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Smokey Bear douses plans for Clemens Cove

Tim Parsons
In this April 23, 2010 photo, retired U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Larry Schmidt stands in front of a granite slab that Nevada historians believe was used by Mark Twain as a table for meals and card games on the shores of Lake Tahoe near Incline Village, Nev. The Nevada State Board on Geographic Names is considering a request to name the site Sam Clemens Cove after the man who later assumed his pen name as a newspaper reporter in nearby Virginia City and created literary characters Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. (AP Photo/Scott Sady)
ASSOCIATED PRESS | FR78397 AP

Reports of a federally designated Clemens Cove at Lake Tahoe were an exaggeration.

In its startling decision, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names denied Nevada’s recommendation to name an East Shore beach area just north of the Thunderbird Lodge and south of Sand Harbor after one of the nation’s best-known authors who undisputedly spent time and wrote about Lake Tahoe. What is disputed is where he first camped and whether his influence at the lake warrants a national landmark. The vote on May 12 was 5-4.

“I was so surprised you could have stuck a ham in my mouth without me noticing,” said McAvoy Layne, an Incline Village resident who makes a living impersonating Samuel Clemens, who in 1861 came to Tahoe to become a logger and left as a writer known as Mark Twain.

Twain’s third book, “Roughing It,” describes how he camped along the shore, made a timber claim and accidentally started a fire. While Nevada historians, and the majority of Nevada State Board on Geographic Names board members who voted last fall to name Clemens Cove, say the campsite was in what is now the state of Nevada, a Tahoma researcher says the area is in California.

Moreover, that the fire occurred at all might have been what ultimately led to the federal agency’s decision.

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“We were shot down by Smokey Bear,” said Robert Stewart, a retired chief of Nevada public affairs and founding and current member of the state’s geographic names board. “Smokey Bear falsely accuses Clemens of starting a forest fire. I say that because Clemens caused a brush fire in the forest but he did not destroy timber. … He didn’t call it a forest fire. The Forest Service called it a forest fire.”

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s forest supervisor recommended to the Nevada state board the area not be named Clemens Cove. Terri Marceron, who now works in Alaska, was not present at the meeting last year at the Thunderbird Lodge.

Marceron’s written arguement said:

n The campsite’s location is disputed.

n Twain’s influence on Tahoe was incidental. He became famous after leaving the area.

n The name is inappropriate. Mark Twain is more recognizable than Clemens.

n There is already a national park, forest and wildlife refuse named after Twain, and other historic Tahoe figures are more deserving of such an honor.

n Clemens’ articles in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise criticized the name Lake Tahoe (it was first called Lake Bigler, after a California governor).

“I was at the meeting where a member of the board proceeded to tell the rest of the board members how they could circumvent the Forest Service, and called the administrator of the Basin Management Unit at the time, characterized her as a ‘Twain hater,’ ” said David Antonucci, the California civil engineer who argued the campsite was at North Shore near Tahoe Vista.

“It happened to be a Forest Service representative who was saying this,” Antonucci said. “I think when that got back to them (in Washington, D.C.), they weren’t happy at all, and understandably so. And you don’t want to force a naming of a geographic point on an underlying landowner if they don’t want it. It’s their land and if they represent all of us and if they see good reasons not to do it, then it shouldn’t be done. I just think the Forest Service was mishandled and completely disrespected in this process. To me, I think that’s the bulk of the reason.”

Antonucci is writing a book, “Fairest Picture – Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe,” which he plans to publish in September, the 150th anniversary of Clemens’ first trip to Lake Tahoe. He said the author made five “destination” visits to the lake, and traveled through South Shore 12 more times on trips between Virginia City and San Francisco.

Antonucci suggested Twain’s Tahoe visits should be honored with interpretive panels at the places he stayed. He said four of the five are on public land.

“Naming some geographical point after somebody, I guess, is a fine honor for that person,” he said. “But it does nothing to educate people and help them interpret that individual and his experience here, so I’ve long advocated instead of naming something for him, that we need to have more interpretation, like panels and maybe a book.”

Twain honored Tahoe in many ways, including writing in “Roughing It” the lake’s most quoted description: “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 earth affords.”

He gave further fodder for chambers of commerce when he wrote, “There is no end of wholesome medicine in such an experience. The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? – it is the same the angels breathe.”

Scott Lankford, in his 2010 book, “Tahoe Beneath the Surface,” said Twain used Tahoe during his writing career as the yardstick for evaluating beauty in the places he described, and nothing else measured up.

Lankford said Tahoe influenced Twain’s writing and made several comparisons to his descriptions in the 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” including “ballon-voyages” on the clear Tahoe water and rafting upon the Mississippi River with (let’s just call him) Jim.

Margaret Sanborn’s book “Mark Twain: The Bachelor Years,” Lankford wrote, said the timber claim in Tahoe filed at Carson City by Clemens and three others was called “Sam Clemens Bay.”

“The area between Thunderbird and Sand Point,” Stewart said, “(Thomas) Nye (the Nevada governor’s nephew) said that’s Sam Clemens Bay. But we’re not trying to grab the whole glory. It’s an unnamed bay as it is today, but we just thought it would be fun to name the cove where he camped.”

While Clemens Cove won’t appear on a United States map, Stewart said it will be on the next editions of the Nevada Recreation Map and the Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps Atlas.

Layne, who last summer opened the Mark Twain Cultural Center, was disappointed with the federal board’s decision, but was consoled that Twain, who has been dead 100 years, is still making news.

“I love the controversy,” he said. “I don’t want it to die down.”

What might Twain thought of it all?

“I have been born more times than anybody except Krishna,” he wrote in his autobiography.


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