GUEST COLUMN: Forest Service wrong to deny ‘Clemens Cove’
Special to the Tribune
It was a clash of titans: Efforts to honor Mark Twain were derailed by Smokey Bear. Sam Clemens’ accidental fire 150 years ago apparently remains unforgiven.
The issue is the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ 5-4 vote not to federally name a cove on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe “Sam Clemens Cove.” The Nevada state board had approved it – it can be used on maps printed by anyone except a federal agency, and it will not be in the national database of place names.
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service concedes the cove was the Clemens campsite in 1861. In a letter drafted by staffers Don Lane and John Maher, signed by Terri Marceron, then supervisor of the agency, the agency maintains “the location of Twain’s camp has arguably been affirmed as the cove in question based upon rocks within the cove area that were broadly described in Twain’s book ‘Roughing It.’ A more compelling argument was the filed claim location of his associates. … Twain reportedly camped on the north end of that claim, which would have placed him/ Kinney in that general area of shoreline.” Several primary documents, letters and maps demonstrate the Clemens camp was indeed at the northwest corner of the friends’ claim, a map of which remains in the Carson City Clerk’s office today.
The flat table rock in question was really defined in a letter Clemens wrote to his mother and sister on return to Carson City in late September 1861, and is not mentioned in the book. Smokey Bear makes his entrance further down in Marceron’s letter: “(Clemens’) primary legacy around the Lake Tahoe Basin was his statement: ‘the fairest picture the whole earth affords.’ He should always be credited for that poetic phrase. But then, his legacy also is that he carelessly started a forest fire and then returned to Carson.” The forest fire is the key point in the supervisor’s objection to naming the cove.
Lou Yost, executive secretary of the national naming board, said “The Forest Service opposition was a major factor to a lot of board members.”
In 1861, Capt. John Nye suggested the shoreline between Thunderbird Lodge and Sand Point was “Sam Clemens Bay.” Sam’s timber claim lay along that bay. Nevada asked only that a cove within that bay be named for the man who became Mark Twain. In denying Sam Clemens his cove, the Forest Service has denied itself the opportunity to use the ever-popular Mark Twain in continuing efforts to educate the public about the role of fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Forest fire. The words generate an image of Smokey Bear and blackened trees, useless as timber, and the disastrous Angora fire of 2007. Clemens was careless, accidentally causing a lively brush fire in a mature forest of widely spaced trees. Clemens himself suggests this in the September 1861 letter mentioned above, where he vividly described the fire, writing, in part, “The level ranks of flame were relieved at intervals by the standard-bearers, as we called the tall dead trees, wrapped in fire, and waving their blazing banners a hundred feet in the air.” If individual dead trees could be seen burning, it was not a hot, tree-killing forest fire.
Three weeks later, General Land Office surveyor James Lawson ran a line on the ridge east of Sam Clemens Cove (sorry, Smokey, but that is the legal name in Nevada). Lawson noted trees along the ridge over which Clemens said the fire burned. Lawson’s summary comment: “This Range Line is along the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is rough and broken. Timber Yellow & Balsam Fir, Yellow Spruce and Sugar pine… Done Oct. 15th, 1861.” Less than a month after Clemens’ visit. In August 1864, Butler Ives surveyed the square-mile sections east of Sam Clemens Cove and pronounced it good timber. Neither mentions burned trees. The detailed handwritten notes of survey are online at http://www.nv.blm.gov/LandRecords/index.php. Look at T 15 N, R 18 E. The original books of survey, legal evidence in court, are in the National Archives in San Bruno.
Centuries ago William of Occam posited Occam’s Razor: If there is more than one explanation for something, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. To get Clemens to a California tree claim involves huge leaps of faith, and a road that didn’t yet exist in the 1862 GLO survey.
The simple explanation: Sam Clemens lived with 13 other men at a boarding house. Several of the roommates had formed a partnership to harvest timber at Lake Tahoe. Two flatland Midwestern boys, Sam and John Kinney, set out into unknown mountain country using directions, equipment and grub from those roommates. They made camp at the very northwest corner of the friends’ timber claim. They dined and played Faro on a large flat granite rock, one found only at Sam Clemens Cove on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe.
He didn’t burn down the forest. And the U.S. Board’s decision does not alter the fact that the Clemens camp was on the Nevada shore, a quarter-mile north of Thunderbird.
– Retired public affairs chief for the state of Nevada, Bob Stewart is a board member of the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names.