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.

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.

Truths and myths about Piper’s Opera House

Piper's Opera House is a historical landmark in Virginia City, Nev.

Piper’s Opera House is a famous historical landmark in Virginia City, Nev.

Some time ago, I appeared at a book signing at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno to feature my latest book, Chronicles of the Comstock. The other author featured at the event was Nevada historian and Esmeralda County District Attorney, Patty Cafferata. She was featuring one of her latest creations, The Heyday of Piper’s Opera House. We exchanged signed copies of our books and I eagerly read every page of her very well-researched work with interest.

In her book, Cafferata debunked many myths and misconceptions about Piper’s Opera House and its several reincarnations in Virginia City. As often happens with historical writing, folklore, oral history and the regurgitation of stories written by misinformed writers, sometimes become accepted as fact. After reading Patty’s book, I find I have inadvertently written articles about Piper’s Opera House that contained some of these mythical stories. I would be more concerned about this except I remember that Mark Twain knew that one should never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Not only that, but this article corrects every untruth I ever may have said about Piper’s Opera House.

In a previous article in the Comstock Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia City and outlying areas, I had repeated the claim by other authors that Adelina Patti and Madame Modjeska had performed at Piper’s. According to the research done by Patty Cafferata, there is no documentation to support the claim that either of these performers ever played at Piper’s.

Piper’s Opera House, long accepted as the cultural center of Virginia City, has undergone a complex evolution since its beginning in February of 1867. This was the year John Piper acquired ownership of the four-year-old Maguire’s Opera House at the southeast corner of D and Union Streets. The former owner had become bogged down in lawsuits and judgement debts. Piper submitted the lowest bid at a public auction to acquire the property. He immediately renamed the establishment Piper’s Opera House.

When John Piper purchased the theater, he set about to refurbish the place and book the finest entertainment that could be had in the Old West. Maguire’s had become well known as the entertainment and cultural center of town, and the improvements made by Piper enhanced this image. Unfortunately, on October 26, 1875, the Great Fire swept through Virginia City and burned Piper’s Opera House to the ground. This spelled the end of the first Piper’s Opera House.

Meanwhile, John Piper had already opened a saloon at the northwest corner of B and Union Streets. After the Great Fire when the first opera house burned down, he sought to find property on C street, but decided to build his new opera house on the lot occupied by his saloon just across from the back entrance of the International Hotel. A truly grand structure, the second Piper’s Opera House was completed and opened for business on January 28, 1878. Of the three establishments to bear this name, this one was the most fashionable and elaborate of all. It occupied the same lot as the building known today as Piper’s Opera House.

Little expense was spared in the construction and furnishing of the second establishment. It featured architectural amenities that were “state-of-the-art” for the time. Over 1,000 people could be seated in the mammoth auditorium. Sets of scenery, curtains and stage equipment were brought in from San Francisco. There was an outside balcony and the walls were decorated with paneling and painted frescos.

The expense of constructing and furnishing this grand palace of entertainment left John Piper in financial distress and in July of 1878, he declared bankruptcy. Despite this setback, Piper was able to reorganize and recover from his financial woes. The Comstock was already entering the inevitable decline of a frontier mining camp and the decreased population could not support an entertainment center of such opulence as it once did. John Mackay, one of the Big Four mining kings of the Comstock Era came to the rescue of Piper’s Opera House. John Mackay believed Virginia City should have a place such as Piper’s to be the cultural center of town. He never expected repayment for the financial assistance he provided.

On the morning of March 12, 1883, following a community dance at the ballroom, smoke was seen coming from the opera house. John Piper was rescued from his apartment inside but the magnificent second Piper’s Opera House burned to the ground. Fortunately, John Piper not only escaped unharmed, but since most money in those days was in coin, he recovered enough gold and silver coins from the charred safe to begin construction of the third (and present) Piper’s Opera House.

The opera house we see in Virginia City today was completed and opened on March 6, 1885. Virginia City and the Comstock were well into decline at that time. Unlike the opulent construction that went into the second Piper’s, the third reincarnation was built as cheaply as possible. The local residents still wanted the luxury of having a theater and community center, so they contributed considerable financing to help John Piper to rebuild the third and final Piper’s Opera House.

The third opera house had no fixed seating. Instead, it had chairs and benches that could be moved to provide room on the flat floor for dances and other community events. Since the floor was flat, the designers elevated the back of the stage so the performances could be more easily seen. The population and use of the structure continued to decline in the 1880’s. In 1890, a heavy snow storm caused part of the roof to collapse. John Piper worked tirelessly for 10 days to have the repairs completed in time for a scheduled play.

John Piper passed away in 1897. He would be pleased to know that 125 years after completion of the third Piper’s Opera House, the place is still being used for community events, weddings, meetings and enhancement of tourism. Some of the things claimed to have happened at Piper’s Opera House clearly did not happen in this building, but may have happened in the earlier places of the same name.