By Dennis Cassinelli
Demand for fresh fish during the Comstock boom days was met by resourceful fishermen who brought their catch to market from Stillwater Marsh east of Fallon and from Pyramid and Winnemucca lakes. Some of the local Indians made a good living bringing wagonloads of salmon-like cutthroat trout to the gourmet restaurants and fish markets in Virginia City and other Western Nevada markets.
When Fremont first came through the area on his expedition of 1843-44, he discovered Pyramid Lake. Just east of there was a large basin that was nothing more than a dry alkali flat at that time, with a small puddle at one end. It became known as Mud Lake. In 1862, there was a major flood that filled the basin to a depth of about 80 feet. The lake was then renamed Winnemucca Lake after Paiute Indian Chief Winnemucca.
Before long, the lake supported a large population of salmon-sized cutthroat trout. Fishing on the lake became so productive that several boats, including at least one steamer named the Wm. Jamison, were used to catch the fish and bring them to a cannery set up at Wadsworth. In the 1880s, a substantial fishing camp was established about 25 miles north of Gerlach on the shore of Winnemucca Lake. The camp was operated by a man known only as Adobe Charlie. He had several fishing boats and operated a convenience store where he sold drinks, snacks and fishing tackle.
Even though the level of the lake was beginning to drop dangerously low by the late 1920s, Adobe Charlie decided to construct a new boat where he could take fishermen, girls and drinkers out to party during the Prohibition days. The boat was a side paddle wheeler propelled by a model-T Ford engine. When the beautiful new boat was finished, the lake had only about seven to eight feet of water left. On the maiden voyage, Charlie quickly crossed the lake and circled around to return to the camp. Before he reached shore, the boat hit a mud bank and became hopelessly mired.
Adobe Charlie’s boat never floated again. In fact, ruins of the craft deteriorated away on the dry alkali bed that was once Winnemucca Lake. The lake had begun a steady process of drying up after Derby Dam was constructed on the Truckee River in 1907. By 1939, the wonderful fishery had dried up to the point it became a desert once more.
In 1959, I was on a hunting trip to the Black Rock Desert area. When we passed Winnemucca Lake, I noticed something out-of-place out on the dry lakebed. I asked Tom Bradshaw, one of my fellow hunters, what the big black spot was out on the white sand. Tom told me it was a boat that had been there since the Prohibition days. The following year, my girlfriend and I went back with camera in hand and walked out to see and photograph the wreck of Adobe Charlie’s dream boat. Every year, thousands of people travel the road to Gerlach past the dried-up wreckage of Adobe Charlie’s boat on their way to Burning Man without even knowing the desert they are traveling through was a lake full of fish a hundred years earlier.
I have included with this article one of the photos I took of the boat in 1959. Today there is not much left of the boat – just a few scattered timbers, planks and ribs. Both the fishing camp and the boat remains have been recorded as historical sites with the Nevada State Museum. I wish to thank Oyvind Frock for much of the historical information he provided to me about the boat and Adobe Charlie’s fishing camp.