Lake Tahoe: Twain called it the ‘fairest picture the whole world affords’

Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.


“Tahoe — it sounds as weak as soup for a sick infant. Tahoe, be forgotten!”

That was how a disgusted reporter named Mark Twain wrote of the huge mountain lake on the Nevada-California border in a story in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise in September 1863.

This Twain guy, hopefully in jest, could not stand people who were calling the beautiful lake “Lake Tahoe,” as the local Indians had called it for thousands of years. He was one of the supporters of calling the place “Lake Bigler,” in honor of a California governor.

Lake Bigler? Yuck.

Fortunately, in the years following Twain’s outburst, just about everyone started calling the 12-mile-by-22-mile bistate lake Lake Tahoe.

Californians didn’t get it. Their Legislature officially did not end the Lake Bigler designation until 1945.

Tahoe, a sweet-sounding word if there ever was one, is the Anglo mispronunciation of “Da ow ga,” the Washoe Indian word for lake.

Whatever the lake is called, it remains what a nicer Twain referred to in 1871’s “Roughing It”: “surely the fairest picture the whole world affords.”

Lush forests surround the lake, the sky usually is cobalt blue and the water crystal clear. Visit. Just avoid the July 4 weekend when thousands of college students arrive to drink and party all night in cabins along the beaches. MTV often films their festivities.

Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki speaks almost as eloquently as Twain about the lake, where he has lived for most of his working career.

“My first sighting of Lake Tahoe was as a 17-year-old college freshman. It really was love at first sight. I have been fortunate to travel all over the world, and in my mind Tahoe is still one of the most incredible places I have seen. Mother Nature did an incredible job. You can have a really tough day at work, but coming into the (Lake Tahoe) basin, everything is OK.”

The picture that Twain and the Washoe saw has become fairer in recent years because of $1.7 billion Nevada, California and the federal government have spent on erosion control, hazardous fuel reduction and other programs.

President Bill Clinton convened the first Tahoe Summit in 1997, and that led to the mammoth spending to improve the quality of the lake. Much of the money comes from the sale of federal land in Las Vegas.

Scientists in 2012 could see a disk dropped down 75 feet into the lake, a six-foot improvement from the previous year, but still not close to the 102-foot depth in 1968.


In a memorable prayer at the Tahoe Summit in 2010, Washoe Elder Charles Walker demanded that the federal government, private landowners and others return the lake to Washoe tribal ownership.

On its website, the Washoe maintain intruders are occupying their land and lake.

“Before occupation, the Washoe people lived a seasonal and nomadic life of hunting and plant-gathering. Summer was spent at Lake Tahoe hunting, fishing, and collecting medicinal plants, roots, and berries for the winter season.”

In 1970, a federal commission gave the tribe $5 million for its Tahoe land rights. Today, many lakeside mansions sell for more than that. Movie fans recall the producers of “The Godfather II” used a rented mansion on the California side of the lake for the Corleones’ home.

It was not until 1844 that a white man saw the lake, sometimes referred to as “the jewel of the Sierra.” Explorer John C. Fremont and his party spied the lake from a mountain about 30 miles away. But they were trying to get out of the winter snow, so they never actually visited Lake Tahoe.

Soon, thousands of emigrants on their way to gold fields in California were stopping at the lake. Californians, like the Indians before them, quickly became summer visitors, too.

The “Bonanza Road,” an east-west route from Nevada past the lake and into Placerville, Calif., was carved out by 1859.

But few people then dared travel to snowy Lake Tahoe and on to Sacramento, Calif., in the winter. So the legendary John “Snowshoe” Thompson carried 60-pound packs of mail during the winters on a 90-mile trek from Genoa through the mountains.

Even casinos, which opened at Stateline on the Nevada side with the legalization of gaming in the 1930s, closed in winters.

The first hotel, the Cal Neva Resort on the north shore of the lake, was built in 1926 and initially was known as Ta Nev Ho.

The unique feature of this resort is it is built over the state line. One can drink at a bar in California and then walk a few feet to gamble on slot machines in Nevada.


Frank Sinatra bought the resort in the 1960s. It soon became a playground for his Rat Pack and Hollywood celebrities. The often-repeated gossip is that Marilyn Monroe came to the Cal Neva for trysts with Sinatra. Legend has it she also met secretly there in 1962 with President John F. Kennedy.

Now closed for renovations, the Cal Neva Resort is set to reopen in December.

Harvey’s on the south shore opened in 1944, and Bill Harrah renovated an older hotel across the street in 1955. Harrah’s once was Nevada’s only five-star hotel.

Harvey’s has the distinction as the only casino ever to suffer major damage from a bombing.

At 4:45 a.m. on Aug. 27, 1980, a group of men wheeled an “IBM machine” into the executive offices of the resort without being detained by security guards. The machine was loaded with 600 pounds of dynamite. Mastermind John Birges demanded a $3 million ransom.

He didn’t get it and sheriff’s deputies could not disarm the machine. The bomb blew a 50-foot crater through five floors of the resort and blew out every window in the building. It was repaired and reopened by the end of the year.

Birges was angry over losing $750,000 in the casino.

Even earlier, Tahoe had become a tourist paradise. By the 1890s, stores and hotels had gone up around the lake to serve San Francisco tourists.

Visitors by the early 1900s could watch famous Washoe basket weaver Dat So La Lee work in front of a window in a Lake Tahoe shop.

Most of the vast forest of trees surrounding Lake Tahoe were gone by the 1890s. Virginia City mines needed timber to shore up their underground mines. The lumber also was used to create a giant flume to move water to Virginia City.

Old pictures show a barren landscape around the lake. Today the trees are back, but many suffer from bark beetle disease and gradually are being removed.

The fear of everyone in the Tahoe Basin is fire, particularly because of the dead trees and careless tourists.

In recent decades, at least, fire largely has been avoided. The Angora fire in July 2007 destroyed 242 homes near the town of Meyers on the California side of the lake, but people were thankful that it was not the big one they all feared.

Snow skiing arrived in 1910 when a ski hill opened at Truckee, north of the lake. By 1924, the first ski resort, called Olympic hill (now Granlibakken) opened at Tahoe City on the east shore. It would host the Winter Olympics trials in 1931.

But skiing was a sport largely for a few rich people until a New York lawyer named Alex Cushing persuaded the International Olympic Committee to allow him to host the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, six miles north of Tahoe’s north shore in 1960.

Skiing now is a billion-dollar plus industry at Lake Tahoe. Fifteen ski resorts dot mountains around the lake. The ski season usually opens by Thanksgiving and does not close until April, even as late as July 4 in snowy years.

The resorts typically receive 400 inches of snow each winter, but the past two years have been largely snow-free before December. Snow fell this fall in mountains around the lake, so residents hope for a snowy year.

Daily lift tickets run more than $80 at Heavenly and Squaw, but bargains can be found at some resorts, and discount season pass tickets are available everywhere.

Two-thirds of the lake belongs to California under deals worked out when Nevada received statehood in 1864. There is enough water in Lake Tahoe to cover the entire state of California to a depth of 14 inches.

About 70,000 people live in communities around the lake. Lakefront property runs in the multiple millions of dollars. Donald W. Reynolds, the late owner of the Review-Journal, had a lakefront estate at Incline Village. Gaming magnate Steve Wynn then was his neighbor.

It’s only natural that many Northern Nevadans derisively refer to Incline Village as “Income Village.”

But average people, too, can enjoy the lake’s beaches, even if it is only through buying a ticket to visit the Sand Harbor State Park on the north shore, Nevada Beach on the south store or any of several beaches in California. Just don’t come on July 4.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901. Follow him on Twitter at @edison vogel.

News Videos
Henderson fails to investigate the drug overdose death of one of its officers
Henderson Police Department's internal affairs did not investigate the 2014 drug overdose death of an officer. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Syphilis Awareness Day
Dr. Joe Iser, District Health Officer of the Southern Nevada Health District, discusses the effects and issues with syphilis in the Las Vegas community on April 16, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas diocese IDs 33 ‘credibly accused’ of sexual abuse
The Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas released a list on Friday of 33 “credibly accused” of sexual abuse who at some point served in the Las Vegas Valley. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CCSD Arbor View meeting
The Clark County School Board hears from the public about racial tensions at Arbor View High School on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (Amelia Park-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Parents of autistic student battle Clark County School District
Joshua and Britten Wahrer, parents of a special education student, are battling the Clark County School District for the right to equip their son with a monitoring device. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Metro homeless outreach a shift in strategy
Lt. Joe Sobrio discusses the new homeless outreach team for Metro. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prayer for Opportunity Scholarships
Las Vegas students and adults hold a prayer meeting about the Opportunity Scholarship program on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Solar scams on the rise in Nevada
As Nevada’s solar industry has made a resurgence, solar scammers have followed suit.
Clark County schools and the late bus issue
Year after year, late or no-show buses in the Clark County School District draw the ire of parents and students alike. One year the problem even prompted a parent to crack a school bus window in frustration over a late drop-off. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
I-15 southbound congested near Primm Sunday afternoon
Drivers heading toward California on Interstate 15 should expect heavy traffic and a 13-mile backup Sunday afternoon.
Learning lifesaving skills in advance of fire season
Students and firefighters attend a training session at Fire Station 80 in Blue Diamond, Saturday, March 30, 2019. The training session helps volunteer firefighters obtain necessary annual certification to work wild fires.
Car restoration behind prison walls
Inmates share their experiences working for the Southern Desert Correctional Center auto body shop in Indian Springs while learning valuable skills.
Parent remembers Las Vegas boy killed by car
People visit a memorial at the intersection of South Fort Apache Road and West Arby Avenue at at Faiss Park Wednesday, March 27, 2019, where Jonathan Smith, 12, of Las Vegas, died after he was struck while crossing Fort Apache Monday. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Couple left with surprise medical bills after visit to the hospital
Michael Pistiner took his wife, Marta Menendez-Pistiner, to the ER in January after she fainted twice and appeared to be having a seizure. Despite paying $856 monthly for health insurance, the two, self-employed musicians, were stuck with more than $5,700 in hospital and doctor bills after than hour-and-a-half visit. Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Las Vegas police brief the media on fatal crash
Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Nick Farese addresses the media about a car accident at South Fort Apache Road and West Arby Avenue that left one minor dead and one hospitalized on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Mike Shoro/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Arbor View parent talks about racial issues at the school
Lawanna Calhoun, a former Arbor View parent, talks about the state of the school. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jim Foley talks about 30 years of living HIV-positive
Jim Foley, who was diagnosed as HIV positive 30 years ago, talks at his home in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Traffic Slows to a Crawl on I-15S Near Primm
Traffic slowed to a crawl around 2:30p Sunday, on I-15S near Primm, Nevada.
Homeless residents speak about safety
The homeless residents living at the corner of Owens Ave. and Main St. reflect on how they feel about their safety after two homeless men died, one was hit crossing the street and another was beat to death by another homeless man. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
CCSD Superintendent address alleged racially motivated threats at Arbor View
CCSD Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara gives update on alleged racially motivated threats against Arbor View High School, and says such threats will not be tolerated. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Super Bloom Near Lake Elsinore, California
Crowds packed the hills near Lake Elsinore on Saturday to capture a rare selfie amidst the super bloom of poppies turning the landscape purple. The super bloom was caused by the larger rainfall this year. (Todd Prince/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fiery accident in Las Vegas
A three-car accident on Spring Mountain Road around 6:30 pm on Monday night
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Stardust implosion anniversary
Twelve years ago today, the Stardust Resort and Casino was imploded. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Lawsuits filed against security contractors at Nevada National Security Site
Two lawsuits were filed today against the current and former government security contractors for the Nevada National Security Site, one on behalf of Jennifer Glover who alleges sexual discrimination and assault and the other on behalf of Gus Redding who alleges retaliation after he gave statements supporting Glover’s claims. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New housing option helps Las Vegas moms keep kids while kicking drugs
WestCare Nevada Women and Children’s Campus in Las Vegas has added a new transitional housing wing for women who have completed the inpatient treatment at the behavioral health nonprofit to help them as they go through outpatient treatment, shore up their finances and prepare to secure long-term housing. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Teenager in critical condition after being struck by an SUV in Henderson
Authorities were called about 2:45 p.m. to the scene in the 2100 block of Olympic Avenue, near Green Valley Parkway and Sunset Road. The teenager was taken to University Medical Center in critical condition. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Water Question Part 3: Conservation loves a crisis
Future growth in the Las Vegas Valley will rest almost entirely on the community’s ability to conserve its finite share of the Colorado River.
The Water Question Part 7: How much can we grow?
Many experts agree that Southern Nevada can continue to grow, so long as residents are willing to do what needs to be done to stretch our crucial resource as far as it will go.
The Water Question Part 6: How many people can Southern Nevada’s water sustain?
The number can swing wildly depending on a host of variables, including the community’s rates of growth, conservation efforts and the severity of drought on the Colorado River.
Home Front Page Footer Listing