In the mid-1800’s, there weren’t many people living the Tahoe area. The brutal winters didn’t reflect a particularly habitable experience, especially following the Donner Party fiasco in 1847. There was one man who was the first to brave the winters on Lake Tahoe, and the legendary sea captain eventually lost his toes, and his life, to the lake. His solitary existence on the lake’s tiny island is one of the most fascinating stories of resilience and a legendary tale in the history of Lake Tahoe.
In 1862, real estate developer Ben Holladay had built a five-room villa along the shores of Emerald Bay, a promising business venture on the otherwise untouched land of Tahoe’s west shore. In the 1800’s, travel through the snowy Sierra was rarely accomplished and Holladay knew he would have to think outside the box to find a year-round caretaker of the establishment.
Enter retired British sea captain Richard Barter, whose experience on the open sea would be the best way to navigate the Tahoe region during the harsh winter months.
Barter established his home on Fannette Island, the tiny rock sticking out of the middle of Emerald Bay, for the next 12 years. He used countless survival tactics to survive the cold waters, nearby avalanches and the constant run ins with the grizzly bears of the area. A fabled drinker, he also never travelled too far from his bottle of bourbon.
As with any legend, embellishment is a central theme to galvanize the audience. Living in solitude, the stories of Richard Barter came from his own mouth. Following drunken conversations at his favorite watering holes in South Lake and Tahoe City, his stories grew far and wide of the brutal landscape of a wild Lake Tahoe. To be fair, if someone showed you their frozen toes in a box, you’d probably believe their tales.
As the stories circulated, so did the legend of Captain Dick.
Living a mostly solitary life in his tiny shack on the west shore of Fannette Island (before the current Tea House was built), Captain Dick would greet any visitors with a gun. He was known as an easy-going bloke who never let his guard down, except if greeted with bottle of whiskey.
As one of the last to experience the truly wild landscape of Tahoe, Captain Dick frequented nearby Eagle Falls to keep an overhead eye on the bay. He told stories of grizzly bear encounters in the mountains above the lake (grizzlies no longer inhabit the area) and of a massive avalanche that came within feet of his shack on the lake, lifting the waters up “hundreds of feet.”
As an experienced seaman, Dick used his skills to survive the brutal boat journey to town for supplies, bourbon and conversation. On more than one occasion, his boat capsized, leaving him vulnerable to survive the lake’s frigid waters.
The first time Captain Dick’s boat capsized was near Sugar Pine Point, the middle point between Tahoe City and Emerald Bay. A strong gust sent him into the near freezing Tahoe water (typically sitting at 41 degrees in the winter), putting him in the freezing cold 10 miles from home. As the story goes, Dick proceeded to swim 10-miles home with his boat in tow and bottle of whiskey in hand.
When he finally made it into his shelter, his toes were completely frozen and it took him three months to recover. During this time, he removed his frozen toes and built an intricate model of a ship. Always the eccentric, Dick carried around his toes in a box just in case someone dare question the story’s validity.
The brutal winters on Fannette began to wither Captain Dick. In his later years, he constructed a small chapel near his home so he could easily lay down and die. The old man had survived numerous near-death experiences, and was just one away from sealing his fate as a legendary figure of Tahoe.
That fate was sealed following a night at a bar in South Shore. According to local patrons, he boarded his boat that evening in a state of sobriety rarely seen from the captain. During the dark journey home, Captain Dick’s boat capsized and his body was never found.
Today, Captain Dick’s legend is immortalized in the form of Dick’s Peak in the Desolation Wilderness, which watches over Lake Tahoe year-round from 9,193 feet above. You’ll also find numerous plaques in the Emerald Bay State Park immortalizing his story.
Although Captain Dick was never able to comfortably rest in his chapel on the shore of Fannette Island, ghost stories say that he still swims in the area during foggy mornings. It’s soothing to know Captain Jack continues to keep watch over Lake Tahoe.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine