Island in the storm: Fanette Island |

Island in the storm: Fanette Island

Fanette Island has become a symbol of Lake Tahoe, inspiring artists and photographers for more than a century.

Yet the two-and-a-half acre, 150-foot upthrust of granite in the middle of Emerald Bay has been home to only one real resident, who did not live in the castle-like structure on top.

Captain Richard Barter, known as the “Hermit of Emerald Bay,” is the stuff of Tahoe legends. An English seaman, he came to Lake Tahoe in 1863 as a caretaker of stagecoach magnate Ben Holladay’s summer residence on the lakeshore near Eagle Falls.

Capt. Dick, as he was known, lived in a cottage nearby – that was until an avalanche tumbled some 3,000 feet down Granite Mountain and almost took his life.

“Looking up I saw everything a-breaking loose from their fastenings and coming down the mountain hoppity-jump,” he told a San Francisco newspaper man at the time. “They was making right for me and I thought Old Gabriel called me sure enough so I dropped my shovel and waited. But sir, my time hadn’t come yet for up yonder.”

Capt. Dick’s brush with death was followed by a more frightening episode a few years later.

The “Hermit” was never one who enjoyed company at his remote retreat, greeting unexpected visitors with a loaded pistol. But he frequently rowed his boat 16 miles to Tahoe City, where he found companionship and quenched his considerable need for drink in local saloons.

Reeling out of a bar one January night in 1870, he got in his dinghy and started home. He had rowed about seven miles when a sudden storm hit and capsized his boat. In the darkness, he managed to right his craft and get aboard.

But he realized his chances of survival were better in the water than in the freezing night air, so he stayed submerged with only his face above the surface. There, downing a jug of whiskey he had stashed in his boat and shrieking “Richard Barter never surrenders,” Capt. Dick awaited the dawn.

After using the empty jug to bail out his boat, the nearly frozen man rowed the rest of the way home. Frostbite cost Capt. Dick his toes, which he cut off himself and kept stored like a trophy in a cigar box.

The episode convinced Capt. Dick of his pending mortality. But before “Gabriel” could pay him another visit, he decided to build himself a tomb on Fanette Island.

On the south side of the island, he built a cottage near the water’s edge. Then he began hollowing out his tomb at the island’s summit. Over his rock sarcophagus, he built a miniature Gothic chapel with a small wooden cross.

Unfortunately, Capt. Dick was never buried there. In October 1873, Capt. Dick was returning from another evening of imbibing when another storm arose. His boat was found smashed near Rubicon Point and his body was never recovered.

But legend has it, Capt. Dick can be seen walking the island on foggy October days.

Ghosts, or tales thereof, hardly intimidated Mrs. Lora Knight, who purchased 200 acres around Emerald Bay in 1928, including Fanette Island.

A world-traveler, who with her husband was the prime sponsor of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, Mrs. Knight built Vikingsholm on the shores of Emerald Bay. The castle, her summer residence, was meticulously fashioned after houses and churches in Scandinavia.

Knight also built the stone structure atop Fanette Island as a place to entertain her friends. The cottage was placed on almost the same spot where Capt. Dick had built his tomb.

“Building the tea house was quite a job,” said Helen H. Smith, who spent 14 summers of her childhood visiting Vikingsholm and now gives tours for the California Park Service. “Mrs. Knight insisted on preserving all the trees, so it was quite a task to get the stonework up the hill.”

The small cottage contained a small fireplace, a table and chairs. A couple of times each summer, Knight and her guests would be taken out by boat to the island for tea.

“Before she got there, her yardmen would be positioned along the path to help Mrs. Knight and her guests along the steep parts. Mrs. Knight was in her late 60s at the time,” said Smith.

While the cottage still stands, an enduring symbol of an opulent time, Capt. Dick’s hand-crafted tomb has long since vanished.

But Capt. Dick’s legend lives on, with some longtime locals swearing they have seen his ghost climbing the island’s summit, searching for his eternal resting place.

Fanette Island is open to the public after June 1. It is only accessible by boat.

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