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Captain Richard Barter; Lake Tahoe's Lost Legend: In El Dorado County's History

03/29/2018 11:00AM

Looking down on Fannette Island in Emerald Bay, it’s easy to see why Ben Holladay, the "Stagecoach King," chose this location to build one of the first private estates along Lake Tahoe. The picturesque bay is home to the only island in the lake and for 12 years was also home to Captain Richard Barter (“Captain Dick”), an English seaman hired by Ben Holladay, Jr. as caretaker of “the cottage.”  

While visiting the bay on a crowded summer day, it’s hard to imagine the isolation Barter endured during winters when the snow could be as deep as “13 feet on a level” and the only access to the property was by boat. Nestled below the mountains, the property was susceptible to avalanches as Captain Dick relayed to a reporter. 

“Suddenly I heard something a-crackling away up there... Looking up, I saw everything a-breaking loose from their fastenings and coming down the mountain hoppity-jump. Yes sir, everything, pine trees, big boulders, snow and all a-coming down together. They was making right for me…But sir, my time hadn’t come yet, for up yonder it struck a granite ridge and slewed off, clearing me by about 10 feet, and plunged right into the bay, sending the water up hundreds of feet.”

In the mid-1800s, Emerald Bay was not easily accessible and visitors were rare. Captain Dick took solace in his surroundings and forbore the solitude. He did, however, enjoy bourbon and, being a seafaring man, thought nothing of sailing the 16 miles to Tahoe City in a little boat to imbibe and regale the locals with tales of the sea.

One such excursion nearly cost him his life. On a frigid January night in 1870, the captain visited Tahoe City and, “imbibed so freely that I thought I had better leave there.” Six miles into the journey, his boat was capsized by a sudden gust. Captain Dick managed to right the boat, but knew that if he climbed aboard he would surely freeze. He tied the bowline around his chest and began swimming the 10 miles to Emerald Bay. Eventually, he climbed aboard and worked against the wind and waves for the rest of the night. At daybreak, the craft entered Emerald Bay and Captain Dick crawled into his house. He spent the next 11 weeks recovering from his harrowing night in the lake. 

Captain Dick sustained frostbite on his feet and amputated his toes. Unable to walk, he tied small cushions to his knees and hobbled around for the rest of the winter. In his confinement, he fashioned a seven-foot miniature model of a man-o-war steam frigate—complete with 225 crewmembers, officers, and sailors. Once the model was complete, he built and rigged a full-size, four-ton boat for himself, which he christened Nancy. 

Captain Dick was 63 the year he capsized in the lake. Knowing his time was limited, the practical sailor chiseled a tomb out of the rock on Fannette Island and fashioned a small Gothic chapel over it. The old salt would never use the tomb, however. On October 18, 1873, the captain was returning from Tom Rowland’s Lake House Saloon at the south end of the lake when waves generated by a sudden gale pushed Nancy into the rocks at Rubicon Point. The craft was smashed to pieces and Captain Dick drowned in 1,400 feet of water. His body was never recovered. 

For years, the locals called the little island in Emerald Bay “Dead Man’s Island,” in memory of Emerald Bay’s hermit: Captain Richard Barter.  

By Jerrie Beard

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