Uncle Joe’s Cabin, Truckee’s First BuildingTMR Team, December 1, 2020 in Truckee History
By Guy Coates | Truckee-Donner Historical Society
In 1863 the town of Truckee did not exist. In fact, all that was visible along the banks of the Truckee River were rocks and virgin forest—except for one solitary log house built by pioneer Joseph Gray.
Native Americans roamed this Sierra region. A small white settlement near the head of Donner Lake served the many coaches and their teamsters and passengers who passed daily along the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road, enroute to Virginia City and the luring Comstock Lode.
Joseph Gray believed that this area would be a good place for a tavern and way station for weary travelers. It was near this spot that transportation routes converged—the Henness Pass route from the upper North Fork of the Yuba, and the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake turnpike. Five years hence the Central Pacific would choose the same area as the focal point for its mountain operations.
Constructed of native tamarack and lodgepole pine in about 1858, Gray’s cabin was located at today’s southwest corner of Jibboom and Bridge Streets. Experts have examined the 24’x20’ building and noticed no evidence of any kind of saw used to build the structure. The timbers had all been hewn with axes into the shape of a house.
Initially, the small cabin sat alone beside the only road, and it was here that Gray ran a frontier hostelry, which served weary travelers arriving on the six-horse Concords of the California Stage Company. Twenty- and thirty-horse freight wagons rolled past the cabin day and night. Gray’s establishment was a place where travelers and teamsters could rest and enjoy all the comforts and hospitality of a friendly roadside inn, purchase supplies, and obtain directions or information.
Joseph Henry Gray was born in 1826 in Middleton County, Durham, England. He was the son of Thomas and Ann Gray who emigrated to Tumockwa, Pennsylvania in the late 1820s. In 1833 the family, including Joseph and his nine brothers and sisters, moved to Dubuque, Iowa, “the heart of the Indian country.” In 1834 the family again moved, this time to Galina, Illinois, where they settled and farmed.
Young Joseph, restless and bored with farming, heard of the rich gold diggings in California. In 1849 he ventured westward with two of his brothers, seeking adventure and fortune. But contrary to the motivation that inspired most men moving West at the time, it was business opportunities rather than mining that attracted Gray. He first went to Texas, purchased a herd of cattle, drove them to California and sold them at a high profit. He then purchased a quarter section of land on the Old Auburn Road at Sylvan, in Center Township, Sacramento County, and later became the proprietor of the “Fourteen Mile House,” a station and inn located in the present day town of Citrus Heights. Joseph Gray settled there with his wife, Ann, and three daughters, Annie, Georgiana, and Nellie.
Gray became a successful businessman, both in buying and selling cattle and in the drayage business. He met and became friends with Charles Crocker, one of the railroad’s “Big Four,” whom he considered “his partner.” Perhaps it was from Crocker that he learned the proposed route of the Central Pacific over Donner Pass and decided that better opportunities might await him in that area.
When Gray first visited the present-day Truckee area in the late 1850s, he and two other men constructed a cabin on his 640 acres along the Truckee River. Soon after, Gray and his family moved in. When the railroad surveyors arrived, Gray’s 640 acres of land were confiscated. Resenting this seizure, Gray took the appropriate legal steps and, by 1864, re-acquired most of his land.
Interestingly, the only recorded Nevada County deed reflecting the transaction is dated August 16, 1864 from S. W. McDonald to Joseph Gray consisting of two quarter sections of land and improvements on the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road. The sole consideration of all this land was a mere $200. There is no record as to the identity of who S. W. McDonald was or how he became involved. It took years for Gray to finally gain clear title to the land that became the town of Truckee.
When Gray and his family eventually settled into their two-story log home, family life flourished. Ann cooked large meals of beef, lamb or venison for her family and the cowboys. Joseph loved dogs and there were usually from 15 to 20 canines whose job it was to chase badgers and coyotes. In the wintertime these four-legged companions also served as sled dogs.
Business was good. Gray owned several freight teams, sixteen or eighteen mules, four to six horses and a number of wagons. His teams hauled freight from Grass Valley to Virginia City and the Gold Hill Districts. Huge supplies were stored near the cabin for winter consumption.
Gray’s Station, as it existed at the time, encompassed the entirety of the present downtown district of Truckee. Most of the area was a fenced corral. Next to his cabin, Gray built a horse stable and blacksmith shop; the stable was located on the land that is now Truckee’s downtown post office.
Read the entire story of Joseph Gray’s legacy here