Sam Clemens’ Campfire Story

In August 1861, Sam Clemens followed his older brother west into the Nevada Territory, determined to find his fortune and purpose.

Several weeks after he arrived, he met another traveler with similar aspirations named John Kinney. Clemens and Kinney decided to become partners and head to Lake Tahoe in hopes of staking their timber claim, making them both wealthy men.

During the Comstock silver rush, Lake Tahoe timber was in high demand.

When Clemens first set off on foot into the Sierra Nevada in 1861, he had not become the famed Mark Twain. A decade later, though, he would write about his time at Lake Tahoe in his book “Roughing It.” including an account of how he accidentally started a wildfire.

Describing his trek up the mountains, heading toward the Tahoe Basin, Twain applied his usual heavy dose of artistic license and wrote that he “toiled laboriously up a mountain about a thousand miles high,” and again, “four-thousand miles high.”

More than likely, the 25-year-old followed an old trail used by the Washoe Tribe to hike the 12 miles from Carson City to Lake Tahoe.

“A noble sheet of blue water,” Clemens, now Mark Twain, wrote of Lake Tahoe in 1871, “As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Later on, as darkness fell, Twain describes falling asleep, writing, “The wind rose just as we were losing consciousness, and we were lulled to sleep by the beating of the surf upon the shore.”

After camping at Speedboat Beach, Clemens and Kinney hiked three miles northwest along the shoreline until they found “a dense forest of trees a hundred feet high and from one to five feet through at the butt,” as he wrote in a letter sent to his mother.

They staked a 300-acre timber claim by posting notices on trees, then started to build fencing and a log cabin, though they did not get very far in their work. As it turns out, Clemens and his counterpart were much more suited to catching Lahontan cutthroat trout and relaxing on boulders by the water.

That night, Clemens camped in the forest, away from the beach where he lit his campfire, then walked away from the flames. When he turned around, the fire had jumped into the trees and quickly grew out of control.

Clemens never explains what became of Kinney.

In “Roughing It,” Twain described the conflagration: “It went surging up adjacent ridges, surmounted them and disappeared in the canons beyond, burst into view upon higher and farther ridges, presently, shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again, flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the mountain-side, threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among remote ramparts and ribs and gorges, till as far as the eye could reach the lofty mountain-fronts were webbed as it were with a tangled network of red lava streams.”

And that was, essentially, that for his Tahoe timber claim, as he never followed through on the paperwork to make it official. Instead, Clemens wound up in Virginia City, working as a miner and then as a newspaper reporter.

There are no signs of Clemens’ wildfire today.


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