Posted online at photographyworld.org. In 1844 a party of explorers led by Captain John Fremont and his guide Kit Carson became the first Americans of European descent to discover Lake Tahoe. On that journey Fremont’s team was caught by a winter storm in the Sierra Nevadas on their way west into California. Low on provisions, they nearly had the same fate as the infamous Donner party. According to Carson’s autobiography, Carson led the team out but not before they had to resort to eating their mules (and the mules were forced to feed on their tails, leather saddles and whatever else they could get to). After narrowly escaping, Carson said the team was “in as poor a condition as men could possibly be.” Carson believed one man went insane from the ordeal.(1) The Donner party was not as fortunate, of course. They lost almost half their group during the winter of 1846-1847 and resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Emerald Bay on the California side of Lake Tahoe.
The men and women who made the trip west were remarkable people. True pioneers. Danger filled the trail west. There weren’t any Holiday Inn Expresses to stay at or big green road signs showing the way! The trail was not clearly defined; many mountain passes were extremely steep, narrow and difficult for wagons to cross; watering holes were not evident; hostile Indians regularly threatened travelers (and the Indians’ whereabouts were largely unknown). As a result, people traveled in large parties to provide assistance and protection from the dangers. Strength in numbers.
Fun fact: the nickname for cigar – the stogie – was derived from the Conestoga wagon, a common site on the trail west. The Conestoga was mostly used to move tobacco around the original Eastern states. This tobacco was used to make cigars and term “stogie” was born.(2)
Travel westward increased steadily in the late 1840s. Members of my family came west across the Oregon Trail at this time in search of fertile land for farming, and were some of the first to settle in the Oregon Territory. But not all pioneers emigrated to Oregon. Nevada and California were popular locations as well, fueled by the Gold Rush. Bodie was one such location. See more on Bodie here.
Fremont led several expeditions west. The purpose of the first expedition in 1842 was to map the Oregon Trail into Wyoming. His work, with Carson as his guide, was published and used by the early pioneers. Fremont’s second expedition west (in 1843) was designed to map the rest of the trail to Oregon, and was the expedition that led them to Lake Tahoe.(3)
Bonsai Rock on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe.
The Washoe Indians inhabited the Lake Tahoe area. Lake Tahoe is reportedly a mispronunciation of the Washoe words “da ow” (“the lake”).(4) Lake Tahoe was originally named Lake Bigler in 1853 but it was frequently referred to as “Lake Tahoe” until it was eventually renamed in 1945. But not all liked the name. Mark Twain hated it, calling “Tahoe” something that sounded as “weak as soup for a sick infant.”(5)
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake and third deepest lake in North America. The surface elevation is at 6225 feet and the deepest measured point of the lake is 1645 feet (the average depth is 1000 feet). The lake straddles the border of California and the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the west and Nevada and the Carson Range on the east. Yes, the Carson range was named after Kit Carson (and so was nearby Carson City in Nevada).
Faulting, volcanic eruptions and glacial erosion formed the lake. Millions of years ago volcanic eruptions created a natural dam to contain melting snow, rain and runoff. Glacial erosion further shaped the area and left behind large boulders that are prominent along the lake’s shoreline.
Lake Tahoe is simply stunning. There are a number of beautiful locations that are easily accessible including Emerald Bay, Zephyr Cove, Sand Harbor and many others. Some locations are equally beautiful but not as accessible – such as Bonsai Rock and Fannette Island.
The hike to Bonsai Rock is a short but very steep hike. There is a rough trail leading down but it isn’t particularly well marked and there are several dead ends. As the bird flies it’s probably less than 200 yards from the road to the shoreline. The rock is just a few yards from the shore; its bonsai-like trees growing from the top are prominent and easily identify the rock.
Fannette is the only island in Lake Tahoe. It’s the central feature in Emerald Bay. Captain Richard Barter was the caretaker for a large villa built on Emerald Bay’s shoreline in the 1860s. Barter enjoyed his liquor. He would frequently take his boat out to the north shore to Tahoe City to socialize and drink at the local saloons, even during Tahoe’s freezing winter nights. Reportedly, on one such trip he hit a nasty storm that significantly slowed his return. Barter lost a couple of toes to frostbite, which he amputated himself and kept preserved in a box to show off to visitors, earning him the nickname “Them’s My Toes”.(6)
The next time you are in the Lake Tahoe area, keep in mind the early explorers and Captain Barter. The area is rich with history. I enjoy an area much better when I have an understanding of the past and what life was like in “the early days.” It makes my visits more meaningful and inspires me to learn more, and of course photograph my experience.
Zephyr Cove on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
You can see more of my Lake Tahoe images here.
(1) Kit Carson’s autobiography, pages 79-81
(2) Bound Away, David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly, page 225
(3) Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides, Chapters 7-9
(4) Wa She Shu: The Washoe People Past and Present, Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, page 5
(5) The Works of Mark Twain; Early Tales & Sketches, Vol. 1 1851-1864, page 290.
(6) Nevada – Then and Now, Dick Barter: the Hermit of Emerald Bay, Phillip I. Earl, The Nevada Historical Society (published in the Pahrump Valley Gazette on March 5th, 1998); County of El Dorado, California website; https://www.edcgov.us/Living/Stories/Hermit_s_Ghost_Haunts_Emerald_Bay.aspx