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Truckee on overdrive

TRUCKEE -- Guy in work clothes walks intoa locals bar, sits on a stool, orders a beer.His buddies, bent over their own drinksand watching college football, greet himwith familiar banter.

Bartender tells the men she totaled her car the othernight when it hit a patch of black ice and went off theinterstate. They're quick to offer tips on how to handlea sliding car.

Outside the bar, on the sidewalk that fronts theretail strip of Donner Pass Road known as CommercialRow, throngs of fashionably dressed folks window-shop and crowd into bustling restaurants andstores. Some of the women are attached by leashes tosmall, nervous dogs. Others flit in and out of boutiques,their men following in their wake. Here andthere, thirtysomething couples carrying snow skis ontheir shoulders stroll the sidewalk, seeming to knowtheir way around. The parking spaces are jammedwith ski-racked SUVs, dwarfing the occasional carand dented pickup.

That everyday scenario helps define what's beenhappening in the old railroad-lumber town ofTruckee, and what will likely continue to be its course- what many locals say is a downhill course.

Truckee used to be a side trip for Lake Tahoe- andReno-bound recreation-seekers, a "gateway to theSierra," but has become a hot travel destination offeringupscale shopping and dining. It's also become amecca of second-home ownership for those with thebucks to buy in to "the mountain lifestyle." Clearly,Truckee has usurped the cachet ofnearby Tahoe City, where the high rentfor commercial space has priced manybusinesses and their customers out ofthe market.

Through December, Truckee is adecked-out winter wonderland,snuggled in the granite and fir ofthe Sierra Nevada and brightened byholiday lights and decorations, strollingcarolers and fresh snowfall. Now is theideal window of time to visit this charming,history-steeped hamlet.

Truckee is also surrounded by expandingski resorts and multibilliondollardevelopments - including TahoeDonner and the Village at Squaw Valley,and others that are under constructionor on the drawing boards. Thegrowing real estate market (medianhome price: $435,000), populationgrowth and increased tourism promiseto drop an avalanche of traffic andvisitors on top of Truckee.

"We're not built to handle that," saidJerry Wood, head of the Truckee DowntownMerchants Association. "I hopewe can keep the rustic nature of thetown, which is its draw. There's nostopping growth, though - all you cando is channel and control it and try tokeep the flavor of the town."

So far, Truckee still has plenty offlavor and is tailor-made for a walkabout.Historic Downtown Truckee isthe place to be. Commercial Row fromSpring Street east to Bridge Street isjammed with restaurants and shops.From Spring Street west to the "roundabout"- a confusing circle of roads andyield signs that lead to and from Interstate80 - is the Brickelltown area,offering more storefronts but no realsidewalk; beware of speeding motorists.

Literally across the railroad tracksfrom Commercial Row is West RiverStreet, with its own smaller share ofstorefronts and historic structures. It'san ongoing renovation project.

Truckee is made up of historic buildings;stop by the Chamber of Commerce,housed in the train station, for awalking-tour map. For instance, oneentry says, "Rex Hotel Building: Thisbuilding was converted to a hotel withsteam-heated rooms in 1913. DuringProhibition, the lower floor was a speakeasycalled the Silver Mirror."

A bit of history

Truckee's history is one of industry and tumult. The short version: Emigrants who began passing through the area around 1844 took to homesteading, creating a town that became Gray's Toll Station in 1863, then Coburn's Station, then Truckee. The first lumber mill went up in 1867, and the next year the Central Pacific Railroad announced it would lay tracks from Sacramento to Utah, with Truckee as the main stop (freight and passenger trains still run regularly through town). Soon, thousands of Chinese laborers came to work on the engineering feat, which became part of the transcontinental railroad.

Truckee was also an ice-harvesting capital, with workers cutting blocks of ice from ponds along the Truckee River and Donner Lake and sending them by rail all over the state. That melted in the 1920s, when refrigeration came along.

Back up to the 1890s, when Truckee bloomed into a center of winter recreation, an industry that expanded over the decades to become the present network of ski resorts. Truckee was "discovered" when the world watched the 1960 Winter Olympics broadcast from Squaw Valley, 10 miles away.

Truckee has had the reputation as a rough-and-tumble town since its beginning. Saloons, gambling dens, dancehalls and the red-light district along Jibboom Street helped form its character, but the scene became problematic.

Tired of all the shootings and bar fights, in 1873 the town's "leading citizens" met in secret to form a vigilante group called the 601. It posted red silk ribbons along Main Street as warnings to the bad guys to leave town. Most did; some of those who didn't were gunned down. This "frontier justice" continued for a few years and included threats against Truckee's Chinese population. After a series of arson fires, Chinatown was burned down in 1878 and what was left of the Chinese community was relocated.

Because of its startling backdrop in winter and summer, the Truckee area became a center of moviemaking beginning around 1914. Among the titles filmed there: "The Gold Rush" (Charlie Chaplin), "The Call of the Wild" (Clark Gable), "The Iron Horse" (directed by John Ford), "Island in the Sky" (John Wayne), "Misery" (James Caan and Kathy Bates), "True Lies" (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis) and "Jack Frost" (Michael Keaton).

Talking about the future

Truckee's future now revolves around the issue of development versus environment. This topic is literally the talk of the town. It's a heated scenario of conservation groups versus developers, those who would maintain the status quo versus those who would change it, with lawsuits flying. It's a common story throughout small-town America.

So much is happening that the Sierra Sun newspaper went from publishing weekly to twice a week.

"Growth and development are front-page news almost every issue," said publisher Jody Poe. "The (future development) of the Martis Valley is a big concern. Because it borders Truckee, it directly affects our roads and traffic. Other issues (include) maintaining the quality of the Truckee River, the revitalization of downtown, the cost of housing, jet noise at the airport, the parking problem ...

"We still have a small-town community character, but we also have a dynamic influx of tourists and second-home owners," she said. "Change is always difficult, but it's inevitable."

One engine of change has been East West Partners, a development firm that came to town from Colorado about five years ago. It has a major project in the works at nearby Northstar ski resort, building 1,800 townhouses and condominiums and a 255-room hotel, according to Roger Lessman, managing partner for its Tahoe operations.

East West also is building the community of Gray's Crossing, with a members-only golf course opening in the spring, along with Old Greenwood, whose golf course (open to the public) debuted last fall.

"When we look at the kind of thing we wanted to do at Northstar, we decided we needed more access to golf," Lessman said. "We acquired Coyote Moon golf course and built courses at Old Greenwood and Gray's Crossing. We think they will serve our resort guests well."

He added, "Within a 3 1/2-hour drive of Truckee are 14 1/2 million people. A lot of them want to come to the mountains and enjoy themselves, and that's what we're gearing toward."

Brian Dinneen, who tends bar at the popular Bar of America, has been in town since 1977.

"I think the quality of life isn't what it was," he said. "A lot of people gave up better-paying jobs and came here to get away from the rat race. You could drive and never have to slow down. There wasn't congestion or gridlock. Now there's no place to park and there's a lot of projected growth. The truth is, the more people you bring to a relatively small area, the more problems you create."

Keith Nikkel, a 25-year resident and owner of the legendary Truckee Sourdough Company, has seen his share of change.

"When we first came here, there were probably 3,000 people in town and a lot of funky old businesses," he said. "You could have bought the whole street for a dollar. It would take an hour to walk from one end of town to the other because you'd have to stop and talk with everybody. But all that's changed."

Looking at the growth issue from a different perspective was operating manager Bob Yoder of the very successful Davis-Yoder Realty Group.

"We have more (house) buyers than supply, and that's not likely to change," he said. "That's happening all over the country, not just in our little area.

"About 67 percent of our target market is from the Bay Area and about 16 percent from Sacramento. Six years ago it was 2 percent from Sacramento. Our primary market is buyers of second homes."

What about the issue of affordable housing? Talk is that many locals can no longer afford to live in Truckee.

"For a resort community, Truckee has the biggest pool of affordable housing I've ever seen," Yoder said. "It's called Reno and it's only 35 minutes away. A lot of (area workers) chose to commute. They sold their houses here for $500,000, moved to Reno and bought bigger houses for $200,000 and put $300,000 in the bank. Nobody forced them to do that. "

What about those who gripe about the big changes?

"No matter where you go, everybody has a snapshot of what the place they live in should be," Yoder said. "Typically, it's the last people in who seem to be the most vocal about keeping it at that spot."

Sitting at a conference table in his offices, Yoder paused and added, "If you're looking for real estate up here, now is better than later."

Truckee by the Numbers

Location: In the Sierra Nevada 100 miles east of Sacramento, 12 miles north of Lake Tahoe, 40 miles west of Reno

Elevation: 5,980 feet

Size: 34 square miles in Nevada County

Population: 15,781 (in 2000) and growing fast

1863: The town was established as Gray's Toll Station and later renamed Coburn's Station.

1868: Coburn's Station was renamed Truckee after a sympathetic Paiute Indian chief who guided pioneers over the Sierra Pass.

1993: The town was incorporated.

Average winter temperature: 17 to 42 degrees, earning it a reputation as one of the coldest spots in the United States.

Median price of a single-family home: $435,000

Median price of a condominium: $372,826

Sources: "Fire & Ice: A Portrait of Truckee," edited by the Members of the Truckee Donner Historical Society; "Truckee: An Illustrated History of the Town and Its Surroundings" by Joanne Meschery; and "2004 Business Directory," compiled by the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce.