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Mark Twain & his Tahoe adventures, Part I

090513-SierraStories

Historic anniversaries abound this year. Both the Truckee and Tahoe City communities are celebrating sesquicentennial birthdays from 1863 and the Tahoe Dam was completed 100 years ago in 1913. It also was 150 years ago this year that Samuel Longhorne Clemens, a young ex-river boat pilot, found redemption in a Virginia City saloon as a writer who adopted the pen name Mark Twain.

At the onset of the nation’s Civil War, the free-spirited adventurer from Missouri joined his older brother Orion for a journey to Nevada Territory, where he started his writing career and later became one of America’s most popular and well known authors.

Sam Clemens arrival in the West was inauspicious as he lurched stiffly out of a cramped stagecoach and squinted into the bright desert sun. It was Aug. 14, 1861. Twenty-five-year-old Clemens and his older brother, Orion, had traveled nearly 2, 000 miles – 20 days of rough road and alkali dust – stuffed into the Spartan interior of a Concord stagecoach. After what seemed like an eternity, the two young men finally arrived in Carson City, capital of Nevada Territory, so that Orion could assume his duties as the newly appointed territorial secretary, commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln.

Overland stage passengers were permitted only 25 lbs. of luggage per person. To cut weight, Sam and Orion were forced to leave most of their personal belongings behind. Their bare essentials for survival, however, included 5 lbs. of tobacco.

Exhausted and thirsty, the brothers slapped the dust from their clothes and strolled toward the nearest saloon. Clemens later described early Carson City as “… a wooden town; its population two thousand souls. The main street consisted of four or five blocks of little white frame stores which were too high to sit down on, but not too high for various other purposes; in fact, hardly high enough. The houses are unplastered, but papered inside with flour sacks sewed together—and the handsomer the brand upon the sacks, the neater the house looks. They [houses] were packed together, side by side, as if room was scarce in that mighty plain.”

Born and raised in Missouri, Clemens was shocked by the barrenness of the Great Basin. Shortly after his arrival, Sam wrote his mother back East: “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.”

At first, 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 Lake Tahoe, so he and John Kinney, a young man from Cincinnati, decided to stake a timber claim along the North Shore of the great lake. 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. It was a glorious experience.

“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 forest fire, which burned down part of the forest. Later, Sam had to apologize to authorities in Carson City. He was forgiven after payment of damages. Sam had not forgotten his family back in Missouri. He staked a Tahoe timber claim for his sister, Pamela, and her husband, William Moffett, on what he immodestly called “Sam Clemens Bay.” Exactly where Clemens set up his claim is a matter of controversy today, with scholars split on whether it was located on Tahoe’s East Shore or on the North Shore.

Regardless, Clemens found the Tahoe Basin so beautiful that 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.” But cutting timber proved too strenuous for the two young men and they soon returned to Carson City. 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.”

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. Sam spent months tramping around the desert, searching for his own El Dorado.

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 his book “Roughing It,” Twain complains: “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 grocer’s.” Later, as Twain, he complained 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. His writing career had begun.

Stay tuned.

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 may be reached at mark@thestormking.com. Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.

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