David Antonucci leans against a boulder at Lake Tahoe's Speedboat Beach, where he believes Samuel Clemens spent his first night on his inaugural trip to the lake. Antonucci has argued against naming a Nevada cove for the writer.

Mark Twain experts fired up over Tahoe campsite location

Published: Thursday, May. 12, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 12, 2011 - 12:15 pm

"Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones."

Mark Twain, "Roughing It"

A century and a half after Mark Twain first laid eyes on Lake Tahoe, federal officials today are expected to approve naming a small cove on its Nevada shore in his honor.

For Twain enthusiasts in Nevada, who say the iconic author camped there in 1861, the move is a long-overdue tribute to a man whose impassioned and irreverent writing about the lake helped bring it world attention.

To David Antonucci, a Twain fan in California, the expected action is a historical injustice. Twain's campsite, he contends, was really in California.

"It's wrong " said Antonucci. "It misleads scholars. It misleads enthusiasts. And worst of all, it misleads students studying Mark Twain."

Last year, Antonucci appeared before the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names to try to persuade it to abandon the proposal to name the site Sam Clemens Cove. The board, though, voted instead to recommend the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approve the name.

The board is scheduled to vote today at a meeting in Colorado. Antonucci expects the name to be approved.

One thing, though, is certain as Antonucci and the Nevadans squabble over physical evidence and historical records to pinpoint the campsite: This is a dust-up Twain himself would have relished.

"He would be hysterical with laughter that we could make such a mountain out of a molehill," said Larry Schmidt, a retired Forest Service hydrologist. Schmidt, by the way, is convinced Twain camped on the Nevada site.

The mystery begins in August 1861. Samuel Clemens, then 25 and a former riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, arrived by stagecoach in Carson City with his brother Orion, who had been named secretary of the Nevada Territory by President Abraham Lincoln.

Clemens was bored with a symbolic post as Orion's private secretary. "I had nothing to do and no salary," he wrote later. "There was not yet writing enough for two of us." Clemens began to hear stories about a majestic lake to the west and a fortune that could be made in timber.

Those tales came from a group of boardinghouse friends who had staked a timber claim on the lake near Glenbrook, Nev. Enticed, Clemens and a friend grabbed two axes, tossed a couple of blankets over their shoulders and set out for Lake Tahoe.

Ten years later, Clemens – writing under the pen name Mark Twain – described the journey in his book, "Roughing It:"

"We toiled laboriously up a mountain about a thousand miles high and looked over. No lake there. We descended on the other side, crossed the valley and toiled up another mountain three or four thousand miles high, apparently, and looked over again. No lake yet.

"At last the lake burst upon us – a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still!"

At the lakeshore, Twain writes that he and his friend borrowed a skiff and began rowing across "a deep bend in the lake" to stake a timber claim of their own.

Bob Stewart, a member of the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names, said historic documents, including letters and land records, leave no doubt Twain rowed north from the timber claim across Glenbrook Bay to a site south of Sand Harbor State Park.

But Antonucci, a retired water quality engineer who lives on the west shore, disputes that. He said his own research places Twain on the northeast side of the lake where he rowed west across a more deeply indented wedge of water – Crystal Bay – into California and eventually set up camp near Tahoe Vista.

"I fall back on his training as a riverboat pilot," Antonucci said. "There is a difference for him between a bay and a deep bend of the lake."

Antonucci plucks other passages from "Roughing It" to buttress his position. In one descriptive section Twain writes about floating over water clear as glass – "Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand's breadth of sand" – until he reaches deep blue water "a mile or two from shore."

"What he's talking about is the point where the color of the lake becomes deep blue," Antonucci said. That's where the lake is 75 feet deep.

Near the California site "the 75-foot line runs one to two miles offshore, exactly as he said," he said. "But if you look at the east shore, you hit 75 feet within two-tenths of a mile. There is no place on the east shore where you can row one to two miles to blue water."

But Twain also notes a sawmill was three miles from his timber claim – a point Nevada proponents use. In 1861, Stewart said, only one sawmill was at Lake Tahoe – and it was at Glenbrook.

"David decided to start with a campsite and find out how to get Clemens there," said Stewart, author of the proposal to name the Nevada cove Sam Clemens Bay. "Any fact that is inconvenient to his story, he just ignores."

Antonucci is similarly critical of Stewart. "I pointed out a lot of problems with his analysis, but he just rejects it," Antonucci said.

McAvoy Layne, a Mark Twain impersonator and educator from Incline Village, said their disagreement doesn't surprise him.

"I managed to get the two of them together one day, and boy, I could see the sparks flying right away," Layne said. "I was kind of sorry I introduced them.

"They both got so emotionally invested in this thing that I haven't seen them together outside a formal meeting since. Here they have this great love for Mark Twain, but this one issue kind of alienated them."

Layne said he, too, has been swept up in the conflict and now believes that Clemens camped on the Nevada side.

"I was in all the way with David until I got more involved with Bob's argument," he said. "In the end I came out on Bob's side. The preponderance of evidence points to the Nevada site."

Another important clue, Layne added, was the discovery of a table-flat rock at the Nevada site where Clemens wrote, in a letter to his mother, that he played faro and ate his dinner. "There is no other rock like it in the basin," Layne said.

Layne said he hopes the board votes to put Sam Clemens Cove on the map in Nevada. But he wouldn't mind seeing a Mark Twain cove in California either. "Then each state will have their little piece of Sam Clemens.

"You can be sure he would enjoy it all. He would love this controversy," Layne added. "He's probably smiling right now down on us, saying this is great."

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