Bid to name Lake Tahoe cove for Mark Twain stirs debate
The Associated Press
RENO, Nev. and#8212; Before he became Mark Twain, a dirt poor Samuel Clemens chased a dream of being a timber baron from the shores of Lake Tahoe. But his hopes went up in smoke when he accidentally started a wildfire while preparing to cook dinner over a campfire.
Nearly 150 years later, Nevada historians are embracing new research they say pinpoints the location of his camp near Incline Village on the lake’s northeast shore with the help of a huge, table-like granite boulder that Twain used for meals and card games.
The Nevada State Board on Geographic Names is considering a request to name the site Sam Clemens Cove after the man who later assumed his pen name as a newspaper reporter in nearby Virginia City and created literary characters Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Nevada state Archivist Jeff Kintop, a board member, said the recognition is fitting because Twain penned perhaps the most eloquent and immortal descriptions of the lake and there is no geographic feature in the state named for him.
“It’s just a great way to remember a great author and a great man who found himself and his point of view in Nevada,” Kintop said.
But historical researcher David Antonucci of Homewood, Calif., on Lake Tahoe’s west shore, is unswayed by the research by retired U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Larry Schmidt of Minden. He places Twain’s camp at what is now Tahoe Vista, Calif. Antonucci, a civil engineer and surveyor, and Schmidt presented their findings in recent editions of the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
“It’s a situation where Nevada wants to claim that Mark Twain was there, which would make them like any chamber of commerce,” Antonucci said. “I guess they would have a hard time accepting that he camped in California.”
Kintop and other Nevada historians say the weight of the evidence supports Schmidt’s conclusion that Twain camped about one-third mile north of the present-day Thunderbird Lodge.
Twain and a companion staked a timber claim in September 1861, weeks after he arrived in Carson City with his brother, Orion, then secretary of Nevada Territory. That first trip to Lake Tahoe inspired Twain to write one of the most famous lines ever about the lake: “As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”
Twain, in his “Roughing It” and letters to family, only provides vague clues about the camp’s location and notes it was on the north shore. He says he walked about 11 miles from Carson City to the lake, then boated six miles to camp. About halfway on the boat ride, he mentions reaching a timber camp of a group headed by John Nye, brother of Nevada’s territorial governor at the time. Twain says that camp was about three miles from a sawmill.
Bob Stewart, a state geographic names board member, said the latter clues support Schmidt’s findings that Twain reached Lake Tahoe at Glenbrook on the east shore, then boated six miles north. He said 1862 and 1865 maps place the Nye timber claim about four miles north of Glenbrook, home of the lake’s only known sawmill in 1861.
Discovery of the round, table-like boulder on a sandy beach and an underwater boulder field 100 yards offshore from it bolster Schmidt’s claims, Stewart said. Twain wrote that the camp featured a “huge flat granite dining table” and underwater boulders over which he boated and discovered Lake Tahoe’s exceptional clarity.
“Schmidt is right on target. When he found that round , flat rock, that was the key,” Stewart said.
Schmidt called the boulder “capstone evidence” that should settle the debate. The rock is now submerged much of the year because a dam raised Lake Tahoe’s level by about 6 feet, he said.
“It was such a singular description that there wasn’t anything like that,” Schmidt said of the boulder. “It’s dead flat and large, and it fits with all the other evidence.”
Antonucci maintains Twain tramped to Incline Village on the lake’s north shore, then boated six miles west. While he acknowledges the lack of a nearby 1861 sawmill poses a problem for his claim, he says the Nevada site is on the east shore and not on a bay as Twain suggested.
Antonucci further notes that Twain contemporary George Wharton James wrote in his 1914 book “California Romantic and Beautiful” that the camp was “not far” from Carnelian Bay, just west of Tahoe Vista.
“I’m an engineer. I care about cold, hard facts,” Antonucci said. “The other site defies the factual analysis of Twain’s writings.”
The Nevada board on geographic names plans to consider the request at its May 11 meeting. It would require approval at two meetings before it’s forwarded to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which usually confirms state board decisions.
Some board members see humor in commemorating a place where Twain failed so spectacularly by setting the wildfire. He landed a job at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City after striking out as a miner.
“It’s funny in a way,” Kintop said. “But I can’t think of a reason why it shouldn’t be named for him. It’s the place where one of his stories really happened.”