The time Sam Clemens torched Lake Bigler
The recent Angora fire at South Lake Tahoe is a reminder of the time a young Mark Twain went to Tahoe — called Lake Bigler then — to seek his fortune in a timber ranch, and burned down several hundred acres of trees in the process.
It was mid-August 1861 when 25-year-old Samuel L. Clemens arrived in Carson City with his brother Orion, who had just been appointed secretary to Nevada’s Territorial Governor James Nye.
Sam had been in town two weeks and was in need of employment when he heard talk about the marvels of Lake Bigler and the millions of board feet of timber standing there just for the taking. If destiny had bequeathed that Clemens become a timber baron, then so be it; who was he to question the gods of fate?
Sam shared his timber dream with friend John Kinney, and the two wasted little time securing provisions for the trip to the lake where fame and fortune awaited them. What happened on that trip would become well known 11 years later in chapters 22 and 23 of Twain’s “Roughing It,” published in 1872.
Twain was taken with Lake Bigler’s beauty and wrote: “I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” After the sight-seeing trip was over, it was time to get down to business in securing an area for a timber ranch.
To hold the property, they needed to build a permanent home and fence off the ranch, not an easy task since they had claimed 300 acres. The plan was to chop trees around the perimeter of the ranch for a fence, but after chopping down three trees apiece, they gave it up, and would let their case rest on those six trees.
The home didn’t fare much better. What started out as a strong log house eventually became a brush hut consisting of twigs and saplings.
Twain wrote: “One of us had to watch while the other cut brush, lest if both turned our backs we might not be able to find it again. … We never slept in our house … it was built to hold the ground and that was enough … we did not wish to strain it.”
When the work was completed, the boys had a lot of R&R time remaining, which they put to good use playing cards, smoking pipes and swimming. They tried fishing from a small skiff they found on shore, and found their skill was equal to that of house building, which means all the fish in Tahoe were safe while these two remained on the water.
And so this was the setting before tragedy struck two weeks into their venture.
It began one evening when Sam started a campfire for supper. He wrote: “I took the loaf of bread, some slices of bacon, and the coffee pot ashore, set them down by a tree, and lit a fire, and went back to the boat to get the frying pan. While I was at this, I heard a shout from Johnny, and looking up I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises!”
In the span of several minutes, the fire became so intense it drove the boys to the lake, where they watched the inferno from the boat.
Gone was their home, fence and a good part of the timber ranch. And so ended Clemens’ dream of becoming a wealthy timber baron.
He would have other dreams that took him to Unionville and Aurora in search of mining wealth, but it all came to nothing. Less than a year and a half after the fire, Clemens finally struck pay dirt with his metamorphosis into Mark Twain, which took place while writing for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City.
— Chic DiFrancia is a writer and history buff living in Virginia City.