Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part VIII – The Sailboats Arrive

Washoe Chief's Family near Lake Tahoe - 1866

Washoe Chief’s Family near Lake Tahoe – 1866

The first visitors to the Tahoe Basin, the Native Americans, probably did not venture far out on to the lake in boats. Neither did the early explorers and mountain men. There was no need to do so, since there was plenty of food on the shore and fish could be easily caught where the many creeks entered the lake.

Asa Hawley, of Hawley’s Grade fame, attempted to measure the size of the lake by rowing around it in a skiff made from local materials. Although his math was incorrect and he calculated the lake to have twice the circumference as it really had, he is believed to be the first to circumnavigate of the lake in a boat of any kind. Like the many later visitors and tourists that brought canoes, rowboats and sailboats to the lake, he also did not venture far from shore.

The first real sailing craft to appear on the lake was the “Edith Batty”, a seven ton, gaff rigged sloop. She was built at Glenbrook in the 1850s by Homer Burton. Although designed as a sailboat, she also had long oars, or sweeps, used when the wind died, which it often does in the Tahoe Basin.

During the warm summer months, the “Edith Batty” was available for charter and afternoon or evening parties and often carried passengers, freight and even the mail to and from different places around the lake. With a good wind, she made excellent speed, but because the winds were fickle, it often took a full week to make a trip around the lake.

In the 1870s, after years of hard service, the “Edith Batty” was beached at Glenbrook Bay and abandoned to the harsh elements of the Tahoe Basin.

Other small sailboats appeared on the lake soon after the launching of the “Edith Batty”. These included William Howland’s nineteen foot long “Challenge” along with the “Pride of the Lake” and “Transit”, both about thirty feet long. Like the several whaleboats that were also brought to the lake, they were used primarily for recreation, fishing and other pleasure trips.

The Iron Duke - 1870s

The Iron Duke – 1870s

The first real commercial craft to sail on the lake was the “Iron Duke”, which was constructed in the spring of 1860 at the north end of the lake. Built and owned by Fish and Ferguson, who ran haying operations in Squaw Valley, this ship, named for the Duke of Wellington, was a sixty foot long, two masted, double ended schooner.

She could carry up to one hundred and twenty-five tons of cargo or passengers, but had no auxiliary power. When becalmed, several small boats were put overboard and attached to the bow by lines. Six to ten men manned oars in each boat and pulled, albeit slowly, the “Iron Duke” towards it’s next port of call.

Although the “Iron Duke” usually carried cargo, and if there was room available, passengers, its schedule was erratic and subject to the wind.

On many of her trips she was fully loaded with fodder for the thousands of animals that hauled the huge freight wagons along the road to the mines in Nevada. This she carried from both the hayfields in Squaw Valley and several other places around the lake to the many way stations at the south end of the lake.

Because the “Iron Duke” and the “Edith Batty” were the only cargo vessels on the lake, for many years they were used for everything.There is one report that in 1863 the “Iron Duke” towed a barge carrying a Conestoga wagon from the south end of the lake to Agate Bay on the north end. It is unfortunate that there is not a lot of information on this trip, since using a sailboat to pull a barge would be an interesting to see, but very difficult task to do.

After twenty years of hard service, first as a cargo and passenger carrier and later, when the steamboats began to appear on the lake, as a lumber barge, the “Iron Duke” was abandoned on the beach near Glenbrook. Some records say she was scrapped and the remainder later burned, but some 100 years later underwater cameras found what may be badly broken up remnants of her hull and timbers in 400 feet of water.

It was at this point that the business people in the Tahoe Basin realized that sail power was not going to be adequate for their needs.

The lake was a beautiful but rough and often unpredictable body of water. In fact, one gentleman who chartered the “Edith Batty” for a trip across the lake gave the following description of the trip: “The longest experience on the ocean would not suffice to qualify a man for navigating this innocent looking water.”

The first steamboat to arrive in California came around Cape Horn in 1849, disassembled and tied down on the deck of a sailing ship. It’s name was appropriately the “Pioneer” and once reassembled, it carried passengers and freight for the gold mines from San Francisco to Sacramento.

At that time Steamboats had been operating on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers for three decades, but it would not be until 1863 that one would appear on the Lake of the Sky.

Sources for this story include: “Atlas of California”, by Donley, Allan, Caro and Patton (1979); “California Place Names”, by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “The Saga of Lake Tahoe, Volumes I & II, by Edward Scott; “The Mountain Sea”, by Lyndall Landauer (1996); “Lakes of California”, by Don Baxter (1972); “Sierra-Nevada Lakes”, by George and Bliss Hinkle (1949); “Sierra Stories – True Tales of Tahoe”, Volumes 1 & 2, by Mark McLaughlin 1997-1998): “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the archives of the Mountain Democrat.

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