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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Shelley Fisher Fishkin on the enduring infamy of two fire starters: Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau

Guest blog post by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and Director of American Studies at Stanford University, editor of The Mark Twain Anthology, and author of the forthcoming book, Reading America: A Companion to Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (University of California Press, 2013)

Sam Clemens first visited Lake Tahoe in 1861. From that moment on, he was tough on all other bodies of water.

His comment, in Innocents Abroad (1869), on Lake Como? “I thought Lake Tahoe was much finer.” Lake Como, he continued, “is clearer than a great many lakes, but how dull its waters are compared with the wonderful transparence of Lake Tahoe!”

He was similarly unimpressed by the Sea of Galilee, commenting in that same volume, that
The celebrated Sea of Galilee is not so large a sea as Lake Tahoe by a good deal—it is just about two-thirds as large. And when we come to speak of beauty, this sea is no more to be compared to Tahoe than a meridian of longitude is to a rainbow. The dim waters of this pool cannot suggest the limpid brilliancy of Tahoe; these low, shaven, yellow hillocks of rocks and sand, so devoid of perspective, can not suggest the grand peaks that compass Tahoe like a wall, and whose ribbed and chasmed fronts are clad with stately pines that seem to grow small and smaller as they climb, till one might fancy them reduced to weeds and shrubs far upward, where they join the everlasting snows.
Two years after Innocents Abroad came out, Twain averred in a lecture, “Now if you would see the noblest, loveliest inland lake in the world, you should go to Lake Tahoe. . . . I have seen some of the world’s celebrated lakes and they bear no comparison with Tahoe. There it is, a sheet of perfectly pure, limpid water, lifted up 6,300 feet above the sea—a vast oval mirror framed in a wall of snow-clad mountain peaks above the common world. . . . It is the home of rest and tranquility and gives emancipation and relief from the griefs and plodding cares of life.”

The next year in Roughing It (1872), he described Lake Tahoe as “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” “Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” he wrote, “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 celebrated the beauty of Lake Tahoe every chance he got. His comments are still invoked by realtors in advertisements for property near the lake and feature prominently in magazines designed to promote tourism there. So why, a little over a year ago, did the U.S. Board on Geographic Names deny the request from the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names to designate a lakeside beach “Sam Clemens Cove?”

To paraphrase (very roughly) President Lincoln’s words in a different context, rather than remember what Sam Clemens said there, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided that it could never forget what he did there.

In the early fall of 1861, about a year and a half before he took the pen name “Mark Twain,” twenty-five-year-old Sam Clemens hiked from Carson City, Nevada, to Lake Tahoe with a friend to stake out a timber claim and become wealthy. One evening he built a campfire on the shore and returned to his boat for the food he planned to cook for dinner. While he was gone, the wind carried sparks of his unattended campfire into the surrounding woods. Before the night was done, Twain had inadvertently burned down 200 acres of forest. “When we got up in the morning,” he reported in a letter to his mother, “[w]e looked like lava men, covered as we were with ashes, and begrimed with smoke.”
"Fire at Lake Tahoe" by True Williams
from Roughing It

When the issue of naming an area “Sam Clemens Cove” came up before the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the Forest Service voiced its unequivocal opposition.

As Robert Stewart, retired chief of Nevada public affairs put it, “We were shot down by Smokey [the] Bear.”

There was a second reason the Board cited: the location of Sam Clemens’s 1861 campsite had not been conclusively established as being in Nevada. Some Californians claim that it was on their side of the state line.

On June 21, 2012 a heated debate took place at the Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City sponsored by the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society. David C. Antonucci, author of Fairest Picture: Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe, argued that the campsite Twain described in Roughing It was near Speedboat Beach on the North Shore of the lake, in California. Robert Stewart, author of Finding Sam Clemens’ Cove at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, argued that it was south of Sand Harbor State Park on the East Shore in Nevada. They cited Twain’s words, historical documents, surveys, maps, period photographs, and rock formations to bolster their case. According to individuals who were present, the debate was a draw.

Mark Twain already has a forest that bears his name in Missouri. But there will probably never be a Sam Clemens Cove at Lake Tahoe.

Last week I asked a firefighter at Fallen Leaf Lake, in the Tahoe Basin just south of Lake Tahoe, whether Mark Twain was still persona non grata in the area. He nodded grimly. Two days later, hiking along a mountain trail from Fallen Leaf Lake to Lake Tahoe, I experienced first-hand winds probably not unlike those that spread Sam Clemens’s campfire to thousands of pine trees near the shore. The wind rose from the lake with a sudden ferocity that caught me off guard, forcing me to hold onto boulders and saplings along the steep trail to avoid being blown off the mountain.

As it turns out, Twain was not the only great American writer who managed to burn down hundreds of acres of a place his prose would later make famous. Seventeen years before Twain accidentally started his forest fire, a stray spark from a fire kindled in a pine stump to cook some lunchtime chowder for twenty-six-year-old Henry David Thoreau led to 300 acres of Concord Woods burning down (a year later he would build his cabin alongside the nearby pond he would immortalize in Walden). Both fires turned devastating due to strong winds. Both writers were struck by the “glorious spectacle” (Thoreau’s words) of the fires they had started; Twain found the “mighty roaring of the conflagration” to be “very impressive.” Neither Thoreau nor Twain showed much remorse for the destruction he had caused. “I have set fire to the forest,” Thoreau wrote in his journal six years later, “but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it.”

Over a century and a half after the forest fires caused by Twain’s and Thoreau’s carelessness, a wildfire raging out of control in Colorado has forced some 30,000 people to flee their homes. The San Francisco Examiner reported recently that the “extremely high threat of forest fire at Lake Tahoe” has led several resorts in the area to ban smoking for the summer, and that “The United States Forest Service has increased its fire restrictions to Stage II, which includes prohibiting building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire, charcoal grill, coal, wood burning stove or sheepherders stove, including in developed camping and picnic grounds.”

This camping season, let us recall the hundreds of acres of forest that Twain and Thoreau unwittingly destroyed with a sense of caution: unless we’re more careful than they were—and unless we do something about the global warming that is creating conditions in which we are increasingly vulnerable to forest fires—future generations will have to use their imaginations to “see” the scenes of nature that Twain and Thoreau celebrated in their prose, nature that our carelessness will have destroyed.

Also of interest:
  • President William McKinley created the Lake Tahoe Forest Reserve in 1899 and the U.S. Forest Service built its first ranger station in the Tahoe Basin in 1911. “Mark Twain and the Forest Rangers,” in a magazine for Tahoe forest rangers, imagines how a news report about Twain’s fire in 1861 might have differed from one fifty years later, after a ranger station had been established in the area.
  • A Lake Tahoe News report on the debate over the location of the Clemens campsite
  • A recent Boston Globe article on Thoreau’s fire
Related LOA works: Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It; Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod


  1. What a wonderful essay! Insightful, moving, historical and personal--this is just a delight to read. Thank you!!

  2. Wow! Twain and Thoreau never ceased to surprise us - a fascinating discovery!

  3. I very much enjoyed this. I can see Twain screwing up despite his best intentions, but I am surprised that Thoreau did so! Of course, one must keep an eye on those transcendentalists! They inevitably conceptualize Nature, often putting trees on pedestals instead of in the ground. Thanks again this post. - Don Gerz

  4. Enjoyed this very much... and learned a few things as well! I'll be sure to pass it along to others.


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