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.

Rededication of the Historic Asylum Cemetery

Nevada State Asylum memorial marker

This obelisk memorial now stands in remembrance of past patients of the Nevada State Asylum who were buried disrespectfully.

During the past several years, I have written several articles about the plight of the historic cemetery located at the old Nevada State Asylum in Sparks, Nevada. Many of Nevada’s old cemeteries have long existed in a state of neglect and abandonment. Most of them have little to mark the graves of the long departed pioneers but a few grave markers of wood or stone.

Unlike many of these historic cemeteries, the one at the old Nevada State asylum has not a single grave marker left to identify the graves of at least 767 and possibly as many as 1200 former residents of Nevada whose remains are buried there. During the years from 1882 to 1949, many of the patients of the old insane asylum who happened to die there were buried on the grounds of the hospital. What started out as a neat and orderly graveyard eventually became little more than a mass grave where the hundreds of deceased patients were buried in a haphazard fashion with some actually being buried one atop another. These burials were often done by other patients of the hospital.

Conditions deteriorated during the 1940s when a large pipeline was installed through the cemetery and several of the graves were ripped apart and the remains were later shoved back into the excavation to become backfill. As a small child, I was witness to this and other desecrations. When 21st Street was constructed in 1977, several graves were accidentally dug up and had to be reinterred inside the cemetery boundary. The City of Sparks constructed a kiddie park atop part of the cemetery and uncovered even more remains. Recent excavations on 21st Street in 2010 uncovered at least four sets of remains which were eventually released to me to be reinterred near the new memorial marker.

In my book, Chronicles of the Comstock, I tell about several former residents of the Comstock who were patients of the asylum and were buried in the infamous old cemetery. Perhaps most recognized of these was Mrs. Piper, wife of John Piper, who built and operated Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. Many of these people had become insane from causes related to the difficult living conditions experienced by the miners, mill workers and other people living on the Comstock.

On March 28, 1949, The Nevada State Legislature abolished the use of any cemeteries located on the Hospital Grounds. During 1947 through 1949, 18 patients had been buried in a small strip of land about 300’ west of the historic cemetery.  There was never any provision made by the State to improve the two cemeteries until an organization known as the Friends of the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery, led by Carolyn Mirich, approached the Nevada State Legislature. Due to the persistent efforts of this group during the 2009 Legislative session, Senator Bernice Mathews and Assemblywoman Smith sponsored SB 256. The bill was passed and signed into law by Governor Gibbons on May 22, 2009.

As a result of this legislation, the hospital cemetery achieved the status as a historic cemetery. The Nevada State Public Works Board prepared plans and several contracts were awarded to make major improvements to the long-neglected cemetery.

The entire perimeter of the historic cemetery was fenced off with a substantial black iron fence. The playground park that the City of Sparks had built was dismantled and turned into a memorial park. A concrete plaza with sidewalks and new lawn areas was built. A 9’ tall granite obelisk memorial marker was installed with bronze plaques on each of the four sides. The plaques contain the names of 767 people known to be buried in the cemetery. This single marker is the only marker to memorialize the hundreds of people buried there. There is evidence there may be up to 400 others whose names remain unknown.

Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction was employed to exhume the 18 graves buried west of the main cemetery and reinter them near the memorial plaza. Unfortunately, the name plates on these graves had been placed some time after the burials were made. The archaeologist we employed to help identify the remains was unable to positively identify the remains as those of the persons named on the markers. I was also given four sets of unidentified remains that had been accidentally dug up during recent reconstruction of 21st Street. All the remains were placed in new caskets with liners and reinterred in the area surrounding the plaza and grave markers were placed over them. All the work authorized by the legislation has now been completed.

A rededication ceremony was held at the Historic Cemetery at Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services on January 21, 2011.  After many years of destruction and neglect, the hundreds of Nevada citizens buried there will now receive the respect and memorialization they deserve.

This article was originally published in The Comstock Chronicle

Related:

The Historic Cemetery Memorial Marker

Relocating a Nevada Cemetery 

Horrible Childhood Memories