#244 HARRY JOHANSON: LEGENDARY TAHOE LAWMAN

TAHOE NUGGET #244: HARRY JOHANSON: LEGENDARY TAHOE LAWMAN

It was a sad day for the small community of Tahoe City in the spring of 1932. Citizens dressed in black were in the process of burying the town’s first constable, the revered pioneer Robert Montgomery Watson.

Watson had arrived at Lake Tahoe in the 1870s and was appointed Tahoe City’s first constable in 1906. Constable Watson served his community until 1932 when he died of pneumonia at the age of 80.

When Harry E. Johanson rode into town on that fateful April day, he observed a somber funeral procession and Watson’s casket being drawn across the snow-covered meadow towards the Tahoe City Cemetery. Businesses were closed and school bells tolled.

 

First Tahoe City constable, Robert Montgomery Watson, was a noted horseman who helped re-open and mark the old Emigrant Road over Squaw Valley. Today it is known as the Western States Trail and site of a 100-mile-long horse race and also a world-famous ultra endurance foot race of similar length.

Born in Sweden in 1899, Johanson had demonstrated exceptional youthful athleticism by taking top honors in many skiing, swimming and long distance running competitions. He ended up winning a total of 84 medals and trophies, including a third place finish just behind future Finnish Olympic gold medalist Paavo Nurmi.

Johanson studied architectural drafting at the University of Upsala and after graduation he joined the Swedish Army Air Corp. In his late 30s, Harry decided to immigrate to the United States, but the quotas were full and instead he sailed for Canada. He took on a variety of jobs as he worked his way west, traveling the wilds of northern Canada to hunt, fish, and compete in sporting events like long distance swimming contests.

The versatile Swede eventually became an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. While serving three years with the “Mounties” he learned horsemanship and dog sledding, skills that would serve him well at Lake Tahoe.

Like his predecessor Constable Watson, Harry Johanson was an accomplished horeseman.

Finally Johanson received the long-awaited paperwork that allowed him to legally enter the United States and he briefly worked as a draftsman in the sweltering Imperial Valley of Southern California. It didn’t take long for the Scandinavian-born, back-country expert to decide that it was the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevada where he would feel most at home.

Johanson came to Lake Tahoe to take a caretaker position at a West Shore estate. He didn't expect to permanently settle in Tahoe City for long, but once he saw the stunning scenery decided to stay. Residents found the newcomer polite and well-versed in the skills necessary for travel and survival in a snowbound environment.

During Tahoe's long, snowy winters, dog sled was a better form of transportation than cross-country skiing. In addition, sled dogs could also pull the injured or ill to safety.

In late 1934, he received his citizenship and shortly after became Tahoe City’s second constable. It soon became apparent, however, that “Harry Jo” as locals liked to call him, would be much different than Robert Watson. Watson was known as a quiet, reserved family man; Johanson was a confirmed bachelor with a flamboyant personality that defined him as a confident, self-made man.

Despite a well-deserved reputation as a "ladies man," Harry Johanson always said he preferred dogs to women. Photo courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society.

Harry Jo covered his beat of 200 square miles by horseback in summer and dogsled in winter. Harry loved dogs. One of his favorite quotes was “A man’s best friend is his dog, better even than his wife.” Johanson kept up to 15 dogs at a time, most them malamutes, to pull his sled. Despite heavy winter storms that buried the region in deep snow, Harry made his rounds checking on year-round residents. Blessed with incredible endurance and an expert on cross-country skis, in 1937 he circled Lake Tahoe in one day.

During the 1930s, Hollywood directors filmed many of that era’s adventure movies at Lake Tahoe, including such epics as “Call of the Wild” (Harry stood in for Clark Gable), “White Fang,” and “Rose Marie.” 

Johanson's dog sled team always drew a crowd.

Harry Jo preferred the devoted companionship of his dogs over any commitment to a woman, but the handsome constable with wavy blond hair certainly enjoyed the “fairer sex.” His brief marriage to local schoolteacher Dorothy Zaharias produced a child, but Harry argued that he was not the father and she angrily left town with the baby. Afterward, Harry said, “The more I see of women, the more I love my dogs.”

Despite his well-publicized sentiments regarding marriage and women, he nevertheless flirted with many of the eligible females in Tahoe City, always wearing his dashing uniform and service revolver, even while drinking in the local taverns. Harry was a bit short in height and often wore lifters in his shoes, but he still charmed the ladies. Rumor has it that the beautiful actress, Jeanette MacDonald, star in “Rose Marie,” was one of his conquests.

 

The beautiful actress Jeanette MacDonald starred in the movie "Rose Marie" filmed at Lake Tahoe in 1936. Legend has it that Harry Johanson (who did stunt work for her co-star Nelson Eddy) successfully seduced MacDonald during her stay at the lake. 

Constable Johanson played an active role in regional law enforcement, not only capturing crooks (once nabbing a murder suspect in Tahoe City), but also in confiscating slot machines and shutting down local gambling operations. Johanson wore other hats too, simultaneously performing the duties of deputy sheriff, deputy tax collector, and deputy coroner.

Harry Johanson lived in the house that is now Wolfdale's Cusine Unique restaurant on the main street in Tahoe City. This structure was originally built in Glenbrook, Nevada (near South Lake Tahoe) and towed across the lake to Tahoe City. In July 2012 a few of Johanson's relatives visited the restaurant and owner/chef Douglas Dale gave them a tour of the building and showed them the jail Johanson designed.

Tahoe City was such a tiny community back then, when Harry bought his house, some locals complained about why he lived so far out of town.

 

As a trained architect, Johanson designed this "new" jail located on Tahoe City's Commons Beach. The old jail was a dank, concrete bunker built nearby.

Prisoners' view from Johanson's Tahoe City jail.

After 32 years of service to his community, Johanson resigned in 1967. More than 200 people attended his retirement dinner at Sunnyside Lodge. Harry Jo eventually moved to Reno and died in 1980, but was buried in Tahoe City’s Trails End Cemetery, which he had renovated in the 1950s.

 

Special thanks to my friend Mickey Daniels — California’s last constable; Captain of Big Mack II; and former roommate of Harry Johanson — for his stories and background information on Harry Jo.

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5 comments (Add your own)

1. Jeanne Huckaba wrote:
I'm so grateful to you for printing this story about Harry Johanson! I grew up at Tahoe City, and Harry and I shared the same birthday. Harry took the time to befriend and comfort a lonely little girl of 8 when we first met at the Trails End Cemetary. He told me he was the "cemetary caretaker", and showed me how and gave approval for me to water the plants on the graves whenever I visited. He pointed out his own plot, and when I asked why he already had his headstone, he said because he wanted to know where he would spend his final rest. That statement had such a profound effect on me, curbing any fear of cemetaries from then on. For years afterward I'd check Harry's plot, feeling relief and happiness to find he'd not yet taken this final rest.
My family moved across the country just before Harry retired, but I've often thought of this kind man through the years. Your fascinating Nugget, praising this wonderful man's life, was much appreciated! Jeanne Jones Huckaba

Thu, July 26, 2012 @ 7:22 PM

2. Mark wrote:
Thanks for checking in Jeanne and I'm glad that you enjoyed the profile of Harry Johanson. I'll send you a photo of the marker that Harry Jo put in the cemetery that said, "Please put me here."

Sat, July 28, 2012 @ 10:43 AM

3. Bonnie Nyberg wrote:
My "Uncle Harry" was a dynamic man and while you have printed a few wonderful memories about him there are far more that should be remembered. I am fortunate enough to have inherited the set of Reindeer chairs and the blue candle holders that decorated his living room and kitchen, after he moved out of the home he built with his own hands in 1932 and into a single-wide trailer in a smallish trailer park on Silverado Blvd. I will NEVER understand why he retired in that manner, but he was intent on studying the Viking Runes, which SHOULD have been on his headstone as he had intended, but his Swedish relatives were more intent on getting his affairs in order than they were on seeing that his wishes were kept.

There were many nights when I slept in the hard Swedish-style bed in the small bedroom just off his living room and next to the fireplace, under the poem called "The Strawberry Roan" that he had written out and framed. He was quite the artist, but not many people knew Uncle Harry as well as our family did from 1960 before the Winter Olympics to the day he died (his funeral was on my birthday January 5,1981. I KNEW that was going to be a bad year for me and I was not wrong!) He had died two weeks earlier in a rest home in Reno, NV from an undetected ruptured appendix. He slept so much towards the end of his life, no one knew he was even ill until it was too late.

I have so many memories of the man I called "Uncle Harry" they would fill a HUGE book. We had many adventures and he did many kind things for this Swedish girl from the age of seven, until his death when I was 27. He was the man who came to Canada from his home in Uppsala, Sweden where he became a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, before he made his way to the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe and met the young cowboy who became his best friend, a man named Bud Jones (and that is an entire story in itself). Yes, my "Uncle Harry" was a true Lake Tahoe Legend and I do have stories in MY biological hard drive that paint a very interesting picture of the man who truly is a Tahoe Legend, right up there with Dat-So-La-Lee, Bud Jones, the Watson family, and a few more. Of them all, I think the story of Harry and Bud ranks with one of the best of times in the history of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding areas...

Yes, he did restore the cemetery in Tahoe City to the best of his ability! He became frustrated, because while trying to identify the remains and mark the graves with the wood markers that he carved himself, when he hit water at three feet, he decided then and there that he wanted a grave that would remain dry, so he checked each plot until he found a nice dry spot. He DID like the view from the Scotsman's grave on the bluff above Tahoe City but he did not like the man, so he decided he would prefer a plot with a bit of a view in the cemetery he had spent so much time restoring. That plot was marked with a stone border and a plywood sign placed upside-down over the spot where he wished to be buried.

I was a scrawny little Swedish girl who he took under his wing. My parents were not rich, they were barely above poverty level, but Uncle Harry bought me my first pair of ice skates, he took my cat to the vet at 6:30 in the morning when my dear "Tubsy" got a fish hook caught in his tongue. We went in his black Ford with sirens blasting all the way to the vet's office. He was my hero.

Yes, Uncle Harry was dashing, yes he was a ladies man, but during the time my family and I spent with him, the man I called "Uncle Harry" was a humanitarian who most definitely loved animals more than people.

Maybe if I get a little time I will add a few nuggets for you.... My Fourth grade teacher, the late Lillian Farr would like that, I think. She had the biggest crush on him "back in the day!"

Bonnie Nyberg (former Lake Forest/Tahoe City/Squaw Valley resident)

Mon, October 8, 2012 @ 7:05 PM

4. Mark wrote:
Bonnie. Thank you so much for adding to our understanding of the kind-hearted man behind the badge.

Tue, October 9, 2012 @ 10:46 AM

5. Anna W. Simmons wrote:
Jeanne, I tried to find your address so I could write you a letter. I met your uncle in 1951. I was 21 that Summer. The telephone company sent about 15 employees to work in Tahoe City for the Summer. Two of my friends had gone there in 1949 and became acquainted with Harry Jo. They raved about this wonderful character. He had been so helpful to them and, of course, they thought he was very handsome. They said he would give a woman tourist a ticket and before he could go home, they would be waiting in his driveway. The day I arrived we were going up the steps of the office and someone said what do you want to do here.....I said, "Meet Harry Johanson... " They started laughing and said...There he is now and flagged him down. They said. "This little lady wants to meet you." That started a long time friendship. I went to Reno to see him when he was in the rest home. We went out to lunch and he said he wanted me to write his story. He said, Just the good stuff! We went to his storage as he wanted me to have one of his scrap books. It was missing from his storage along with several other things he was looking for. Harry gave me advise about some of the local characters. Told me who not to date. When I started dating a local Norwegian, he didn't approve. He admired him, but still there was that Norwegian/ Swedish thing. What wonderful memories your comments brought back to me.
Do you remember his reciting Dangerous Dan McGuire?

Fri, October 18, 2013 @ 3:04 PM

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