Captain Richard Barter with a model frigate that he crafted in Emerald Bay, circa 1871.

The Hermit of Emerald Bay

It was Captain Dick’s thirst for whiskey that did him in.

One of 19th-century Lake Tahoe’s most colorful figures was an old British sailor with a hardy constitution and missing toes. Captain Richard Barter was hired to tend a stagecoach tycoon’s summer villa on the shore of Emerald Bay.

During the snowbound winters, the only way in and out was by boat. For 10 years, Barter spent months at a time in intense isolation, earning the nickname the Hermit of Emerald Bay.

But Barter loved a good drink. Every so often, he would row his boat 15 miles across the icy lake to a shoreside saloon in Tahoe City.

One January night in 1870, the story goes, disaster struck. Barter was rowing home after an evening of drinking when a gust pitched him into the inky black waters.

Fannette Island, at the center of Lake Tahoe’s glorious Emerald Bay.

Michael L Peterson/CC BY-NC 2.0

With death all but certain, he cried out, “Richard Barter never surrenders!” He climbed back aboard the boat and rowed toward the bay in a race against hypothermia. At the villa, he collapsed and nursed his injuries in solitude for the next three months. Unable to stand, he tied cushions to his knees to crawl around.

To prove the story to a visiting newsman from San Francisco, Barter hobbled across the room, pulled out a jewelry box, and displayed several of his frostbitten toes — removed, he explained, with a carving knife and salted to preserve as mementos.

“We had found the Robinson Crusoe of our boyish days,” the correspondent later wrote, “not on Juan Fernandez but on the shores of Lake Tahoe.”

A few years later, Barter was once again tossed from his boat after a night of whiskey. His body was never recovered. A nearby summit, looming in the heart of Desolation Wilderness, was named Dick’s Peak in honor of the strange old sailor.

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