- Historic Sites
“here In Nevada A Terrible Crime …”
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
On January 10, 1844, Lieutenant John C. Frémont of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, exploring southward from Oregon at the head of a party of twentyfive men, reached the summit of a range of barren hills in present-day northwestern Nevada and sighted a large body of water in the desert, “a sheet of green” breaking “upon our eyes like the ocean.” “The waves were curling in the breeze,” he reported, “and their dark-green color showed it to be a body of deep water. For a long time we sat enjoying the view. … It was set like a gem in the mountains.”
Frémont and his men found a wellused Indian trail and, following it south along the eastern shore of the great inland lake, passed herds of mountain sheep, flocks of ducks, and odd tufa formations—calcium carbonate deposits precipitated from the water along the lake edge mostly by the timeless action of algae and waves, and resembling castles, domes, and needles of varicolored stone. One of them particularly, an island rising almost three hundred feet above the surface of the water, caught their fancy. It “presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops,” Frémont said. “This striking feature suggested a name for the lake, and I called it Pyramid Lake.”
At the south end of the lake the explorers found a village of Northern Paiute Indians who greeted them in friendship and brought them great quantities of fish—“magnificent salmon trout,” said Frémont’s cartographer, Charles Preuss, who wrote in his diary, “I gorged myself until I almost choked.” The fish were giant Lahontan cutthroat trout, a species found in no other part of the world. “Their flavor was excellent,” Frémont reported, “superior, in fact, to that of any fish I have ever known. They were of extraordinary size—about as large as the Columbia River salmon—generally from two to four feet in length.” There were ample supplies of them, taken from the lake and a river that flowed into it, and the Indians, whom Frémont noted “appeared to live an easy and happy life,” gave the newcomers “a salmontrout feast as is seldom seen … every variety of manner in which fish could be prepared—boiled, fried, and roasted in the ashes—was put into requisition; and every few minutes an Indian would be seen running off to spear a fresh one.”
That was a century and a quarter ago. To the modern-day visitor who catches his first sight of the huge body of water in the desert, Pyramid Lake is still as breathtakingly dramatic as it was to Frémont. Shaped like a partly opened fan, a little more than thirty miles long on its north-south axis, some eleven miles wide at its broadest expanse in the north and less than four miles wide in the south, it lies in a long, hidden basin in northwestern Nevada near the California border. Ranges of barren mountains, rising as high as four thousand feet above the water, surround the lake, descending toward it in steep declines and long, sloping benches and flats covered with sagebrush and other desert plants. On the south the mountains conceal the lake from travellers hurrying by on the east-west railroad or Interstate 80, as well as from the growing urban centers of Reno and Sparks, only thirty miles to the southwest.
The color of the lake, deep blue, green, or gray, changes to reflect the hues of the desert sky but depends also on the density and movement of concentrations of plankton in its waters. Along the shore there are still few signs of development or of man’s presence, and the great sheet of water and hills around it are overwhelmingly quiet save for the sounds of wildlife. California gulls, Caspian terns, and blue herons flap and soar across the sky. Ducks ride the swells, and approximately 7,500 white pelicans, probably the largest colony ofthat species in North America, nest on Anaho Island, a 750acre National Wildlife Refuge three hundred yards off the eastern shore. The curled-horned mountain sheep that Fré mont saw are gone, but coyotes, mule deer, jack rabbits, and bobcats are abundant, as are armies of ground squirrels, lizards, and other rodents and reptiles that make their home in the desert cover.
The National Park Service has called Pyramid Lake “the most beautiful desert lake in the United States. … perhaps the most beautiful of its kind in North America”; conservationists and lovers of outdoor beauty regard its wild solitudes as one of the few remaining unspoiled natural wonders in the American West; and the state of Nevada touts the lake as among its prized attractions for tourists and sportsmen. Yet today the lake is threatened with wanton destruction, the victim of a uniquely unsavory case of the plundering of natural resources.
A remnant of a larger prehistoric body of water known as Lake Lahontan that filled much of the western Great Basin during the Ice Age, Pyramid Lake has only one principal source of water, the Truckee River, which starts at Lake Tahoe in the High Sierras on the Nevada-California border, almost one hundred miles to the southwest. Pyramid has a maximum depth of about 335 feet, and no outlet, but it loses approximately 147 billion gallons, or about four and a half feet, of water a year by evaporation. It receives a small amount of water from underground sources, from surface runoff, and from occasional desert rains; but in the main it has depended on the Truckee River, which historically kept it at a somewhat fixed level.