The Hermit of Emerald Bay

As old Captain Dick Barter sailed away from Tom Rowland’s Custom House on the south shore of the lake that frigid October night, he could just swear he heard “Old Gabriel” callin’ him home…and he was right. “The Hermit of Emerald Bay” would never be seen or heard from again.

hermit-emerald-bayIn 1863 Ben Holladay, Jr., son of the famous Stagecoach King Ben Holladay, hired retired British sea captain, Richard Barter. He was to be the winter caretaker of the private estate his father built and turned over to him just that year, fondly known as “The Cottage”. For twelve years Captain Barter lived a reclusive life at the isolated cottage. For his infrequent visitors, he never tired of telling tales of his adventures at Emerald Bay. He told of an avalanche off of Granite Mountain where everything came down “hoppity-jump”. He dropped his shovel and waited, sure that “Old Gabriel” was callin’ him home. Miraculously the avalanche cleared around him by only 10 feet and the Hermit of Emerald Bay’s life was spared…for a time.

On the night of January 26, 1870, Captain Barter was once again sure he heard “Old Gabriel” call, and this time just a bit louder. When the captain craved his bourbon whiskey, he was known to row to a local saloon on the shores of Lake Tahoe. On this particular night he was drinking and telling his wild tales at William Pomin’s Tahoe House in Tahoe City. Around 8 pm it was time to return to Emerald Bay while he was still able to navigate. Along about 2 miles off of Sugar Pine Point the growing squall capsized his boat and he was forced to somehow endure hours in the water and then eventually inside of his boat after it was righted, wrapped in soggy blankets. Once at Holladay’s dock, the half-frozen sailor crawled into his house where he remained for 11 weeks.

He told a visiting reporter on that sunny August day in 1870, that he wasn’t idle during his confinement. He proudly showed him a seven-foot miniature model of a man-o’-war steam frigate complete with running gear and propeller, and 225 hand-carved wooden crew members. He also managed to build a 4 ton “plunger” christening her Nancy. Seeing the reporter eye him in disbelief, Captain Barter limped over to a dressing table and pulled out small box. He opened it and handed it to the reporter while he exclaimed “Them’s is my toes!” And indeed within the box were the toes of Captain Barter, amputated, salted and forever preserved as proof of his deadly ordeal. It wasn’t too long after that, Captain Barter constructed a gothic looking little chapel on Emerald Isle as a final resting place for the day when his luck would run out.

And finally it did on October 18, 1873 when “Old Gabriel” finally called his faithful captain home. Once again, Captain Barter found himself drinking his bourbon whiskey and telling his tales, but this time at Tom Rowland’s Lake House Saloon at the south end of the lake. That evening while Captain Barter was sailing back towards Emerald Bay, a gale once again took him over, smashing the Nancy into the rocks at Rubicon Point. Captain Dick Barter disappeared forever in 1,400 feet of water. So the next time you take a drive around Lake Tahoe and find yourself in Emerald Bay, pull off into one of the viewing points. As you gaze past Fanette Island, once known as Emerald Isle where Lora Knight’s tea house has long since replaced Captain Barter’s gothic tomb, take a good hard look out towards the mouth of the bay. I’ll bet you can just see him, “The Hermit of Emerald Bay” in his Nancy heading out to the lake. Which way will he sail, to the north shore or to the south? It matters not; his worries are behind him now.

Photos and editorial courtesy of Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum. Written by Kim Copel-Harris with Western History Alive! and the Genoa Historic Ghost Tours.
www.laketahoemuseum.org, www.genoahistoricghosttours.com, www.westernhistoryalive.com