“I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords,” said Mark Twain upon his first sight of the “big water” on a summer day in 1863. Although he lived in Virginia City, Nevada and wrote for the Territorial Enterprise, he’d decided to try harvesting timber from the lake’s luxuriant wooded shores for the Comstock Lode mines.
“It was a vast oval,” he later wrote in Innocents Abroad, “…80 or 100 miles in traveling around it.”
Actually, the drive around the Tahoe shoreline is 71 miles, 42 belonging to California, 29 to Nevada. and so spectacular it should be on everybody’s Bucket List. The breathtaking clarity of the lake water exceeds depth of 75 feet! Although this is down from 100 feet in the late 1960’s, it has held stable since 2001. In fact, Mark Twain blamed the clear water for his failures at fishing, saying if he could see fish 80 feet down, they surely could see him as well and refuse to be caught.
The lake holds enough water , 39 trillion gallons, to cover entire California fourteen inches deep. The amount of water evaporating every 24 hours could supply Los Angeles with its daily demand for water!
And some people get to live here! Today Lake Tahoe is a mix of residents and tourists, but the first humans here were the Washoe. For centuries, the tribe migrated here from Nevada’s Carson Valley every summer to seek cooler temperatures and abundant fish and game, and hold religious ceremonies at the lake sacred to them. They named the lake, Da-ow-a-ga, meaning “edge of the lake.” The basketry of the Washoe women is especially famed today.
In 1844, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson recorded the first non-native “sightings.” Mispronouncing the Washoe name, they called the lake “Tahoe.” It was officially named Tahoe in 1945 after names such as Lake Bonpland and Bigler (after California’s third governor) failed to stick. Although Kit Carson went on in 1848 to carve the nearby Carson Pass known then as the Mormon-Emigrant Trail, the Tahoe area was virtually ignored until the discovery of silver in Virginia City in 1859.
Thus began the heartbreaking deforestation of this lush land from 1860-1880’s, as timber was relentlessly cut to build the mines of the Comstock and the boomtowns, trestles and snowsheds of the Central Pacific Railroad. A logging empire established on the east shore clear-cut the entire shoreline, and the natural resources are still recovering. I’m happy that Twain only spent a few half-hearted weeks working a timber claim.
In 1860, the lake had its first permanent resident. General William Phipps claimed 160 acres in today’s Sugar Pine Point and built a humble cabin. During his twelve years at the lake, he built a second cabin, a pier and a boathouse while successfully protecting his homestead from loggers. His homestead is preserved today, and does it ever have a room with a view.
On this same plot at Sugar Pine in 1903, banker Isias Hellman built a vacation cabin, ahem—a spectacular three-story mansion with Phipps’s same view. Sadly, sugar pines are scarce in the basin today, still recovering from the deforestation of more than a century ago. Florence Ehrman inherited her father’s estate in 1920, her heirs selling it to the State of California in 1965, which offers daily tours.
Not far away at Emerald Bay sits Fannette Island, the lake’s only island, overlooked by Vikingsholm Castle. A castle? Vikings? Indeed. In 1928, the bay so reminded Mrs. Lora J. Knight of Norwegian fjords that she instructed a Scandinavian architect to build her a vacation home without chopping down or injuring any of her land’s natural trees. The resulting structure was built with the same methods and details of a Norse fortress circa 800 A.D. and includes sod roofs, like those in Scandinavia which fed livestock in the wintertime. For her guests, Mrs. Knight built a special “tea house” on Fannette Island. Look to the top of the island in the photo to see it.
Now, I’ve seen such historic, iconic waters as Lake Champlain, Walden Pond, the Mississippi, the big Muddy, the Columbia, and others, but nothing, nowhere, does it for me the way Lake Tahoe does. Since it’s one of my favorite places ever, and Twain is one of my favorite authors, I can’t help but quote him again because he said it best. “I have such a high admiration for it (Tahoe) and such a world of pleasant recollections of it, that it is very nearly impossible for me to speak of lakes and not mention it.”
How lucky were Ben Cartwright and the boys to live around here. Sadly, the ranch at the Incline area was closed to tourists in 2004 after a 37-year ride.
How about you? Have you ever visited Lake Tahoe? What other bodies of water are special to you? Do you fish? Have a mountain home? Go river rafting?
(P.s. All the travel brochures warn that it can snow any time at Lake Tahoe. Believe it. Here’s me in late May. )