The Story Behind The Bliss Family At Tahoe

Sep 27, 2018

The property surrounding Lake Tahoe is some of the most sought-after real estate in the region, but how that property is used has changed dramatically over time. Historian Alicia Barber tells the story of one family’s longtime association with Lake Tahoe in this segment of Time & Place.

When Duane L. Bliss first purchased property on the eastern shores of Lake Tahoe in the early 1870s, it wasn’t for the stunning views. Bliss had been a banker on the Comstock, up in Gold Hill, when he and a group of partners founded the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company. The Comstock needed lumber—a lot of it—to construct the supporting structures for the mines and the buildings above them.

By the mid-1880s, Bliss’s company ran several saw mills at Glenbrook, on the lake’s east side, and controlled more than 10,000 acres at the south end. But then the Comstock went bust, and the need for lumber evaporated, practically overnight. In the 1890's, the Bliss family found themselves with a lot of bare mountainside and no steady source of income, as DL Bliss’s great-grandson, Bill Bliss, explained in 1991.

“When the thing was going, and they were producing lumber on all these thousands of acres, I think without question they made ends meet and then some,” said Bliss. “But from there on, you couldn’t do anything with it. In those days, transportation to Tahoe was very limited, and it was skinned from lumbering; it was quite unattractive.”

The slopes may not have been looking their best, but the lake was as gorgeous as always, and tourists were finding that out. The Bliss family was on it. They bought land across the lake, opened the luxurious Tahoe Tavern near Tahoe City, complete with a railroad to bring tourists down from Truckee and a steamer to carry them across the water.

Back on the east side of the lake, they transformed the former lumbering community of Glenbrook into a second resort, opening the Glenbrook Inn in 1907.

In the 1920's, the family still owned about 26,000 feet of shoreline, but as Bill Bliss put it, they were essentially land poor. They sold their holdings across the lake and donated more than 700 acres to the California State Park system. Transportation around the lake was still pretty primitive, and there weren’t a lot of people looking to buy land there, with a few exceptions.

“This was always in the family, the Glenbrook Inn, and it was kind of really deteriorating in the twenties and thirties, and my father sold a vast holding of property here at Tahoe to George Whittell,” he said.

By the time he was done, George Whittell, an eccentric multimillionaire, owned nearly all of the Nevada side. Bill Bliss ran the Glenbrook Inn himself after his father died in 1960, but decided it was time to let most of the family’s land go. Of their remaining 3,300 acres, he sold all but about ten, with large amounts going to the U.S. Forest Service.

By the 1970's, the older summer resorts around the lake, including the rustic Glenbrook Inn, had gone out of style. 

“I shut the inn down in 1976 and then we reluctantly went into a little bit of development here, because I couldn’t pay my bills,” said Bliss. "It was a very difficult time financially, in a way, but more, to me, emotionally than anything because I had really inherited the thing. “

Today, Glenbrook is home to beautiful meadows and shoreline, multimillion-dollar houses, and a golf course dating to the 1920's. And a lot of the land once owned by the Bliss family is state or federally-owned, open to the public for everyone to enjoy, as the family did for generations.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.