LOST LEGEND #11: Origin of Tahoe’s Only Island
Over the years the island has had different names including Hermit’s, Coquette, Emerald, and the current, Fannette Island. There are colorful stories associated with these names, and two are re-told below, in brief. But the unanswered question has remained: How did the only island in vast Lake Tahoe get there? The answer is now at hand.
In 1863 Captain Richard Barter, “Captain Dick” to his friends, lived in a boathouse on the shore of Emerald Bay. The boathouse was part of the first private “villa” built at Lake Tahoe. Ben Holliday, a famous overland, stagecoach-line entrepreneur, owned the villa.
Captain Dick loved whiskey, his small boat, Nancy, and Emerald Bay itself, in that order! He frequently rowed his boat the 16 miles to Tahoe City and the Tahoe House saloon…and back. One moonless night heading home, the Hermit, as he was known, was rowing along off Sugar Pine Point. A vicious line squall ripped down Meek’s Canyon and slammed into him, flipping his boat. He hung on and eventually made it home to Emerald Bay—barely.
The Hermit’s brush with eternity caused him to prepare a final resting place for himself on the island in the middle of Emerald Bay. He excavated a tomb in the rock near the island’s summit and built a miniature Gothic chapel over it, complete with a small wooden cross. Barter let it be known in various drinking establishments that he should be buried in his tomb.
Captain Dick didn’t get his wish, however. In October 1873, while rowing home after an evening spent imbibing and swapping tales, the 66-year-old deepwater sailor was hit by another pesky gale. The sudden waves shoved his boat into the rocks off Rubicon Point and smashed the hull to kindling. Barter was washed far out into the lake where he sank in over a 1,000 feet of water.
The next day searchers found the splintered hull and one oar snapped in half. Four months after the incident, the second oar was found floating on the surface, undamaged. Rumor spread that the Hermit had carried it to his watery grave and released it after many months on the lake bottom.
It is said that even today, on chilly autumn evenings when a mist floats atop Emerald Bay and blankets the island, the Hermit can be seen, faintly, climbing slowly to the top of the rocks to try to get into his granite tomb as a final resting place.
In the late 1800s, an old, corked, champagne bottle was found in a rocky crevice on the island. In the bottle was a note dated 1866, written by a young lady. The note read:
“This island is like a lady in the center of a brilliant circle of admirers who, attracted by her beauty, must still remember that she has a stony heart. I thereby christen the island, ‘Croquette.’”
Afterwards, for a period, the island was named, Croquette. Some historians believe that today’s name, Fannette, is a misinterpretation of Croquette by an early mapmaker in Sacramento.
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These little stories (from E.B. Scott’s The Saga of Lake Tahoe) give a glimpse of the island’s relatively recent past. But they leave open the question of the origin of the island, however named. Here is how the island came into existence.
First, the Big Picture. Long, long ago all of the seven continents of today’s world were united in one supercontinent named Pangaea. The word means “all lands” in Greek. Evidence collected in recent times by the exploration of ridges running along ocean bottoms around the world present a compelling picture of how portions (continents) of Pangaea drifted apart.
In brief, continents are composed of comparatively light material (like granite) that “floats” on much denser (heavier) magna underneath. Stresses in the earth’s crust sometimes produce shifts—-called earthquakes--resulting in faults and fissures. Also, periodically, molten magna shoots up to the surface in volcanic eruptions, splitting the crust. Over long periods of time, the chunks of Pangaea (continents) gradually separated and seawater flooded into the widening cracks forming the oceans known today.
Below are two drawings suggesting how Pangaea slowly split to produce North America and six other continents. One step along the way in the process led to the creation of Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay.
The Lake Tahoe Basin was originally formed, along with the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Carson Range, by uplifting blocks of the earth’s crust. Legend has it that the basin was filled with water from Emerald Bay (see Lost Legend #1). At that time, there was no island. Below is a picture of what the very first people saw when they approached from the west.
The Fish War
In an age many, many moons after there was a Lake Tahoe, a local war broke out between the people of Tahoe and the people of Lake No Name, a giant body of water northeast of today’s Reno. No Name is only slightly smaller in surface area than Tahoe. The water that flows out of Tahoe’s single outlet (the Truckee River) ends up in No Name.
The dispute revolved around who had the rights to the mammoth fish that flourished in the deep waters of Lake Tahoe. Both peoples said they owned the fish. The fish were unusual in that they were quite firm, very tasty to eat, and they had no bones. This made them valuable both for food and for trading. For example, the mountain people traded with the flatland, coastal people: dried, fresh-water (Tahoe) fish for whale oil to burn in lamps at night and through the winters.
Disruptive raiding parties from the warring peoples went back and forth over Morning Peak (Mt. Rose, 10,778’) leaving chaos and injuries in their tracks. Some people on each side of the conflict felt there were plenty of fish to go around. But ambitious commercial interests on both sides kept the dispute alive. Years went by and the No Name people continued to raid and steal “their” fish from Lake Tahoe.
Finally, the long-time queen of the mountain people called a summit meeting at Emerald Bay. All the high people of the warring factions were invited with a promise that magic would be performed that would be beneficial to all who attended.
Queen Noe Hoe
A key reason the mountain people were strong and prosperous was because of the strength and presence of their queen. She was a direct descendant from the first woman of Tahoe, the queen’s namesake, Noe Hoe. (See Legends #1 and #2.) The queen was as steely (at times) as she was striking in her effervescent beauty. She was also something of a geological genius with a deep knowledge of how the forces of nature worked. There had always been rumors that she alone in the Sierra mountain range had inherited ancient secrets from Pangaea, the supercontinent.
No Name chiefs were skeptical at first about the summit meeting, but they decided to attend after an earthquake rumbled down the river fault line and shook their community for an hour. They were familiar with Queen Noe Hoe’s reputed relationship with nature. (Lake Tahoe @ 6,200’ is a half-mile higher than Lake No Name @3,700’ in elevation. Both the Truckee River and a fabled fault beneath the river connect the two huge bodies of water.)
The Summit Meeting
It took two long days for the No Name people to travel to Emerald Bay, which was the ceremonial site for all the mountain people’s important events. No Name chiefs went in their finest regalia, accompanied by a full contingent of warriors. They finally passed through the entrance to Emerald Bay in large canoes painted bright colors symbolic of the chief's rank and status.
To their surprise, the No Names were greeted with elaborate hospitality and honors as though they had won the war, which they had not. In fact, they were poor, relative to the mountain people, and their war efforts against the mountain people, while annoying, had not interrupted the splendid fishing on Tahoe.
That evening, on a small hill near the bay's entrance, Queen Noe Hoe greeted the No Names graciously at the start of a sumptuous dinner. Young mountain women served fish and deer and wine. The No Names had seldom experienced wine, living as they did in the high desert far from grapes.
As the sun was setting, Queen Noe Hoe rose and walked to the large, crackling campfire. There she signaled for silence by merely pressing her finger to her lips. On her finger was the Sacred Ring, and it reflected the entire scene back into the upturned faces as she seemed to float effortlessly in a full circle around the fire.
She stopped at the point where she had begun, and she extended her arm and ringed finger toward the far, western end of the bay.
Every head turned toward the water and then followed her gaze as she steadily swung her arm in an arc that moved up the bay and out across Lake Tahoe. On the far side the moon was just peeking over the mountains. The sight transfixed even the hardened warriors.
The moon increased speed as it slid higher and higher.
She kept pointing at it.
Then it was above the brim of the darkened mountains, a beacon in the sky whose yellow path lay on the lake and reached exactly to the summit gathering.
Now the queen moved her arm on a reverse course, back down the bay…until it pointed right at an island in the bay, an island that had not been there only moments before. Illuminated by moonlight and still wet from the depths, was a pointed, craggy little island, complete with dripping trees. And on one end—-the end closest to the assembled enemies—-sat a miniature castle, gray in the light of the moon. A shiver ran through everyone present.
There was no sound.
The queen let her arm fall to her side. “People of Lake No Name.” Name…name…name…her voice echoed off the other side of the bay. “That island now before us is a sign of our desire for harmony with you, our neighbor. That castle is where I wish for us to jointly pledge our commitment to peace tomorrow when the sun is most high.” High…high…high. She paused and raised her clenched fist with the Sacred Ring aimed at the heavens.
“Given that commitment, you, too, people of No Name, will have an island appear in your lake.” There was a gasp, followed by a murmur.
“These symbolic islands will stay in place in our two lakes for as long as we honor our commitments to each other…and share our fish, as neighbors should.”
To this day, the island remains in Emerald Bay.
And Lake No Name has its island, shaped like a pyramid…and the lake has a name: Pyramid Lake.
© Steven C. Brandt 2009
Editor’s Note: For readers interested in geography or Tahoe history, below is a drawing made during the U.S. Army's John Fremont Expedition of 1843-4. Traveling south from the Columbia River, the party stopped at the lake on January 11, 1844; they named it Pyramid Lake. Fremont and his guide, Kit Carson, went on south. Their party made the first white-man crossing of the Sierra in winter and the first sighting of Lake Tahoe in February, 1844.
For other Lost Legends, click Tahoe Tales.