Mark Twain admits to setting a wildland fire at Lake Tahoe

lake tahoe beach and mountains

Lake Tahoe used to be known as Lake Bigler. Mark Twain preferred the name “Lake Bigler.”

When young Samuel Clemens first came to the Nevada Territory in 1861, he thought he would be given an easy office job assisting his brother, Orion, who had been named by President Lincoln to be the first and only Territorial Secretary for Nevada. When young Sam learned there was no money available to pay an assistant for his brother, he decided to search for some other means of earning an easy living. He noticed that there was a growing demand for lumber and firewood due to the  booming mining industry in the region. In September, 1861, Sam and a friend named John Kinney decided to hike to Lake Tahoe to stake out a timber claim in hopes of becoming timber barons.

In 1874, after Sam became famous as Mark Twain, he wrote his account of this adventure in Roughing It. At the time of Twain’s lumber baron venture, Lake Tahoe was known as Lake Bigler. Very few of the landmarks Twain described in the book had names we would recognize today. There were only descriptions of topographic features and some highly exaggerated estimations of mountain elevations. Also, Twain was writing from memory about things that had happened thirteen years previously.

Several subsequent researchers have attempted to determine the route taken by Twain and Kinney to the lumber camp and determine its exact location. As usually happens with Twain’s writing, historical accuracy is often sacrificed for humor and the creation of an interesting story. Having worked for over eight years at Glenbrook and navigated my own boat along the east and north shores of Lake Tahoe, I feel I can easily trace the route taken and where the camp was located by the descriptions given in the Roughing It account. My interpretation places the camp on the east shore of the lake, and other authors surmise it was on the north shore. Regardless, the story remains basically the same.

It appears to me that the pair hiked up a route that followed close to modern U.S. Hwy. 50 over Spooner Summit and down to the Glenbrook Area. When they reached the lakeshore, they found an abandoned skiff and used it to row around what is now known as Deadman Point to a place known as Skunk Harbor, a distance of three miles. There they discovered the timber claim that had been staked out by Territorial Governor James Nye and his brother, John. Twain and Kinney knew of these men and their associates and referred to them as “The Irish Brigade.”

The wannabe timber barons spent the night at the Nye camp and helped themselves to some supplies they found stashed away in storage. They then rowed the skiff another three miles north to a place now known as Secret Harbor and set up a camp of their own. Twain and Kinney set about marking the perimeter of an area of 300 acres and pinning “Notices” on trees. They cut down six trees and let them fall along the boundary to indicate the extent of the claim. Since law required a cabin be built, they constructed a brush lean-to as a shelter.

In Twain’s own words, he describes how he avoided any strenuous activity, delegating the rowing of the skiff and anything requiring any effort to Kinney. The remainder of their stay at the camp was spent loafing, playing cards, fishing and enjoying the serene beauty of Lake Tahoe. They floated in the skiff and admired the fishes and underwater features through the pristine crystal clear waters that made them feel as if they were floating in a balloon. Their most strenuous activities involved smoking their pipes, reading dog-eared novels and occasionally rowing over to the camp of the Irish Brigade to raid their cache of supplies.

Upon return from one of their “shopping” trips, Mark Twain built a fire for their evening meal while John carried the provisions to the lean-to house. Mark went back to the skiff to fetch the frying pan when John shouted that the fire had escaped the fire pit into the dry pine needles and brush. Within a few minutes the escaping camp fire consumed the lean-to house, the provisions and all the furnishings of their beautiful lakeside home. It raged through the brush, slash and pine needles and began consuming some of the huge old dead standing trees.

The pair watched helplessly as the fire raged on over the mountains and from one ridge to another in crimson spirals as far as the eye could see. They were spellbound by the spectacle and the roaring, crackling inferno they were witnessing. From a position alongside the skiff, they marveled at the beauty of the flames and the “bewildering richness about it that enchanted the eye and held it with stronger fascination.”

And so, after just two or three weeks of “working their claim” on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the timber baron phase of Twain’s experience in Nevada Territory came to a flaming end. The pair never sold a single log and they never even filed the timber claim at the recorder’s office. Twain and Kinney returned to Carson City the next day after eating up the rest of the provisions from the stash of the Irish Brigade. Upon their return, Twain told the Brigade about raiding their supplies and asked forgiveness. It was granted, only upon payment of damages.

Since operating a logging and timber operation did not seem to be a vocation suited to Twain’s aptitude, he contemplated something more appropriate, such as prospecting, for example. Sooner or later, he would find his niche in the History of the Comstock and America.

Dennis to give April 7 lecture at Gold Hill Hotel

Dennis Cassinelli book-signingDennis Cassinelli, award-winning Nevada historian and author, will present a lecture at the Gold Hill Hotel on Thursday, April 7.

Topics of discussion will include Dayton’s petrified forest that was mentioned by Mark Twain in Chapter 26 of Roughing It. Samples of this petrified wood, including black pieces that Twain believed were coal, will be shown.

Another topic will be the discovery of the oldest petroglyphs (14,000 years) ever found in the Americas discovered at Winnemucca Lake. Dennis has created many pieces of petroglyph yard art which will be on display and offered for sale.

For this event, all of the books written by Dennis Cassinelli will be signed and offered for less than half price. These include Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, Uncovering Archaeology, Legends of Spirit Cave and Chronicles of the Comstock.

Exterior of Gold Hill Hotel

The Gold Hill Hotel

Details:

What: Petroglyphs & The Dayton Petrified Forest

Where: Gold Hill Hotel, 1540 Main Street, Gold Hill, NV

When: Thursday, April 7. Lecture takes place from 7 – 9 p.m. (Restaurant and bar open at 4 p.m.)

Cost: $25 dinner and lecture; $10 lecture only

For more information, please visit the Gold Hill Hotel’s events page. Be sure to call early for room reservations.

Celebrating Dayton Valley Days 2015

My awesome brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, has been helping me run my booth at the 2015 Dayton Valley Days event.

My awesome brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, has been helping me run my booth at the 2015 Dayton Valley Days event.

I reserved a booth in this year’s Dayton Valley Days event to sell my books and imitation petroglyphs. It’s been great getting to meet so many interesting people. The turnout this year has been amazing, and there are lots of food and craft vendors to visit. The downtown Dayton atmosphere offers an historic background as attendees explore the various booths.

I’m located across the street from the old high school on Pike Street.

The event continues tomorrow, so if you haven’t yet, come on by! Lots to see and do!

I’ll be at Dayton Valley Days Sept. 19-20

Rock Art 5Come see me at the 2015 Dayton Valley Days celebration in historical downtown Dayton, Nevada.

I’ll have a booth, and I’ll be selling copies of my books, as well as my own handmade petroglyphs. The petroglyphs make terrific rock art for your yard, and they’re ideal conversation-starters.

My family and I attend Dayton Valley Days nearly every year, and it’ll be exciting to participate in this year’s event. I hope you can come out to meet me and the other vendors, and I look forward to seeing you there!

Dayton’s petrified forest

My Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, an Italian emigrant, arrived in Dayton, Nevada in the late 1880s after working his way across America as a cowboy. Within a few years, he and his cousin, Bert, acquired a ranch along the Carson River. There, he and his wife Theresa raised a family of 12 children, one of whom was my Grandfather, Pete.

Roughing It

When I was a boy working on Pete’s ranch in Sparks years later, he told me about a petrified forest with many logs of petrified wood he had seen near the ranch in Dayton where he had grown up and went to school in the early 1900s.

My invaluable research assistant and brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, who recently moved to Dayton with my lovely sister, Rae, recently turned me on to something that Mark Twain wrote in Chapter 26 of his classic book, Roughing It. It seems that when describing some of the mineral resources of the Silver State, Twain remarked “Lately evidences of bituminous coal have been detected. My theory has ever been that coal is a ligneous formation” (Ligneous meaning resembling wood).

Twain was skeptical about the idea of coal existing in Nevada until he spoke to a Captain Burch on the subject and was told that in the region of Dayton, Burch had seen petrified trees the length of two hundred feet. This established the fact that huge forests once existed in this remote area. This firmed up in Twain’s mind that coal may also actually exist in Nevada.

Now, let’s jump forward to modern times. My family and I enjoy hiking, rock hunting and exploring the many hiking trails around the region. Occasionally, we find a few pieces of petrified wood but nothing like the two hundred foot trees described in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

We did find some long trenches obviously dug over 100 years ago that were surrounded by a few small pieces of petrified wood. This is an indication that the petrified forest described to me by my grandfather and written about by Mark Twain did actually exist. All the huge logs obviously have been taken away and we have no idea who took them or where they ever ended up.

Amazingly, some of the pieces we have found are black and have the appearance of coal, except they have the wood grain typical of petrified wood. Our theory has always been that the black petrified wood was caused by the trees being in some ancient forest fires or perhaps knocked down during a volcanic eruption millions of years ago and being covered with hot volcanic ash. This would have turned the wood black like charcoal and buried it until it became petrified.

This year, Dayton Valley Days will be celebrated in downtown Dayton on September 19th and 20th. I have signed up to have a booth at the celebration where I will have samples of the beautiful petrified wood and even the amazing black coal – like wood described by Mark Twain. We will have these items offered for sale in addition to a selection of rock art collectible petroglyph replicas that make interesting yard art that will last for centuries.

Indian arrow straightener found 
at construction site

Arrow Shaft Straightening Stone Native American stone tools

Arrow Shaft Straightening Stone, on display at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center.

Many, many years ago, I was looking at home lots being cleared in a new residential area along the Carson River southeast of Carson City. As I walked through the sagebrush across a rather steep slope, I noticed a smooth, fist-sized cobble on the ground that seemed to be out of place for the area when compared to the rough, broken natural stones that littered the hillside. Being somewhat of a rockhound and an amateur archaeologist, I picked up the stone and examined it more closely. I immediately recognized that the rock had been worked by the hands of man, and at first I thought it was a mano.

For those of you who may not know, a mano is a flat, smooth stone used by the American Indians with a larger flat or slightly concave stone for the purpose of grinding or hulling nuts, seeds or grain.

Upon closer examination, however, I determined that the stone was not the common mano, which really is quite abundant in the fields and places where prehistoric Indians were known to have lived. This stone differed from a mano in several distinct ways. These differences enabled me to identify the item as an arrow-shaft straightener rather than a common mano.

Carved or worn into the edge of the stone was a distinct groove that was highly polished. The groove was about 1/4” wide and 3” long. The stone was flat, and both sides were blackened from having been heated in a fire. During the process of making arrows, the wooden shaft must be perfectly straight in order for the arrow to fly straight and true for the desired accuracy. This was accomplished by using a heated stone to rub along the arrow shaft to work out the natural irregularities in the wood. The user held the hot stone with a piece of leather and rubbed it back and forth on the convex side until the arrow became straight. The hot stone also helped to smooth and polish the arrow shaft.

I since have seen other specimens of shaft straighteners from different areas around Carson City, Virginia City and Como almost identical to the specimen I found. The straightener obviously had been a tool that was widely used by the local Indians. This is just one example of the rescue of an unusual artifact from a construction site before it was buried by heavy equipment or hauled away during construction. I donated this specimen to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada, where it remains on display with hundreds of other Indian artifacts in the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection.

I have written a book about this and the other artifacts in the collection. The title is Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians. It is available at the Mark Twain Bookstore and the Gold Hill Hotel bookstore. There is a delightfully humorous story in the last chapter that tells how the local Indians made their arrows, including how the arrow straighteners were used. The book contains hundreds of illustrations and descriptions of arrowheads, tools and other artifacts found in western Nevada. Every spring, I do a lecture about prehistoric Nevada at the Gold Hill Hotel, where I display and discuss this and many other Great Basin Indian artifacts. I hope to see you there.