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Tahoe Nugget #109:

Lucky Baldwin: Tahoe Visionary
April 4, 2007

Elias Jackson Baldwin's nickname "Lucky" came from a windfall of more than two million dollars realized from his Comstock investments. Baldwin had been aggressively speculating in the risky Nevada mining operations like everybody else in San Francisco and Virginia City and by 1866 the gambler had a safe full of Hale & Norcross Mine shares. At the time, the stock was worth less than he had paid for it so it didn't look very promising for a big payoff.

That spring Baldwin was invited by some British sportsmen to join them on a big game hunting expedition in India. Before he left, Baldwin instructed his broker to sell the Hal & Norcross shares if they ever reached the price he originally paid for them. While he was away, miners digging in the depths of the Hale & Norcross discovered a rich vein of silver and the stock soared in value. Baldwin's stockbroker was under strict orders to sell all the shares at a certain point, but because his client had taken the key to the safe to India, they stayed locked away. When Baldwin returned to San Francisco later that year, the stocks were worth a fortune and the nickname "Lucky" was his for life.

Born in Ohio on April 31, 1828, Elias Baldwin demonstrated his moneymaking skills at an early age. As a 13-year-old boy, he decided that he had had enough of school and secured a job at a livery stable. He worked there long enough to buy a horse. When he was just 18, he won two hundred dollars by betting on his own horse in a race. He parlayed those winnings into $2,000 and used the money to elope with his girlfriend.

In 1853, he moved to San Francisco where he bought a hotel, refurbished it, and then quickly re-sold it for a $5,000 profit. As Baldwin's financial wealth grew from his shrewd investments, he decided to build the finest hotel in the West. Work on the Baldwin Hotel, at Market and Powell streets in San Francisco began in 1873. The bold entrepreneur spared no expense in the construction and appointments of the opulent hotel & theater, and it opened to rave reviews in 1877.

In the summer of 1879, E.J. Baldwin visited Lake Tahoe. He walked beneath some unspoiled stands of old growth timber on the lake's southwest shore and strolled along the sandy beach. Extensive logging had taken a terrible toll on large swaths of the majestic pine forest that had once cloaked the mountains around the lake, but the lumbermen had not clear-cut every acre yet. In 1880, Baldwin bought 2,000 acres of uncut forest with one mile of lakefront. He announced, "My land acquisition will save this vast forest from the beauty-destroying ax of the woodsman so that the magnificent pines and cedars may be admired by generations to come."

Baldwin was known more for his fondness for fast horses and young women than protecting the environment, but he saved the towering trees along the beach by building a sawmill off site at Fallen Leaf Lake. The mill provided the lumber needed for his Tahoe hotel project called the Tallac House and thus preserved the original forest in the area surrounding it.

In the summer of 1899 he opened an elegant three-and-a-half story, 100-room hotel and casino. Gambling was illegal, but the casino operators had an inside line to the sheriff's office in Placerville. Drinking water was piped in and guests enjoyed steam heat and electricity in every room. Outdoor flower gardens surrounded arching fountains, rock-lined paths wandered past quaint, ornamental ponds. A classical string orchestra entertained guests day and night. All that luxury didn't come cheap. At a time when skilled laborers earned less than $20 per week, the cheapest weekly rental at the Tallac House cost $32.50. Larger rooms and suites were astronomically higher in price.

Baldwin's womanizing escapades were legendary. He married five times, had countless affairs and illegitimate children, and fought numerous breach-of-promise and seduction suits. Lucky's cousin Veronica Baldwin shot him after he allegedly assaulted her and then fired her from his employ. Baldwin's national reputation as a philanderer was well-deserved, but the libertine always claimed, "My public reputation is such that every woman who comes near me must have been warned in advance." J.B. Marvin, first chief clerk of the Baldwin Hotel agreed; "Baldwin didn't run after the women; they ran after him."

Lucky Baldwin died in 1909 at the age of 81. Baldwin's callous personal and business habits had earned him few real friends. After his funeral, a San Francisco reporter wrote; "His was the only funeral of a famous man I ever covered where not a sob was heard nor a tear seen." But historian Arthur M. Ellis stated, "Lucky Baldwin's deserves his reputation as one of the greatest pioneers of the West and one of the greatest builders of California."

After his death, the Tallac House slowly slid into ruin and in 1927 his daughter Anita Baldwin ordered the main buildings demolished and the salvage sold for scrap. Due to Baldwin's foresight, visitors today can enjoy the magnificent forest along Baldwin Beach, deeded to the U.S. Forest Service by grandchildren of the wily financier. Now open to the public, the Tallac Site is home to majestic sugarpines and cedars, remnants of the giant conifer forest that once graced the shores of Lake Tahoe.

The foundation of the Baldwin estate is all that's left of the hotel/casino, but other rustic log buildings on the estate survived and can still be visited at the Tallac Site, located just south of Emerald Bay. The Tallac House may be gone, but a short stroll away is a cluster of three other private estates that date back to the Victorian days and opulence of "Old Tahoe." Now owned and operated by the Forest Service, the property comprises 74 acres and includes more than a quarter mile of lake frontage. Best of all, the area is free to explore and enjoy.

Photo #1: Lucky Baldwin at age 57; about the time he was being sued by a 19-year-old woman
Photo #2: Antique postcard of Baldwin's Tahoe hotel casino, the Tallac House
Photo #3: Side entrance into Tallac Site
Photo #4: Relaxing on Baldwin's Beach at Lake Tahoe. Circa summer 2005

Nugget #109 A Baldwin portrait1

Nugget #109 B Tallac Hotel postcard001-011

Nugget #109 C Tallac site entrance001-011

Nugget #109 D Baldwin Beach readers001-011

 

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