Hermit of Emerald Bay
by Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe Nugget #250: 2012
Near South Lake Tahoe is a spectacular, glacially-carved basin known as Desolation Wilderness. Towering above the shattered cliffs and glacial debris looms Dick’s Peak, elevation 9,974 feet, standing stoic and solitary in this region of rugged extremes. The obdurate mountain is a fitting monument to Captain Richard Barter, a man whose remarkable feats of survival have withstood the test of time.
Desolation Wilderness features scenic hiking, camping, rock climbing, and swimming in the summer, and stellar snowshoeing and backcountry skiing during the winter.
Dick Barter was a retired British sea captain who shipped into Tahoe when he was hired by the son of commercial stager Ben Holladay. In 1862, Holladay had pre-empted the unoccupied land surrounding picturesque Emerald Bay and built a two-story, five-room villa. The following year Holladay hired Captain Barter to take care of the estate during the harsh winter months.
A Sea Captain in the Sierra
The decision to employ an old sea captain to protect a remote mountain hideaway made good sense. When deep snow blanketed the Sierra, the only way in or out of the bay was by boat. To survive the winter there a caretaker had to be seaworthy. Captain Barter was definitely the right man for the job.
Mountain glaciers carved out Emerald Bay (right) and the smaller Cascade Lake basin just to the south. The Emerald Bay glacier managed to push through its terminal moraine to reach the Tahoe Basin. Current water levels allow for boat access. The road on the ridgeline of the lateral moraine between the two is not for the faint of heart!
Barter’s solitary life at Emerald Bay was full of hardship and danger, but for 10 years the captain lived the life of a recluse at Holladay’s isolated cottage.
Despite his eccentric lifestyle, the venerable sailor gained a reputation as an easy going old salt that enjoyed the taste of bourbon whiskey. If Barter craved a drink and conversation during the snowbound winter, he sailed for it. It was 16 miles from Emerald Bay to the saloon in Tahoe City, and a risky voyage in a small boat. But neither distance nor danger deterred Barter’s efforts to reach his favorite watering hole.
Captain Barter was a fatalist who expected death to come by drowning, avalanche, or grizzly bear attack.
A Brush With Freezing Death
In January 1870, the old captain almost met his maker when a sudden gust upset his boat two miles off Sugar Pine point. He struggled frantically in the cold water, but finally succeeded in getting back into the boat. The weather was intensely cold and deadly hypothermia was setting in, but Barter refused to give up. After what seemed like an eternity in the numbing water, the 63-year-old skipper climbed back into the little dinghy and furiously rowed against the biting wind shouting, “Richard Barter never surrenders! Richard Barter never surrenders!” The old captain’s grim determination saved his life.
The half-frozen sailor rowed into Emerald Bay at daybreak, but his ordeal was far from over: Months later he recounted his story to a visiting journalist from a San Francisco newspaper: “And so, after many hours’ labor, I reached my landing, crawled into the house, and for 11 weeks I never left; ‘cause you see, my feet and one hand was froze and I couldn’t get out.”
Ben Holladay's cottage would have been located on the shoreline in the foreground.
Since Barter couldn’t walk on his feet he tied a small cushion to each knee in order to get around. Despite his serious injuries, the old captain wasn’t idle. During his three month solitary confinement Barter meticulously crafted a seven-foot miniature model of a man-o’-war steam frigate. He showed it to the reporter who noted that it was a marvel of workmanship.
Captain Barter and his dog next to the model ship. "Every rope, block, and sail was in its proper place; a wind-up clock hidden in the hold drove the running gear and propeller. On the deck of the wooden vessel stood 225 crew members, officers, marines, boatswains, and sailors, all hand-carved from small pieces of wood."
And Then He Built a Full-sized Boat
It was an amazing feat, but the self-reliant recluse had also built and rigged a full-sized boat. No small replica, the ship weighed four tons, which he launched by himself. Not a single person had visited him throughout the whole winter and spring.
After examining the skipper's work and appreciating the physical challenge their construction required, the journalist was a bit skeptical that the old sailor had really experienced that near-fatal ordeal the previous winter.
To prove his case, Barter limped over to a dressing table in Holladay’s cottage and removed a small jewelry box. He lifted the lid and handed it to the newspaperman exclaiming proudly: “Them’s my toes!” Inside the little box were several of the captain’s frostbitten toes that he had amputated and then salted to preserve as a memento of his fearful night on Lake Tahoe.
Beginning of the newspaper article where the journalist describes meeting Captain Barter and listening to his amazing tale of survival. — San Francisco Daily Alta California, August 22, 1870.
The Watery End
Barter knew that his luck on Tahoe wouldn’t last forever. On Fannette Island he chipped out a burial crypt in the granite, installed a coffin, and erected a small wooden chapel over it as his final resting place. But he would never get the opportunity to use it.
Reluctant to die inside his employer's cottage, Captain Barter built this small chapel so that when he was ready to die he could "just crawl inside the coffin and shut the lid."
Fate finally caught up with Barter in October 1873 while he was sailing back from South Lake Tahoe where he had spent the evening drinking. A sudden wind came and overturned his boat, sending him to the depths of Tahoe. Portions of the wrecked boat were salvaged off the rocks near Emerald Bay, but Captain Barter’s body was never recovered.
Fannette Island is the only island in Lake Tahoe. The tiny structure on top is not Barter's chapel. It is a granite teahouse constructed for Laura Knight, a later owner of the Emerald Bay property.
***This story is an excerpt from "Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 2"