Pine Nuts: Stories are best by the fire |

Pine Nuts: Stories are best by the fire

McAvoy Layne

In our 21st century the art of storytelling is being crowded out by the culture of tweeting and texting, and so we lose a little living history in the bargain. I work in the schools with secondary students mostly, but every now and again I’ll schedule a middle school to keep from getting soft. That’s when I come home on a gurney.

So it was with great anticipation that I agreed to surprise some middle school Montessori kids who would be gathered around a fire at Fallen Leaf Lake on a cool, September evening.

They weren’t expecting the Ghost of Mark Twain, and, as I wandered out of the woods in a white suit, they stared as if seeing an apparition. It’s interesting how a ghost can command more attention than a living person every time, and nothing adds more credence to a ghost’s words than a crackling fire. It’s magical, really.

So you want to know how deep is Lake Tahoe? Well, I’m going to tell you…it doesn’t have a bottom. And I’ll tell you how we know.

In 1864, a 150 years ago, they found a body at the bottom of the Savage Mine in Virginia City, drowned. It wasn’t a miner. He had gentleman’s clothes on, but nobody recognized him.

This mystery went unsolved for several years, but now we know who it was. William Meeker lived here at Lake Tahoe in 1864, and one morning he was out rowing his little dingy when he found himself going off course. He pulled in his oars and, sure enough, started going ‘round like this.

He looked over the side, and there at 80 feet was a hole in the bottom of the lake. And being the curious sort, he rowed ashore, cut down a tree, cut off a conical plug, rowed back out and with a steamer chain, dropped it down, and “phoooot” it sucked into place.

Well he didn’t think much more of it until he read in the papers a few days later that the waters in the Savage Mine were receding. Meeker shared this curiosity with his friend Col. Claire. Now Col. Claire had some money.

Col. Claire said, “Tell you what, you pull that plug and if the water comes up in the Savage I’ll go down to San Francisco and corner up all the stock money can buy in the Savage Mine.”

Well I guess you know the next chapter to this story. That’s exactly what happened. Meeker pulled the plug, the water came up in the Savage, the value of the stock went down and Col. Claire brought back a wheelbarrow full of stock in the Savage Mine. Then “phoooot” they plugged her up, and went to work.

But here’s where the story takes a dark turn. They came out here to celebrate one moonlit night, over the very spot where it all started, and Meeker asked Claire, “How much did we make on this venture?”

Claire said, “Just over a million dollars.”

“Ain’t that grand,” said Meeker. “Let’s do it again … nobody but you and me knows about it.”

Well, that’s just what Claire wanted to hear. So when Meeker weren’t noticin’, he grabbed the winch handle and gave Meeker a whack on the back of the head that sent him spilling over the side into the water, where he started turnin’ ‘round like this, and down he went.

So, now we know who that body they found in the bottom of the Savage Mine in Virginia City was, it was William Meeker. And we also know how deep this lake is…it doesn’t have a bottom. It’s connected to Virginia City by lava tubes.

The effect was absolute. The campfire crowd’s disbelief was dispelled by the oldest chestnut the lake has to offer. The evening continued to float dreamily along until my fuzzy slippers caught fire and I had to make a hasty retreat.

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