The Bizarre Story of Richard Barter, “the Hermit of Emerald Bay”

richard barter

Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is undoubtedly one of the US’s most beautiful lakes. However, it is also home to one of history’s most enigmatic figures.

Richard Barter, also known as Dick “Them’s My Toes” Barter and “the Hermit of Emerald Bay” was perhaps Lake Tahoe’s first permanent resident. A retired British sea captain, Barter’s life is the stuff of legend, and it’s difficult to ascertain what about him is true and what is not. 

How Did Richard Barter End Up in Lake Tahoe?

richard barter
Photo Credit: Tim Peterson via Unsplash

After spending his adult life sailing the seven seas, Richard Barter was ready to relax, to take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. He found the perfect opportunity to do so in Lake Tahoe

In the 1860s, Ben Holladay, founder of the Overland Stage Company, was one of the wealthiest people in the United States. Being in the transportation business, he had made many trips to Lake Tahoe, and he found it to be the perfect spot to build his vacation cottage. Specifically, he built the estate in Emerald Bay, a secluded area around the lake itself.

During this time, the lake and its surrounding areas were even less populated than they are now, and Barter soon acclimated to a lonely life, which he did not necessarily mind.

How Did Richard Barter Earn the Nickname “Them’s My Toes”?

richard barter
Photo Credit: Ben Carless via Unsplash

“Them’s My Toes” is certainly a humorous nickname, but the story of how Barter earned it is anything but. In January, 1870, Barter was rowing back to Holladay’s cottage from Tahoe City, where he had been drinking.

A gust of wind hurled over his boat, tossing him into frigid water. 

“I knew it was useless to call for help… I also knew if I got in my boat and attempted to reach shore, I should certainly freeze to death,” he told a newspaper reporter.

He claimed to have swam 10 miles to shore at Emerald Bay. To keep gangrene from infecting his toes, he cut two of them off and placed them in a small jewelry box. He would allegedly recount the story to anyone who would listen, showing them his severed toes as proof.

The Unfortunate Death of Richard Barter

Barter carved a tomb for himself on Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s only island. He wanted to be buried there, though things didn’t pan out as he had hoped. In 1873, his boat was once again hit by a gust of wind, but this time he did not survive. 

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