A look back at Mark Twain’s adventures — and tomfoolery — at Lake Tahoe
Special to the Bonanza
This story first appeared in the 2014-15 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, a product of the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. The magazine is available for free throughout the Lake Tahoe and Truckee region. You can also view a digital version here.
LAKE TAHOE, Nev. — The Truckee-Tahoe region can boast some of the most dramatic historical events in the Far West, including the opening of the California Trail, the Donner Party, and the building of the transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass.
Another notable event was the surprising transformation of Sam Clemens, a young, ex-river boat pilot from Missouri, who found his true calling as Mark Twain, as he began his career as one of America’s most revered writers and humorists.
After failing to find riches in the rough 1860s mining camps of Nevada Territory, Samuel Langhorne Clemens finally found redemption in a Virginia City saloon as a raucous newspaper writer who adopted the pen name Mark Twain.
Sam Clemens’ arrival in the West was inauspicious as he lurched stiffly out of a cramped stagecoach and squinted into the unrelenting desert sun. It was August 14, 1861. The 25-year-old Clemens and his older brother, Orion, had just traveled nearly 2,000 miles stuffed into the cramped interior of a Concord stagecoach.
It had been a grueling three-week trip of rough road, bad food and alkali dust. After what seemed like an eternity, the two young men finally arrived in Carson City, the capital of Nevada Territory. Orion had made the trip so that he could assume his duties as the newly appointed secretary to the Nevada territorial governor.
Orion’s position was commissioned by a recently elected President Abraham Lincoln. His brother Sam had accompanied him for the adventure and to avoid the Civil War conflict.
Exhausted and thirsty, the brothers slapped the dust from their clothes and strolled toward the nearest saloon. Born and raised in Missouri, Clemens was shocked by the barrenness of the Great Basin.
Shortly after his arrival, Sam wrote his mother back in Missouri: “It never rains here, and the dew never falls. No flowers grow here, and no green thing gladdens the eye. The birds that fly over the land carry their provisions with them. Only the crow and the raven tarry with us.”
‘‘THE FAIREST PICTURE’
Clemens wasn’t impressed with the western landscape, but a short trip to beautiful Lake Tahoe quickly changed his mind. Clemens had heard of the majestic pine forests surrounding the lake, so he and John Kinney, a young man from Cincinnati, decided to stake a timber claim there.
They packed their supplies over the Carson Range and down into the Tahoe Basin. Their first glimpse of the lake overwhelmed them. Clemens described Lake Tahoe as “a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the seas, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft a full three thousand feet higher still!
“It is a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling around it. 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 world affords.”
After supper that night, the boys broke out their pipes. In his book “Roughing It,” Twain wrote: “As the darkness closed down and the stars came out and spangled the great mirrors with jewels, we smoked meditatively in the solemn hush and forgot our troubles and pains.”
But the mellow experience was lost when the two tenderfoots accidentally started a fast-moving fire which burned through underbrush as it roared upslope.
Exactly where Clemens and Kinney set up their claim has been a matter of controversy, with California and Nevada researchers split on whether it was located on Tahoe’s East Shore or on the North Shore near Carnelian Bay.
In 2013 this ongoing dispute delayed approval by the Nevada Board of Geographic Names to designate a small beach on Nevada’s east shore “Clemens’ Cove.” The controversy was rendered moot in May 2014 when representatives of the Washoe Indian Tribe protested against naming anything after Mark Twain in the Tahoe Basin.
The tribe is angry at perceived Indian racism by Twain in his contemporary writings, and the Board permanently turned down the request for a Clemens Cove.
Regardless, Clemens found the Tahoe Basin exceptionally beautiful. He wrote, “I’ll build a county seat there one of these days that will make the Devil’s mouth water if he ever visits the earth.”
In the decades ahead, Clemens, as Mark Twain, would travel the world, visiting its most famous sights, but he always considered Tahoe the most beautiful lake of all, the “masterpiece of the universe.”
FROM MINING TO NEWSPAPERS
It wasn’t long before the Clemens brothers came down with gold fever. Stories of instant wealth were told over beer every night in the saloons. Freight wagons laden with rich ore, sometimes garnished with bricks of pure gold and silver, constantly rumbled down the Commercial Row in Carson City.
The brothers were soon speculating, purchasing “feet” in various claims around the region. Most of the mining claims, however, were worthless. These were difficult times for the man who would later become one of America’s most celebrated writers.
Sam Clemens had been a prestigious and well-paid Mississippi River pilot, earning $250 a month before he came west. Now his money was gone and it seemed that his chance to strike it rich had eluded him.
In “Roughing It,” Twain complained, “We were stark mad with excitement … drunk with happiness … smothered under mountains of prospective wealth … arrogantly compassionate toward the plodding millions who knew not our marvelous canyon … but our credit was not good at the grocers.”
Later Twain wrote that “a mine is nothing but a hole in the ground, owned by a liar.”
Sam Clemens should have been wielding a quill pen, not a miner’s pick, but things were about to change.
Cooped up in his cabin at Aurora during the spring 1862, Clemens wrote several burlesque sketches for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City. They were short, humorous stories about hard-luck miners, which Sam penned under the pseudonym “Josh.”
The sketches were funny and fit perfectly with the tone of humor found on the Comstock and Sam was hired for $25 per week. After his arrival in Virginia City, Clemens teamed up with a young Enterprise staff reporter named William Wright, who wrote under the pseudonym Dan De Quille.
De Quille penned serious political and mining news, but his real talent lay in writing ironic sketches and humorous hoaxes. The two young writers quickly became friends and roommates. Along with De Quille, editors Joe Goodman and Rollin Daggett helped Sam perfect his writing craft and story development; skills that he would employ to great success.
Writing under the pen name Mark Twain, he became the most popular writer on the Comstock. When questioned as to his writing style, he later stated, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
The newspaper staff regularly enjoyed restorative libations at John Piper’s Corner Saloon in Virginia City. Although the term “mark twain” is a riverboat pilot term to indicate a safe water depth of two fathoms, Nevadans like to point out that when Clemens sported for a drinking buddy, he would tell the bartender to “mark twain” on the chalkboard, thereby adding two drinks to his account.
The name stuck. Fodder for Twain’s stories was everywhere. Hordes of American and foreign miners, gamblers, toughs and prostitutes made for an interesting social dynamic. The principle industries were hard-rock mining, boisterous saloons and shady brothels.
The colorful excitement and wild recklessness suited Clemens fine. His years as a riverboat pilot had toughened him and the Comstock’s robust lifestyle fed his spirit.
A GRANDIOSE EXIT
The end of Mark Twain’s career in Nevada came suddenly. The American Civil War was raging, and like most of communities, emotions on the Comstock were running at a fever pitch.
In May 1864, Enterprise editor Joe Goodman was away and Twain was acting as editor. Twain’s ego had grown mightily since his miserable mining days, and his over-the-top antics had already nearly involved him in two duels with adversaries.
This time, Twain accused the staff of the rival Virginia Daily Union newspaper of failing to honor their pledge in donating money to the Sanitary Commission. Money collected by the Commission was earmarked for medical supplies for wounded Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War.
Twain’s attack hit a raw nerve. In retaliation to that accusation, James Laird, editor of the Union, called Twain a “vulgar liar.” Twain retorted, “I denounce Laird as an unmitigated liar.” He then sent a personal note to Laird: “If you do not wish yourself posted as a coward, you will at once accept my peremptory challenge.”
Suddenly, the newsprint warfare had escalated into the challenge of a duel, with loaded pistols, not empty words. Reacting to the spat under the heading, “The Duello in Virginia,” the editor of the San Francisco Morning Call wrote, “It is well, perhaps, that only ink instead of blood has been shed in this affair, but it would have appeared better if neither had been spilt. The day has gone by when duels can give any man credit for bravery or honor, wisdom or truth.”
In the meantime, Twain’s unfettered pen had also stirred the ire of Carson City’s women society. Twain had alleged that the money the women raised for wounded Union soldiers was instead being sent to the St. Louis Exposition.
The women were furious at his irresponsible remarks and called them a “tissue of falsehoods, made for malicious purposes.” Mark Twain was now in serious trouble in both Virginia and Carson cities.
Stories of a gunfight between Twain and his editorial adversary on the Virginia City Union still persist today, but in reality, the Laird-Twain duel never materialized. Nevada had recently passed a law making it a felony to send or accept a challenge to a duel.
Threatened with a possible arrest, Twain quietly stole away from Nevada Territory and made his way to San Francisco. In March 1866, Twain sailed for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and upon his return, he became an established literary figure and celebrity lecturer. When Twain revisited his old Comstock stomping grounds in November 1866, thousands came to hear his entertaining lectures.
After his last lecture in Gold Hill, Mark and his agent, Dennis McCarthy, walked back to Virginia City. On the way, they were robbed by five highwaymen. The bandits stole $125 and Twain’s favorite gold watch, which was worth about $300.
Twain was livid, but he put an advertisement in the morning paper offering to negotiate for the watch. He received no response. Two days later, Mark Twain boarded the Pioneer Stage for his return to San Francisco via the Donner Lake route.
Just as the stage was about to leave, however, a small package was handed to the sullen celebrity. In it he found his watch and money. He also discovered the five masks that the “highwaymen” had worn that night. And then the robbers themselves revealed their identities by shaking Twain’s hand.
They were old friends from the Virginia City days, but Mark Twain, the prankster, could not take the joke, and everyone could hear him yelling profanities as the stagecoach rolled out of sight.
Such was Mark Twain’s exit from the Silver State.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog: tahoenuggets.com.