "Lake of the Sky" in prehistoric times to soak in the soothing waters, and that continued as a tradition into the time of white men. Very little is known of that time, though worn "grinding holes" still can be seen in the boulders at the lake's edge; many several feet beneath the lake's present surface. A historical display of the Washoe Indians' culture can be viewed in the Indian Room at the Cal-Neva Lodge.
Lake Tahoe was "discovered" by European American explorer John Fremont and guide Kit Carson on February 14, 1844 while seeking a path across the Sierra. He referred to it only as "Alpine Lake" in his journals and maps. The mountain country and high passes were treacherous for early settlers and gold prospectors following the gold discovery in 1849, and the infamous Donner Party spent its disastrous winter near Truckee by Donner Lake, only twelve miles from Lake Tahoe.
How Lake Tahoe got its name
In 1852, six years after its discovery, and three years after the gold rush brought thousands of prospectors to the new state, the lake officially was named "Lake Bigler," for California's first governor, John Bigler, following his rescue of emigrants marooned in the snow near the lake. Unfortunately, Bigler became a Southern sympathizer during the Civil War, and attaching his name to Lake Tahoe became extremely controversial.
"Tahoe" first was proposed as an alternate name in 1862, drawn loosely from unspecified "Indian words" for "big lake" and "high water," (also characterized as "much water" and "blue"). There is no authentication of the claim that the name was used by the local native Americans. A great debate followed for decades, pitting those who despised the local indigenous peoples against those who despised Bigler. Mark Twain was a leader of the fight against the name Tahoe, but it gradually gained popular acceptance (always pronounced "Tay-ho.") The name finally was changed officially by the California Assembly to Lake Tahoe in 1945.
The Development of Brockway Hot Springs
In 1869, in anticipation of the completion of the trans-continental railroad through Truckee, William "Billy" Campbell (a local stage line owner) and George Schaffer (the local sawmill owner, for whom Schaffer's Mill restaurant at Northstar is named) built a road from the Truckee rail stop, up Martis Creek and over Brockway summit (then unnamed) to the North shore of "Bigler Lake," ending at the hot springs on its shore.
Campbell took title to 63 acres at the hot springs and erected a 20 foot-square bathing house over them (to the left of the present-day tennis courts). The new resort was called "Campbell's Hot Springs." A pier was constructed. At that time, the hot springs property was believed to be located in Nevada because the state line was established 1/2 mile to the west of its present location. A local story places the "monument stone" marking the mistaken state line downhill from the house and to the right about 50 yards. In truth, the mistaken line was about a 1/4 mile farther west, near the entrance to Brockway Springs.
During the construction of the resort, five men who were returning home by sailboat from constructing the resort's breakwater were lost in heavy waves off Chinquapin (Observatory Point); their bodies never found. It was the worst marine disaster ever on Lake Tahoe.
The next year, in 1870, Henry Burke, who operated Tallac resort at the South end of the lake, became Campbell's partner in the resort. Together, they constructed a "commodious 40 x 60 foot hotel" with a wide verandah facing the lake, plus five two-room cottages for those who wanted to stay through the season. The hotel was constructed on the site of the present-day tennis courts. The transcontinental railroad was completed that year, and the resort owners anticipated great tourist business from the new railway. Unfortunately, the road to Truckee was still impassible by Campbell's stage coaches due to snow drifts into June.
In 1871, Burke took over operating the stage coach line from Truckee over the pass to the hot springs (a two and a half hour journey), where it met his steamer "Truckee" to transport persons to Glenbrook, to connect with another stage to Virginia City and Carson City. The Truckee was joined by the sidewheel steamer "Stanford" in 1873.
In 1874, Commander Von Schmidtt's survey of the California/Nevada state line from Oregon south was completed (paid for by the State of California), which placed the state line at its present location, a half-mile east of the then-existing boundary.(1) That placed Brockway in California. A major disupte erupted between the states that was not resolved for a decade.
1. Von Schmidt was hardly a neutral on the issue, He was a Tahoe local and great promoter of the area; at one time proposing digging a railroad tunnel through the crest of the Sierra from the Lake as a shortcut to Donner Summit. He also gave Observatory Point (Chinquapin) its name when he proposed it as the site for the U.S. Naval Observatory. Anyone who has enjoyed a clear Tahoe night can understand why.
Early Operations: Seeking an Indentity
The resort was leased by one C.A. Richardson for the 1874 season, and a new stage road was pushed through along the lake shore to Tahoe City. After meeting no financial success, he was replaced the next year by Rev. R. A. Ricker who was known for holding "fire and brimstone" revival meetings through the summer. He improved the resort's appearance, added a longer pier and stables. His resort catered to women and became the scene of lengthy debates about women's suffrage during summer evenings.
Rev. Ricker was controvertial and often in the press. After an accident occurred in which a woman fell into the hot springs and was scalded, he left Brockway. The extended pier was demolished by a storm during the following winter, and Campbell resumed its management.
In 1877 the Steamer Niagra offered an evening cruise once a week from the west shore with a band, Professor Varney's Brass Band, to the hotel, where there was dining and dancing. Campbell extended the hotel to add eight new rooms by 1878, but by 1881, he was insolvent and the hotel was closed.
Two years later, in 1883, one A.J. Bayley leased the resort from Campbell and reopened it under the name Carnelian Hot Sulfur Springs, creating confusion with nearby Carnelian Bay. A new Post Office was opened at the hotel under the name "Carnelian," which added to the confusion. The next year, Sisson Wallace & Co. took over operation of the hotel, followed in subsequent seasons by Stuart McKay, A.V. Bradley and others, none of whom were particularly talented or successful.
At the end of the 1887 season, there was a memorable "grand picnic" on the lakeshore at the hotel with people coming from all around to be entertained with foot races, barrel races and 200 pounds of roasted Ox head.
In 1893, the somewhat faded property was eyed by Reno interests as an elaborate site for Chataqua meetings, to include an extensive real estate development and an electric railway with its terminus at the resort. It was promoted with a brochure that borrowed heavily from Mark Twain's lilting writings. It never came to be. By the turn of the century, the old resort was reported to be falling into disrepair, with only remnants of the old road remaining to its doors.
Rebirth as Brockway Hot Springs
In 1900, the 30 year-old resort was purchased and revitalized by Frank Brockway Alverson and his wife Nellie Staples Dow Comstock Alverson. Brockway was a consumate promoter, changing the name to Brockway Hot Springs, expanding and modernizing the hotel. He rebuilt the pier and promoted the resort with scenic playing cards and advertisements of gentle horses, free swimsuits, an excursion launch called the "Wildwood" and a motorized Tally Ho coach that met visitors at the railhead in Truckee. The expanded rock-cribbed pier still exists in its original location. The hotel now accommodated 75 guests at $2.50 per person. (There are photos with the last link on the main page)
Like those who came before him, by 1909, Alverson was bankrupt. He had been backed in his venture by his wife's relatives, Comstock Lode heir Harry Oswald Comstock and Melville Lawrence, who together were operating Tallac Resort on the South shore. They bought the resort with the high bid of $9000 in an auction conducted in Auburn. When the owner of Tallac, "Lucky" Baldwin, died that same year, they hired various managers (including the Alversons for one season) to operate Brockway.
In 1914 Lawrence and Comstock left Tallac, with Lawrence going to Brockway, ostensibly to retire. However, the resort (finally) prospered under his management. Comstock soon joined him to develop the resort and adjacent property that included much of present-day Kings Beach, Brockway and Crystal Bay. In 1917, Lawrence constructed a grand, stately "casino" (dance hall and dining room) just east of the hotel (see photos link), above the hot springs. The post office was moved a few feet west, and a swimming pool (long gone) was constucted with water heated by the hot springs. Brockway Hot Springs finally began to prosper as its originators had imagined it could.
The Brockway-Tahoe Club
In 1922, Brockway became a country club of sorts, the "Brockway-Tahoe Club." The land was subdivided. Lawrence died, and Comstock took in Robert P. Sherman as a partner. Sherman was a wealthy Los Angeles land developer who had just completed the development of Sherman Oaks, and the only son of Union General William T. Sherman. Comstock and Sherman added more cottages (one of which was extensively remodeled as the house above the present-day pool, to the left facing the lake). Daily excursions were offered along the shore on the famous steamer "Tahoe."
In 1924, a golf course was added as part of the new land development enterprise at the intersection of Highways 28 and 267, designed by the famous Scottish landscape architect John Duncan Dunn. Dunn was the Robert Trent Jones of his time, and his courses include the site of the 1995 US Open in New York. A water company also was created to serve the new community.
By the late 1920s, Comstock purchased Sherman's interest in the hotel and continued to operate it. Comstock remained popular throughout California, known as "Mr. Tahoe," and was actively involved in the lake's conservation. Meanwhile, Sherman turned his attention to their land development enterprise and the beginnings of a new gambling venture on the Nevada land above the hotel, just across the state line.
Gambling Comes to Stateline Point
In 1927, Sherman built the Cal-Neva Lodge, straddling the state line. It was constructed originally as a real estate office and guest house for prospective purchasers of land in his Lakeview Highlands development (what is today Brockway). It was constructed to resemble Frank Bacon's cabin in the Broadway play "Lightnin'" starring Will Rogers. It featured an indoor artificial stream and waterfall over natural talus boulders into a dining room pool that was stocked with live trout. It included both a dining room and a dance floor with the state line painted across it.
The next year, Sherman deeded the Cal-Neva to Norman Biltz, known as the "Duke of Nevada," reportedly for real estate commissions owed. In 1930, Biltz married Esther Auchincloss Nash, granddaughter of the founder of Standard Oil and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy, beginning one of the most historically interesting familial connections to Stateline Point.
In 1937 the Cal-Neva Lodge burned to the ground and was rebuilt by Biltz in 31 days, using 500 workers, in its present Lodge configuration (absent the Frank Sinatra wing and the hotel tower). However, it claims to be the oldest continuously operating casino in America.
A second primitive gaming facility also was opened in 1927 adjacent to the Cal-Neva, by Truckee's Larry McElvy. Five years later, in 1932, the La-Vada Lodge was built on the site. It later was called the Cal-Vada, then Bal Tabain. It also was reportedly a house of ill repute in its heyday. It has since been restored as a modern day brew pub and restaurant.
Some very colorful people enjoyed the Cal-Neva Lodge. Chicago gansters befriended Biltz and took an active interest in his casino. Underworld figures Jim McKay and Bill Graham reportedly ran the Cal-Neva for a time during the 1930s, but soon were convicted of mail fraud. Its operation was then taken over by Elmer "Bones" Remmer, who had close ties to "Baby Face" Nelson and "Pretty Boy" Floyd, both of whom reportedly stayed in the cottages below the Lodge when they "needed to get away." Stories were told of the gangsters taking a quick stroll across the painted state line in what is now the "Indian Room" when the local law enforcement personnel showed up at the casino. The Lodge kept that slightly shady underworld reputation up through the ownership of Frank Sinatra in the early 1960s.
In 1946, the Tahoe Biltmore Hotel and Casino was constructed by the Blumenfeld brothers at the state line as the principal gambling hotel resort in the area. in the same time period, the Ta-Neva-Ho was constructed across from the Biltmore, which became the present-day Crystal Bay Club.
Hollywood Discovers Brockway
Although the casino and entertainment at the Cal-Neva provided one focus of activity, there was much going on beside gambling on Stateline Point through the period. From the mid-1930s through the early 60s, Brockway was a playground for Hollywood celebrities and wealthy families.
During that time, Brockway was primarily a summer community of second homes for wealthy families from the Bay Area and Southern California who would take up residence for the summers. Prominent Bay Area residents included the Hills Brothers (coffee, with twin rustic lodges on the beach at the foot of Speedboat), the Buck (Oil) family, whose massive land holdings are on the Nevada side of the point, and the McGinniss family (whose landmark lodge sits at the foot of Speedboat Avenue) and the Matsons. Howard Hughes had a home and land on the Nevada side of the point.
Frequent Brockway visitors of the era included Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. The house at 159 Speedboat Avenue (now extensively remodeled) was built by the producer of the Crosby/Hope "Road" films and reportedly was the site of wild memorable parties including Hollywood figures. Celebrity visitors to Brockway during the era included Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Dean Witter and Joseph Kennedy. The Brockway Hotel and its amenities provided a focal point for the locals' social gatherings when they wanted to be apart from the casino crowds.
The favor of celebrities with the community was manifested when the Brockway golf course hosted the first Bing Crosby Open (now known as the AT&T). The unofficial gathering of Crosby and his friends was organized when Crosby would come to stay at Brockway. In 1936, the tournament was moved to Rancho Santa Fe, then to Pebble Beach.
Frank Sinatra and the Cal-Neva
The Hollywood era was epitomized when Frank Sinatra bought the Cal-Neva Lodge in 1960 and added the hotel tower and Frank Sinatra Showroom (with a helicopter pad on the roof), which hosted many of the top celebrity acts of the era. It was frequented by his friends, including Dean Martin, Trini Lopez, the McGuire Sisters Marilyn Monroe and the "rat pack," including Peter Lawford, brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy.
The most famous of those visitors was President John F. Kennedy, who reportedly trysted with Marilyn Monroe in one of the cottages below the main Lodge. There also was a story of Marilyn Monroe, shortly before her death, having attempted suicide at the Lodge by a drug overdose in one of the cottages, only to be rescued by an astute telephone switchboard operator.
Unfortunately, Sinatra's lengthy list of friends also included Underworld figures Sam Giancana, and mob "moll" Judith Campbell Exner (who also had ties to JFK), which connections led to televised hearings efore the Nevada Gaming Commission that ultimately cost Sinatra his gaming license in 1963. Sinatra was forced to sell the Lodge, which brought to an end the Hollywood era. After Sinatra left, the Cal-Neva Lodge began a long, slow slide into mediocrity, fading from the "Lady of the Lake" into a "bus tour" casino for the poor and elderly; overshadowed by the much larger and glitzier competitors at the South end of the lake.
The Demise of the Brockway Hotel and Birth of Brockway Springs
Harry Comstock died in 1954, and his daughter, Gladys Comstock Bennett and her husband, Maillard Bennett became proprietors of the Brockway Hotel. (Gladys and Velma, Harry's two daughters, had alpine lakes named for them by their father in the Desolation Wilderness above Emerald Bay.) The Bennetts ran the old hotel quietly, primarily as a summer lakefront resort and a community institution for the families who maintained homes on the Point, providing a restaurant for breakfast and dinner (always with fresh strawberries), the post office, an informal community center and the neighborhood swimming pool.
In 1966, three years after Sinatra's departure from the Cal-Neva, the Brockway Hotel closed for the last time, and the 20 acre property was sold to condominium developers. The hotel itself burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt. The present day tennis courts are on its site. Most of the old cabins and outbuildings remained in tumbledown condition, scattered around the property into the 1990s.
In 1972, the first 85 of a planned 750 highrise condominiums were constructed as the present-day Brockway Springs Condominiums at the Kings Beach end of the property, and the new lakeside pool, clubhouse and tennis courts were built at the opposite end. As with many who came before, the project was financially doomed by recession, and the developers (fortunately) went bankrupt before the huge project ever really got off the ground. The remaining land then went through a succession of owners, none of whom were able to successfully develop it in the era of conservation.
Through these changes, Brockway quietly sat through the 70s and early 80s, becoming a sleepy community with older homes passing to new family generations and developing a patina of age. Newer, splashy resort community developments in Incline on the Nevada shore and at Northstar attracted the new wealth as Brockway slept peacefully.
The Renaissance of Brockway
In 1985, Los Angeles developer Charles Bluth bought the Cal-Neva Resort and began an extensive planned restoration and development of the property. This spurred improvements at the other local casinos, though the gambling business continued to decline as a result of competition from Indian casinos in Northern California. It also brought something of a renaissance to Brockway, with new homes built on the few remaining lots and other homes were remodeled.
The Brockway Hotel property finally was sold in 1994 for $3.5 million to a partnership led by Tahoe developer Loring Sagan, who recast the 20 acre forest as Brockway Hot Springs, a gated community of 17 trophy homes. The pier, pool, tennis courts and clubhouse were renovated and all but one of the remaining original buildings were removed (the last one was converted into a private home). In the style of the old resort, club memberships were sold to local Brockway neighbors. The visionary dreams of Billy Campbell and Frank Brockway Alvorson finally became reality.