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Duane L. Bliss: An Unusual Tahoe Visionary, Part I

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Duane Leroy Bliss made a fortune as a timber baron, whose industry destroyed much of Lake Tahoe’s old growth forest in the 19th century. But, Bliss also understood that once the trees grew back the region could become a popular tourist destination. That is if the appropriate amenities and transportation conveyances were in place to attract the anticipated crowds. The equipment and infrastructure needed might have taken another man a decade or more to acquire and build, but the savvy, energetic Bliss made it all happen in a few short years.

Duane Bliss was a man of integrity, ability and vision. Born in Savoy, Mass., in 1833, he completed his schooling by age 13. Tragically, this accomplishment was quickly followed by his mother’s death, so Duane signed up for a two-year stint as a cabin boy on a ship traveling to South America. He returned home in 1848 to teach in the village school. In addition to preparing his lessons, Bliss also followed the news from California that gold had been discovered there. He had enough money to join the rush thanks to his earnings saved as a cabin boy, his teacher’s pay and a small inheritance from his mother. But so many people were leaving the East Coast for California that he couldn’t get passage on a steamship until late 1849. The crowded steamers departed Boston, New York or Philadelphia and headed for Panama where Pacific-bound passengers had to cross the isthmus by foot, mule or river boat.

When Bliss finally reached the Pacific coast of Panama, he became deathly ill due to a tropical disease that had killed hundreds of people over the previous year. An American-trained physician ordered bed rest in a clean environment with nursing care. Fortunately, Bliss had met a man on his journey named Diston who made financial arrangements for Duane’s stay at a nice hotel. For several months, Duane drifted between a sweat-soaked delirium or lying comatose and unmoving in his bed. The money, care and attention provided by Diston, a professional gambler and mine owner, saved Bliss’ life. The fever broke in January 1850 and Duane could take a few steps from his bed, but he was still much too weak to travel. It wasn’t until spring that Diston and Duane finally reached San Francisco. Before Diston departed for Sacramento, he advised young Duane that much of the California gold country had been tapped out or was already claimed, and that work other than mining may prove more profitable.

After two fruitless weeks searching for work in San Francisco, Bliss boarded a passenger ship to Sacramento where he ran into Diston again. The generous gambler explained to Bliss that he had purchased an active mine claim from a prospector who had become ill and needed to return East. He offered a grateful Duane the opportunity to work the claim and the two set off for Marysville where they acquired mules and supplies. They reached the claim in mid-June and inspected the dilapidated cabin and tools left behind. When Diston prepared to leave the following day, Duane asked how to contact him in case he wanted to share any profits. Diston refused any compensation and rode off, leaving Duane Bliss to wonder why this stranger had treated him as if he were his own son.

As luck would have it, Bliss did make some money on his small claim and he used the earnings to acquire interest in a store and hotel near Trinity Lake. Over the next decade, he gained business experience and in 1860 Bliss moved to Gold Hill, Nev., where he was hired to manage a quartz mill at Silver City. The Comstock mining excitement was in its infancy and the men who controlled capital would soon control the land, as well as the logging and mining industries that were just getting started. Bliss soon became a partner and manager for a Gold Hill banking firm, but returned briefly to Massachusetts to marry Elizabeth Tobey. The couple would eventually have five children.

After the newlyweds arrived back at the Comstock, Bliss’ bank was acquired by the Bank of California, which was using low-interest loans to leverage takeovers of money-strapped mine and stamp mill operators, as well as financially stressed lending institutions. But, Bliss wasn’t out of a job. The hard-nosed executives at the San Francisco-based Bank of California knew that they were held in low esteem by Comstock communities. But, Duane Bliss was well known for his honesty and good standing in western Nevada, so the bank retained him as chief cashier.

In 1868, the Bank of California initiated the construction of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, and they appointed Duane Bliss right-of-way agent, responsible for acquiring the necessary properties for the project, as well as enticing investors. But, D.L. Bliss wasn’t being a stooge for the hated bank; he was in the process of obtaining 50,000 acres of forestland in the Tahoe Basin. Bliss realized that the valuable timber needed to sustain Comstock mining operations was located on the slopes surrounding Lake Tahoe, and a railroad would help facilitate its transport to Virginia City.

During a business trip back East, the value of Bliss’ mining stocks crashed, leaving him penniless. His instructions to sell had not been heeded and his intent to purchase the Tahoe timberlands seemed thwarted. However, Darius O. Mill, another local banker, respected Bliss’ business acumen and if he could become a partner, Mill would lend the money without any collateral or security. In 1873, Bliss and his group of investors formed the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company, with Bliss as president and general manager. The company had three divisions: logging, milling and transportation, with its center of operations at Glenbrook.

Duane Bliss’ experience as general manager of this large business venture would position him well for his future role in Tahoe’s modern-age tourist industry. That vision would require three interrelated projects; including a luxurious passenger ship, a railroad to connect Tahoe City with the Southern Pacific line in Truckee, and a world-class destination hotel. In a well-reasoned display of pragmatic foresight, Duane Bliss ordered his loggers to spare all trees under 15 inches in diameter in order to protect some portion of the forest and accelerate its eventual re-growth. The reforestation would come in time, but ironically, Bliss’ first order of business was to virtually denude the Tahoe Basin of its verdant cloak of timber.

Historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. Find Mark’s books at stores or thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Follow Mark’s blog tahoenuggets.com.

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