Weather Window | Captain Barter: Hermit of Emerald Bay |

Weather Window | Captain Barter: Hermit of Emerald Bay

Courtesy California State LibraryCaptain Barter with his dog and scale model sailing ship.

TAHOE, Calif. – Near South Lake Tahoe is a spectacular, glacially-carved basin known as Desolation Wilderness. TowerNear South Lake Tahoe is a spectacular, glacially-carved basin known as Desolation Wilderness. Towering above the shattered cliffs and glacial debris looms Dick’s Peak, elevation 9,974 feet, standing stoic and solitary in this region of rugged extremes. The obdurate mountain is a fitting monument to Captain Richard Barter, a man whose remarkable feats of survival have withstood the test of time.

Dick Barter was a retired British sea captain who shipped into Tahoe when he was hired by the son of commercial stager Ben Holladay. Holladay’s stage line ran 2,000 miles from the Mississippi River to Placerville, Calif. The most direct overland route to California’s gold fields passed through South Lake Tahoe. In 1862, Ben Holladay pre-empted the unoccupied land surrounding picturesque Emerald Bay and built a two-story, five-room villa. The following year he turned the property over to his son who hired Captain Barter to take care of the estate during the harsh winter months.

The decision to employ an old sea captain to protect a remote mountain hideaway made good sense. When deep snow blanketed the Sierra, the only way in or out of the bay was by boat. To survive the winter there a caretaker had to be seaworthy. Captain Barter was definitely the right man for the job.

Life in solitary

Barter’s solitary life at Emerald Bay was full of hardship and danger, but for 12 years the captain lived the life of a recluse at Holladay’s isolated cottage. The old sailor was a real-life Robinson Crusoe who possessed a fatalistic spirituality. He expected death to come by drowning, avalanche, or grizzly bear attack.

Despite his eccentric lifestyle, the venerable sailor gained a reputation as an easy going old salt who enjoyed the taste of bourbon whiskey. If Barter craved a drink and conversation during the snowbound winter, he sailed for it. It was 16 miles from Emerald Bay to the saloon in Tahoe City, and a risky voyage in a small boat. But neither distance nor danger deterred Barter’s efforts to reach his favorite watering hole.

In January 1870, he almost met his maker when a sudden gust upset his boat two miles off Sugar Pine point. He struggled frantically in the cold water, but finally succeeded in getting back into the boat. The weather was intensely cold and deadly hypothermia was setting in, but Barter refused to give up. After what seemed like an eternity in the numbing water, the 63-year-old skipper climbed back into the little dinghy and furiously rowed against the biting wind shouting, “Richard Barter never surrenders! Richard Barter never surrenders!” The old captain’s grim determination saved his life.

The half-frozen sailor rowed into Emerald Bay at daybreak, but his ordeal was far from over: Months later he recounted his story to a visiting journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle: “And so, after many hours’ labor, I reached my landing, crawled into the house, and for 11 weeks I never left; ’cause you see, my feet and one hand was froze and I couldn’t get out.” Since he couldn’t walk on his feet he tied a small cushion to each knee in order to get around. Despite his serious injuries, the old captain wasn’t idle. During his three-month solitary confinement Barter meticulously crafted a 7-foot miniature model of a man-o’-war steam frigate. He showed it to the newspaper reporter who noted that it was a marvel of workmanship. Every rope, block, and sail was in its proper place; a wind-up clock hidden in the hold drove the running gear and propeller. On the deck of the wooden vessel stood 225 crew members, officers, marines, boatswains, and sailors, all hand-carved from small pieces of wood.

Could it be true?

It was an amazing feat, but the self-reliant recluse had also built and rigged a full-sized boat. No small replica, the ship weighed four tons, which he launched by himself. Not a single person had visited him throughout the whole winter. After examining the two boats and appreciating the physical challenge their construction required, the journalist was a bit skeptical that the old sailor had really experienced that near-fatal ordeal the previous winter. To prove his case, Barter limped over to a dressing table in Holladay’s cottage and removed a small jewelry box. He lifted the lid and handed it to the newspaperman. “Them’s my toes!” Captain Dick exclaimed proudly. Inside the little box were several of the captain’s frostbitten toes that he had amputated and then salted to preserve as a memento of his fearful night on Lake Tahoe.

Barter knew that his luck on Tahoe wouldn’t last forever. On Fannette Island he chipped out a burial crypt in the granite, installed a coffin, and erected a small wooden chapel over it as his final resting place. But he would never get the opportunity to use it. Fate finally caught up with Barter in October 1873 while he was sailing back from South Lake Tahoe where he had spent the evening drinking. A sudden wind came and overturned his boat, sending him to the depths of Tahoe. Portions of the wrecked boat were salvaged off the rocks near Emerald Bay, but Captain Barter’s body was never recovered.

– Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at Check out Mark’s new blog at

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