The hermit of Emerald Bay
If anyone ever doubted Captain Richard Barter’s death-defying tales in Tahoe in the mid-1800s, he’d pull out his toes. The grotesque pegs were stored in a jewelry box after he sawed them off his frost-bitten feet.
Then he’d tell them about avalanches, grizzly bears, snowstorms and swimming 10 miles after flipping his boat in the lake, and add that he was sure he’d soon return to “Old Gabriel.”
No one knows the whereabouts of those infamous toes, but they make for great storytelling.
“When I tell them about Captain Dick pulling out the box with the preserved toes to show the journalist, they always get a kick out of that,” says Ed Ferranto, a modern day captain of the Safari Rose out of Tahoe Keys, which provides tours on the lake.
“The adults all laugh and the kids always get funny looks on their faces. It’s like a ghost story,” Ferranto said.
Barter is believed to be the first year-round resident of Tahoe, Ferranto said. He lived on Fannette Island in Emerald Bay. A retired British sea captain, he was hired as a caretaker for a five-room villa owned by Ben Holladay, one of the richest men in the West at the time.
Captain Dick lived 12 reclusive years there, and often sailed to Tahoe City or the South Shore for company and a drink. At the saloons, he told tall tales of his seafaring days across the Atlantic. One night, he boarded his dinghy inebriated.
“The night was of inky blackness, the weather intensely cold, the mercury being many degrees below zero,” Barter recounted to a newspaper man. It was January 1870. A gust of wind capsized the boat, tossing him into Tahoe’s chilly waters – usually around 41 degrees in winter.
“I knew it was useless to call for help. … I also knew if I got in my boat and attempted to reach shore, I should certainly freeze to death,” Barter said.
Mark McLaughlin recounts interviews with Barter from various newspapers of the time in his book “Sierra Stories, True Tales of Tahoe, Volume 2.”
Captain Dick always claimed he swam the 10 miles from Sugar Pine Point to Emerald Bay, boat and bottle of whiskey in tow. When he finally crawled into his shelter on the island, his toes were frozen, and he took three months to recover.
In the long hours of that winter, he built an intricate model of a steam frigate, complete with crewmen hand carved from small pieces of wood and cooks with tiny copper kitchen utensils.
“What I have wondered about is that big ship model that he built. What became of that? You’d think that was something that wouldn’t have gotten thrown away,” said Ferranto.
Now all that’s left of him, his toes, or his model ship is legend. Ferranto enjoys telling the tale of the hermit on his boat tours, although he admits it’s hard to resist the temptation to exaggerate.
“I have to be really careful, because I’m always thinking there might be a bonafide historian on the boat,” he said, “But it’s hard because it just lends itself so well to embellishment.”
To him, it’s a taste of Tahoe’s varied history.
“That’s one of the things I enjoy when I do a narration, because they are often tourists, I give them some insight into the history here,” Ferranto said.
The man was a true hermit, his best friend the bottle. If anyone showed up on the shores of Fannette Island, he’d greet them with a gun, unless they greeted him with whiskey in hand.
He always said, “Tahoe is the Indian word for lager beer,” according to Joel Beede’s book “Tahoe’s Magical West Shore.”
McLaughlin writes that the man also gained solace from the wilderness of Emerald Bay. Barter would sit next to Eagle Falls: “Whenever I am downhearted, I come out here and talk to it. It’s Old Gabriel’s voice to me and tells me what I want to know.”
Once a huge avalanche missed him by 10 feet and hurled rocks and snow into the bay, lifting the waters up “hundreds of feet,” Barter has said.
After these close encounters with death, Barter was sure he’d return to “Old Gabriel” soon. So he set about digging his own grave. A picture of the small white chapel, topped with a cross, appears in books about him and on signs at the pullout above Emerald Bay State Park.
“Somehow I feel that my time to die is drawing near – so I am going to make a coffin … so that when I feel I am called, I’ll just come out here, lie in this coffin, shut down the lid and then, good-bye Old Dick,” Barter would tell people.
But he would never rest there. One night, he left a saloon in South Shore and got in his dinghy to head home. Ernest Pomin, one of the first men to settle in Tahoe City, said he walked away from the tavern that night in a rare state of sobriety.
But on the dark ride home, once again a gale capsized his boat. This time he wouldn’t make it to shore. His body was never found.
All that’s left of Captain Dick is a lonely mountain named after him. Perched high up in Desolation Wilderness, Dick’s Peak watches over Emerald Bay from afar.
But the saying goes that on misty October nights, the ghost of Captain Richard Barter can be seen crawling up the granite facade of Fannette Island, trying to return to the grave he dug for himself but would never find final rest in.