This is lake Tahoe, again. It’s 1600 feet deep, the second deepest in the US next to Crater Lake. Such a deep, mysterious lake will naturally have some deep mysterious legends surrounding it, and Tahoe’s seem to center on Mafia Graveyards, a Loch Ness Monster, and Jacque Cousteau. The Cousteau Legend, thoroughly debunked, says that in the 1970s he took a submersible to film the bottom of Lake Tahoe for a tv program, but when he emerged from the lake he destroyed his tapes in terror, and refused to talk about what he’d seen saying only, ‘the world is not ready to know what I have seen’. The other legend has some backing in the science of the very cold lake, and it was even dramatized in the Godfather films, when some mafia goons shoot a guy and dump him in the lake (Fredo? right?) The idea is that the cold water preserves the bodies so well that they can be seen just as they were when they were dumped, pinstriped suits and gold watches, eyes staring into the green abyss, cement galoshes, their bodies perfectly preserved by the icy cold depths of the lake. In general, one might scoff and say, even cold lakes don’t work that way…but in 2011 a scuba diver’s body was recovered from the lake 16 years after he went missing, and was so perfectly preserved that they could do a full autopsy.
Legends come from somewhere, from some thing, though and so I did a little digging on this whole thing and found that these legends are very very old…pre-European in fact.
In 1875 the California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, of whom the famous Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is named, wrote an ethnography of the California Indians, recording their tribes and nations, their languages, their stories and their legends. Here’s what they have to say about Lake Tahoe:
Native Races, v.iii. p89 “The natives in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe, ascribe its origin to a great natural convulsion. There was a time, they say, when their tribe possessed the whole earth, and were strong, numerous, and rich; but a day came in which a people rose up stronger than they, and defeated and enslaved them. Afterwards the Great Spirit sent an immense wave across the continent from the sea, and this wave engulfed both the oppressors and the oppressed, all but a very small remnant. Then the taskmasters made the remaining people raise up a great temple, so the they, of the ruling caste, should have refuge in case of another flood, and on the top of this temple the masters worshipped a column of perpetual fire.
Half a moon had not elapsed, however, before the earth was again troubled, this time with strong convulsions and thunderings, upon which the masters took refuge in their great tower, closing the people out. The poor slaves fled to the Humboldt River, and getting into canoes paddled for life from the awful sight behind them. For the land was tossing like a troubled sea, and casting up fire, smoke, and ashes. The flames went up to the very heaven and melted many stars, so that they rained down in molten metal upon the earth forming the ore that the white men seek. The Sierra was mounded up from the bosom of the earth; while the place where the great fort stood sank, leaving only the dome on the top exposed above the waters of Lake Tahoe. The inmates of the temple-tower clung to this dome to save themselves from drowning; but the Great Spirit walked upon the waters in his wrath, and took the oppressors one by one like pebbles, and threw them far into the recesses of a great cavern, on the east side of the lake, called to this day the Spirit Lodge, where the waters shut them in. There must they remain till a last great volcanic burning, which is to overturn the whole earth, shall again set them free. In the depths of their cavern-prison they may still be heard, wailing and moaning, when the snows melt and the waters swell in the lake.”
So there you have it, what did ‘Jacques Cousteau’ see in the legend? The Tower of Babel meets Twin Peaks. So what if there’s a graveyard of bodies down there…that aren’t dead…they just can’t get out?