Opinion: A look at the history behind Homewood’s ‘4th of July Creek’
June 9, 2016
I was writing my college admissions essay in the fall of 1959. Subject and content: Unknown. My father was at the dining room table, too, doing the paperwork to buy three tumble-down old cabins on a couple of acres at Homewood, Lake Tahoe, near 4th of July Creek, for $12,000. We both got what we wanted.
A few years later, early one summer morning, I found my fraternity brother, TK, also from Sacramento, sleeping down on the beach where 4th of July Creek empties into Lake Tahoe. He looked quite stylish in someone else's sandy, florid tropical shirt but was missing a shoe.
The night before, when we went into the Cal Neva Casino on the lake just over the Nevada border, Frank Sinatra looked lonely at the bar, and without his toupee. We took stools on either side of him. An enormous, shiny and grotesque stuffed Lahontan Cutthroat trout was mounted on the wall over his head.
"Buy you a drink, Frankie?" TK asked. Pause. Cigarette puff. "No thanks, pallie, I own the joint." Soon these two new pals disappeared to shoot craps, and I headed for the nickel slot machines and eventually back to the cabin. I remember TK and me washing our faces in the Creek that next morning.
It's not officially named 4th of July Creek. In fact, it's not on any maps and doesn't count as one of Tahoe's 63 tributaries. It's snow-fed, rocky and contorted — an alder-choked little thing that drains a small valley. It used to roar until the 4th of July, then it dried up except for a few pools … hence the local name. It's been dry by mid-May these last five years, owing to the lack of snow.
Here's how it is said the area was developed. In 1868, a squatter plugged a Washoe tribesman for setting a Cutthroat trap on a nearby creek. The squatter, fearing the tribe's revenge, quickly disposed of his nearly 400 acres of lake frontage and forest, including the 4th of July drainage, to a Sacramento speculator for $8 an acre, who a few years later tried to sell lakefront lots in Homewood for $50 apiece, or $.50 a frontage foot (these lots now sell for multiple millions; just try to find one).
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But none sold then, so he gave them away to anyone who would build "a substantial house." This considerably stimulated interest. No roads yet, but in 1881 The Governor Stanford, an elegant steamer out of Tahoe City, arrived whistling grandly at the wharf of one palatial lakeside estate near 4th of July Creek. The land rush was on.
Faint local legend has it that our funky little buildings were long ago used as the summer camp for young ladies at a private K-9 school in the Bay Area.
Curious, I spent hours in the Placer County recorder's office trying to establish a title chain of ownership of our property. Back and back I went through the microfiche, dead-ending in the 1920s with a deed to Elizabeth Place ("a femme sole"). Later, in the 1927 Berkeley phone directory, I found a display ad for "Claremont Heights Out-of-Door School" in Berkeley, listing Miss Elizabeth Place, Principal.
It suggested "Country Life and Sports … and swimming … and outdoor sleeping porches." Our place, it happens, had been their summer camp for about 20 years until the War, and I picture the girls skipping over to 4th of July in the afternoon in their denim overalls for picnics and games and wading with squeals in the freezing snow water and maybe watching the last of the Lahontan Cutthroat trout spawning.
Which they might have done there in those days. But not any more. Once thick in the lake, they were extinct by 1931. Sportsmen and commercial fishermen took tremendous "harvests," for mining camps and local towns and San Francisco restaurants, even to Chicago.
There were other causes for their decline, but there may have been as many as 500 tons caught and shipped every year between 1860 and 1920. Lots of big, limitless fish, delicate of taste, so easily caught. There have been failed attempts at reintroduction.
I walk over to the Creek often in the summer. I walk the dry bed, look at the rocks. My old dog Woody, sitting up in the back of my Jeep like some addled potentate, came with me one day to gather a few stones for the terraces I'm building around the old cabins.
Mostly we walk over at night. Starscapes. The dogs are restless, sniffing around at the remains of the wild … that rogue bear that breaks into cabins, those song-doggies — the coyotes — with dens up the Creek, just now starting their eerie chorus. All our mingled destinies.
I listen for the rumor of Cutthroats finning up to spawn once again in 4th of July Creek.
Ned Engle is a Marin County, Calif., resident who owns a second home in Homewood and has spent his summers at Lake Tahoe since the mid-1950s. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.