When the Burners head north to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, they pass by another dry playa known as Winnemucca Lake. Both playas were once part of ancient Lake Lahontan. Winnemucca Lake is very near Pyramid Lake and has had fluctuating levels of water at different times in the past 180 years.
The lake was dry when Fremont saw Pyramid Lake in 1844. By 1850, it was described as a small pond and was called Mud Lake for several years. In 1862, there was a major flood on the Truckee River that caused Winnemucca Lake to gain about 80 feet in depth. Subsequently, the lake level fluctuated, and between 1905 and 1917, it lost about 20 feet in depth. A steady drying trend resulted in complete desiccation by 1939.
One important cause of the drying was the completion of Derby Dam in 1907. This reduced the flow of the Truckee River into Pyramid Lake and, ultimately, into Winnemucca Lake.
For several years following the flood of 1862, Winnemucca Lake became a major commercial fishery. The Paiute Indians took wagon loads of cutthroat trout to sell in the restaurants and markets in Virginia City. A small steamboat named the Wm. Jamison was launched on the lake where it was used for fishing. It made about 10 mph and brought fish from the lower end of the lake to the upper end where they were prepared for market. It was reported to have been about 18 feet long. There might have been another steamer used on the Truckee River between Wadsworth and Pyramid Lake.
Fishing continued in various forms for a number of years. In the early 1880s, a fish cannery operated at Wadsworth south of the lake. A fishing camp and store was opened by a man named Adobe Charlie about 25 miles south of Gerlach. This was a convenient stop for travelers in the days when it took many hours to drive from Reno to the lake. It took about two hours just to drive from Wadsworth to Charlie’s camp. Charlie had about a dozen boats for fishermen to rent and he sold beer, bait, sardines and fishing tackle. He was called Adobe Charlie because he built his house with handmade adobe blocks. His last name has been lost to history.
Adobe Charlie and a helper decided to build a boat at his camp, even though the lake had just 7 to 8 feet of water. Charlie’s plan was to use the boat for fishing parties, drinking, lake tours and “girls.” The boat had a Model-T engine, a differential and two side wheels. On the day the boat was finished, Charlie took it across the lake on its maiden voyage. On the return trip, the boat hit a mud bank and became hopelessly mired. Despite efforts to use jacks and timbers to rescue the boat, the efforts failed and Charlie’s boat was abandoned.
In 1959, I went on a hunting trip north of the Black Rock desert and saw the remains of Adobe Charlie’s boat out on the playa. A fellow hunter told me the story of the boat, so Mary and I returned later and took a photo. It is my understanding there is very little left today but a few pieces of wood.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Cassinelli’s books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.