GUEST COLUMN: Clemens Cove picks the wrong spot
June 17, 2011
Robert Stewart’s May 28 guest column that criticized the Forest Service for objecting to the naming of a Lake Tahoe cove after Sam Clemens omits one important fact. The U.S. Board on Geographical Names rejected the proposed naming for two reasons: landowner (Forest Service) opposition and, according to Executive Director Lou Yost, “reasonable doubt regarding the location of Samuel Clemens’ campsite.” Naming proponents understandably do not want to talk about this latter reason because the evidence is overwhelming that Clemens, later known as Mark Twain, was never at the cove site. The preponderance of evidence supports the narrative that Clemens walked toward modern-day Incline Village and occupied campsites at Stateline Point and Tahoe Vista.
The US Geographical Names Board reviewed historical and scientific research findings that raised doubts about the identification of the cove as a Clemens campsite. Given the limited space, we can only cover 10 of our most important findings that dispute the cove as a Clemens campsite.
1. The distance from Carson City to Glenbrook in 1861 on the path that naming proponents said Clemens followed was actually 14 miles. Mark Twain recalled the distance as 11 miles and reinforced this lesser figure in lectures. The distance from Carson City to Hidden Beach, near modern-day Incline Village and where Clemens found a rowboat, was about 12 miles.
2. Clemens wrote in a letter that he walked six miles from his first night’s campsite to a cabin. Research shows no evidence that such a cabin existed at that distance in 1861. A cabin existed six miles from the first-night Stateline Point campsite, according to an 1865 map.
3. Twain recalled seeing Lake Tahoe as a “vast oval” and exhibiting a reflection of “snow-clad mountain peaks.” No such view is possible from the low elevation of Glenbrook Meadow where advocates say Clemens emerged from the forest to see the lake for the first time. However, this view exists from the upper part (and much higher elevation) of the Tunnel Creek watershed where Clemens crossed over into the Tahoe Basin.
4. Twain recalled seeing very large white and gray boulders on the lake bottom as he drifted in his rowboat. Only white granite rocks exist offshore from the cove and along the East Shore. Large white and gray boulders do occur offshore of the Stateline Point campsite where gray volcanic rock meets white granite.
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5. Twain wrote of rowing out 1-2 miles to the “blue water… blue as indigo.” Blue water is less than 0.2-mile from the cove location and along the East Shore north of Glenbrook. However, blue water is found 1-2 miles offshore of the Tahoe Vista campsite.
6. Twain wrote of sleeping in sand on a beach. Historical maps and a 1985 scientific report confirm no beach existed at the cove in 1861. The current beach was created by backshore erosion following completion of the Tahoe Dam 1915. The dam increased and sustained the water surface elevation of the lake, causing the shoreline to erode back. The much ballyhooed flat rock on the beach near the cove was actually buried in the hillside nearly 100 feet back from the 1861 boulder shoreline.
7. Scientists found no record of 1861 fire scars above the cove, though they discovered fire scars from 1854 and 1873. An 1861 fire scar record would confirm the wildfire accidentally started by Clemens occurred there.
8. Twain wrote that the trees at his campsite were, “one to five feet through at the butt.” Scientific research on the original forest showed that mature trees above the cove grew no larger than 2.9 feet in diameter. The diameter of trees in Tahoe Vista reached five feet and greater in diameter.
9. Twain wrote twice in books that he was on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.
10. A biographical writer interviewed Twain in 1906 about his time in the West. The interviewer later wrote in 1914 that Twain, “was not far from what is now Carnelian Bay.”
A final admonition to Mark Twain scholars and enthusiasts: Do not be fooled by deceptive site names at Lake Tahoe that claim to have a Mark Twain association. They can be a misrepresentation of the life and experiences of Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe that taints his literary legacy and tarnishes the factual basis of history.
-A 36-year resident of Lake Tahoe, David C. Antonucci is a civil and environmental engineer and award-wining author. His next book, Fairest Picture – Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe, is expected in September 2011, the 150th anniversary of Sam Clemens’ first visit to Lake Tahoe.