Nevada Characters



Fate had been kind to William J. Thorington. Although a short attention span had hindered his formal education in New York, young Bill was smart enough to join the thousands of Forty-Niners rushing to the California gold strike.

Thorington trekked overland during the summer of 1850, traversed the rugged Sierra Nevada at Carson Pass and then headed for the gold diggings. After three years placer mining in the Sierra foothills, Bill Thorington bought a fine farm for only $600 in the fertile Carson Valley near Genoa, Utah Territory.

Nevada Territory was split off Utah Territory and incorporated in March 1861. The region gained statehood in 1864 when President Lincoln needed more electoral votes for re-election. It’s motto is the “Battle Born State” because it achieved statehood during the Civil War.

By 1855, a financial windfall from a short-term loan had netted him the prosperous Eagle Ranch and ownership of the Clear Creek Canyon toll road to Lake Tahoe. The industrious Thorington also planted Nevada’s first fruit trees and dug the first irrigation ditches in the Carson Valley.

Big and burly, with mirthful eyes and curly black hair, Thorington earned the Lucky Bill moniker from his legendary skill as Nevada’s first professional gambler. He excelled at shell and card games.

Gambling has always been a tradition in Nevada, going back to the early mining days of the 1850s.

Over the years Lucky Bill helped many friends and road-weary travelers, as well as strangers fleeing from justice. Historian H.H. Bancroft noted that Thorington was “Benevolent in the sense of Robin Hood; he robbed those that had money or property, and good-naturedly gave of his easily gotten gains a small portion to those who had not, when they appealed to his sympathies—a trait which often distinguishes the gambler.”

Bill was also a devout Mormon and suspected of practicing plural marriage, an issue that generated suspicion and animosity among the increasing number of anti-Mormon residents in the region.

The first permanent settlement in Nevada was established in the Carson Valley in the spring of 1851 by Colonel John Reese, a Mormon who planned to open a trading post on the overland trail. Shortly after the Mormons built Mormon Station, later named Genoa, the first town in Nevada. By 1850 the trans-Sierra route near Donner Pass had been eclipsed by the more popular Carson trail just south of Lake Tahoe. 

Lucky Bill’s reckless risk-taking eventually led to his downfall. In the spring of 1858, William Edwards, a newcomer to the Carson Valley, asked Thorington if he could live at Eagle Ranch for a while. Lucky Bill was unaware that his unassuming guest had just murdered a man in Merced County, California, and was fleeing the hangman’s noose.

After lying low for several weeks, Edwards drifted north to Honey Lake in eastern California. A few days later, Edwards and two accomplices killed Honey Lake rancher, Harry Gordier, for his money and small herd of cattle. When Gordier’s body was found tied up in a sack, floating in the Susan River, community vigilantes took the law into their own hands. The outraged citizens of Honey Lake wrongly hung an innocent man named Snow for the killing, but they soon began to suspect Edwards.

View across Jack’s Valley north of Genoa. Job’s Peak in the distance is located along the eastern front of the Carson Range. A mountain range, river and nearby valley are named after Christopher “Kit” Carson, who came through the region with John Frémont during the winter of 1844. 

Edwards stole a fleet-footed horse and galloped back to Thorington’s ranch. Claiming innocence, he explained to Bill that there had been “trouble back at Honey Lake” and he wanted to sell the valuable steed to escape to South America. Always a champion of the underdog, Lucky Bill agreed to hide Edwards and sell the stolen horse. However, both men underestimated the determination of the Honey Lake mob. Two vigilantes, William Elliott and John Gilpin, pursued Edwards to the Carson Valley where they convinced Edwards and Lucky Bill to sell them the stolen horse. Edwards also told the vigilantes of his escape plans.

This steaming, geothermally-heated creek feeds David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort established in 1862. Nevada has 312 hot springs, the most of any state. 

On June 14, 1858, Lucky Bill was arrested. A quick search of the ranch failed to turn up Edwards. Despite threats of death, Thorington refused to help the authorities locate Edwards, but Bill’s 12-year-old son Jerome was persuaded to reveal the killer’s hideout. Both Edwards and Lucky Bill were taken into custody.

A citizen’s trial took place three days later. Mr. Elliott acted as sheriff, John Cary as judge and eighteen jurors were convened. On the stand Edwards acknowledged his own guilt and swore that Lucky Bill was innocent. William Edwards was condemned to death and ordered hung at the scene of the murder in Honey Lake Valley. Wasting no time, Edwards was escorted back to Honey Lake and by early the following week he was swinging from a hemp rope. (Ironically, Edwards’ two accomplices in the Honey Lake murder were only fined $1,000 each and ordered to leave the territory.)

Mormon Station State Park. Mormon leader Brigham Young sent Orson Hyde to Mormon Station in 1854 to survey a town site, determine the California boundary, and set up a government. Hyde changed the name to Genoa, allegedly in honor of Christopher Columbus’ birthplace in Italy. The name is pronounced “Jen-o-ah” in Nevada. Some might consider it ironic that the Silver State, today renowned for gambing and prostitution, was founded by Latter Day Saints.

Everyone agreed that Thorington was only guilty of aiding an escaping criminal, but vengeance was in the air. The jury ruled Bill Thorington an accessory to murder after the fact and sentenced him to die. The verdict was no surprise to the residents of Carson City since the hanging scaffold was built before the testimony ended. Bill’s luck had finally run out.

Frontier justice was often swift and permanent.

Two days after the trial, William Thorington was hanged at his farm at Clear Creek. The vigilantes placed him on a wagon with a noose around his neck. At 4 p.m., the crack of a whip startled the horses and ended Bill’s life. With a gambler’s resignation to fate, Lucky Bill faced death singing his favorite song, “The Last Rose of Summer.”

Lonely Nevada gravesite. 











Climate Change Weather History



In response to a provocative prediction for accelerated California climate change that I read in the Sacramento Bee newspaper last week, I felt compelled to contribute the following blog to the dialogue.

Warnings about regional climate change were kicked up a notch earlier this month with the recently released report by Robert Shibatani, a Sacramento-based hydrologist who is also CEO of The Shibatani Group Inc.

This new analysis offers dire predictions for the Sierra snowpack based on projected warming temperatures in California. The report, “Accelerated Climate Change: How a Shifting Flow Regime is Redefining Water Governance in California” focuses on the challenge of managing the Golden State’s water resources as snowmelt and river flow patterns are altered in forced global warming conditions.

It should be understood from the start that according to the Shibatani Group website, the company is “an international leader at assessing, documenting, and explaining the implications of forced climate change, climatic variability, and what that means to water supply and water resource[s]…” Since the group provides professional services and preemptive planning for watershed management based on climate change, the company has a vested interest in the field.

If Sacramento-based hydrologist Robert Shibatani’s projections verify, California is in for some “interesting times.”

Shibatani’s projections are derived from numerous sources that include a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-released document on western climate risk assessments. In his base assessment, Shibatani assumes a rapid 2 degree Celsius (3.6F) warming over the temperature averages from the 1961-1990 timeframe. Air temperature is expected to steadily increase in the 21st century, but this report assumes that a dramatic temperature departure “is likely to occur in the next decade,” which explains the “accelerated climate change” reference in the title.

Based on such quick warming over the next 10 years or so, Shibatani anticipates a greater than 50 percent reduction in the Sierra snowpack’s April 1 water content (known as the snow water equivalent (SWE)), by the early 2020s. As a hydrologist, it’s an event he considers of “Katrina-esque proportions.” He states that the only difference between a catastrophic flood event and his prediction of a significantly depleted snowpack within a decade or so “is that it will happen every year and with increasing severity, representing a permanent change.”

The Sacramento River drains Northern California’s main snowpack producing regions. North State provides much of the water that Southern Californians rely upon. Climate change may impact that established system.

Climatologists are not predicting a significant shift in the average amount of precipitation California receives each year, but Shibatani argues that much more of it will be in the form of rain as rapidly warming temperatures drive the freezing level (snow level) much higher. His forecast for future decades is even more ominous. By the 2050’s, the report projects a 76 percent reduction in April 1 SWE for the Sacramento watershed fed by the Sierra and northern mountains.

The amount of water that falls in the Sacramento watershed is expected to remain more or less the same, but the snowpack will cover less terrain and the timing of peak Sierra runoff will be earlier and of shorter duration. 

If Shibatani’s expectations are realized,  by the 2070s April 1 runoff will drop 90 percent compared to the 1990s.

An accelerated change of this magnitude would be disastrous for California and create tough challenges for Tahoe resorts, but Shibatani may be getting ahead of himself with the rapid extinction of the Sierra snowpack. Yes, over the past 100 years daily air temperatures at Tahoe City have trended warmer, with overnight lows up more than 4 degrees F. and daily maximums up almost 2 degrees since 1910.

However, over the last 10 years temperatures in Tahoe City have actually trended cooler, a change that was reflected in the updated 1981-2010 climate “normals” released in July 2011 by the National Climatic Data Center. The average daily temp in Tahoe City dropped a half degree; not much but not a warming trend either. At the Truckee Ranger Station, the new normal is cooler by one full degree.

Note the parabolic downward trend over the past decade in Truckee’s daily temperatures.

The new precipitation values have also changed. At Tahoe City precipitation has increased during the last decade, with the new normal up 1.6 inches to 32.66 inches, reflecting very wet winters during the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, which offset the worst drought in history during the late 1980s and early 90s. Average precipitation at the Truckee Ranger Station also increased, but only about half an inch. (Precipitation includes rain plus snow melted for liquid content.)

What NOAA calls “normal” is actually based on the most recent 30-year time span, not the whole period of record. Similar to the decadal Census Bureau cycle, every 10 years NOAA drops the oldest decade and updates new station “normals” by adding the most recent decade and adjusting the average.


At the Central Sierra Snow Lab at 6,900 feet near Donner Pass, the duration of the snowpack on the ground has not changed meaningfully since measurements began in 1946.

There were some other noteworthy adjustments in this most recent climate update which, at least temporarily, contradicts Shibatani’s conclusion that the Golden State is on an accelerated pace for warmer temperatures.

The NWS took a look at 6 key climate stations in California, ranging from Redding Airport south to Modesto Airport. Daily temperatures went down at 4 of the 6 sites, averaging about half a degree. Only Modesto and Redding were warmer.










Weather History



The 2012 water year for the Sierra Nevada won’t officially end until September 30, but for all intents and purposes Tahoe’s lackluster winter is over. It should be no surprise by now that precipitation last season was significantly below normal.

After this early season snowstorm blanketed the Central Sierra on Oct. 7, 2011, Tahoe skiers and resort managers hoped that another big winter was on the way. 

Despite an impressive battery of storms in March that dumped up to nine feet of snow on Tahoe resorts, followed by a wet April, it would have taken something closer to the “Miracle March” of 1991 to raise this year’s disappointing snowpack values to near normal.

The final snow survey of the season indicated an anemic snowpack averaging about 40 percent of normal for early May, varying from 77 percent in the north, 35 percent in the central region, to 20 percent in the Southern Sierra. The recent measurements were in stark contrast to 2011 when the Sierra was still buried under a snowpack 190 percent of normal on May 1.

Lack of natural snow forced Tahoe resorts to rely on snowmaking well into the winter season. Note barren Sierra Crest north of Alpine Meadows ski run.

Fortunately, that huge, late season snowpack a year ago will help mitigate this year’s paltry water supply because California’s major reservoirs are close to or exceeding capacity. With the crucial exception of certain farming districts, no water restrictions are anticipated for the 25 million Californians that rely on the Sierra snowmelt. Locally, reservoir storage in the Truckee River Basin stood at 128 percent of average on May 1.

Ironically, a little more than one year after California Governor Jerry Brown declared the end of a three-year drought in March 2011, the state’s driest winter in 50 or 60 years has desiccated the landscape and more than 60 percent of the Golden State is back to abnormally dry or severe drought status.

Juicy storms in March and April boosted Northern Sierra precipitation values out of the basement, but ultimately they were too little and too late to bump Tahoe to average for the year.

It wasn’t just the West Coast that suffered last winter. The United States ski industry was seriously impacted in 2011 by lack of snow combined with one of the mildest seasons on record that hampered snowmaking. At Lake Tahoe, skier visits at Northstar and Heavenly were down 24 percent compared to 2011.

Skiing conditions were fine in March and April, but the magic came too late to save a busted season. A lack of snow during the all-important New Year holidays and negative publicity about Tahoe conditions took its toll. With such a poor start, there was no way regional resorts would be able to compete with the epic 2011 winter, in my opinion the most hyped ski season in modern times.

Some Tahoe resorts picked up 9 feet of snow during one storm in March.

At the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory, station manager Randall Osterhuber reported that as of May 3, 322 inches of snow had been measured so far. That total of 26.8 feet puts winter 2012 at the 50th least snowiest in 66 years of record keeping.

Precipitation-wise, the 42 plus inches of rain and melted snowfall rank 2012 as the 55th driest since 1946. Not too bad when you consider that at the beginning of March, this year was among the top 10 driest in well over a century.

Skier Dan Scarcia hucks a Squaw Valley cornice on April 2, 2012. Conditions look pretty good here don’t they? Courtesy David Carmazzi/

Looking ahead to next ski season, the cool water readings of 2011 and 2012 have dissipated and transitioned to neutral conditions. In their latest diagnostic discussion released May 3, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center stated that La Niña conditions are unlikely to re-develop later this year, and that half their computer models predict the onset of El Niño and warming sea surface temperatures.

Dan Scarcia struts his stuff at Squaw Valley on April 2, 2012. Courtesy David Carmazzi/

Regardless of whether ENSO conditions are positive, negative or neutral next winter, even a normal season of precipitation will be better than last year and should offer plenty of white stuff for locals and visitors alike.



Climate Change Weather History



Working as a forecaster for the National Weather Service is not a job for the meek, especially if your zone of responsibility includes a region like the volatile Central Sierra. But there have never been so many tools in the arsenal of a professional meteorologist: satellites, buoys, radar, and complex computer modeling all feed into the mix before forecasts are issued.

When predicting high and low temperatures days in advance, weather professionals use climate averages to help base their forecast. Building up and maintaining databases of daily measurements for thousands of locations requires a complex network of automated sensors, official weather stations, and an extensive web of volunteer observers.

In the far western United States, with its challenging topography and myriad microclimates, it’s a vital network that took a century and a half to develop. The very first scientific records of weather, water and climate in the western United States were collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

That epic journey by the “Corp of Discovery” vastly increased the knowledge of flora, fauna, geography, geology, native peoples, trade possibilities and routes of the western wilderness. Reports from that expedition also informed politicians, scientists, and the general public that the land and weather “out west” were substantially different than what most of contemporary Americans knew at the time.

In California there is no evidence that Spanish, Mexican, or indigenous peoples attempted to accurately measure temperature or precipitation. The Spanish missions in California left no thermometer readings, but they kept track of annual wheat harvest production and how much seed was planted, which can help indicate abnormal wet or dry seasons.

It appears that the first instrumental weather observations in California were taken by Captain Frederick W. Beechey during a visit to Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in November and December 1826. Beechey, a British naval officer, anchored in San Francisco Bay during his four year exploration of the Pacific and Bering Strait. Capt. Beechey kept a detailed diary during his stay in Yerba Buena that not only included temperature and rainfall, but also atmospheric pressure, tides, and even magnetic variations.

British naval officer Captain Beechey among the first to document California weather.

During his 1826 reconnaissance of San Francisco Bay, Capt. Beechey and his crew experienced early winter weather. In his Dec. 3 diary entry, the captain noted “As we left the harbor of San Francisco, the shore of which, being newly clothed with snow, had a very wintry appearance.”

In 1812, the Russians had established two settlements along the California coast north of San Francisco Bay. From 1836 to 1840, weather diaries were kept at Fort Ross, with temperature observations made three times a day, as well as air pressure, cloud cover, rain, hail and fog.

Fort Ross is now a California State Park

In the politically charged six years leading up to the 1846 Mexican-American War, no regular weather observations were recorded in California. American sailors conducted detailed weather observations for a time during the fight against Mexico, but the record ended when U.S. warships and troops stationed in Monterey and San Francisco bays were deployed to San Diego and points south.

Several American warships anchored in Monterey and San Francisco bays briefly kept weather records during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War.

The first temperature reading published in a California newspaper appeared in San Francisco’s California Star in September 1847, noting “a week of hot and calm weather; 92 degrees in the shade.”

After the establishment of a U.S. military base at the Presidio in San Francisco in 1847, the post’s Army Surgeon was required to maintain a “Diary of the Weather” using a thermometer and rain gauge. These scattered and intermittent attempts at taking California’s temperature were of limited value for understanding day to day weather for agricultural and mining purposes.

Ultimately, continuous, long-term weather observations got started with the first wave of forty-niners as they invaded San Francisco in the Gold Rush. Medical doctors played a prominent role when they arrived with delicate instruments and the knowledge of how to use them.

Trained men of science like Dr. G.H. Gibbons and Dr. T.M. Logan would compile reliable observations, but it’s Thomas Tennent who’s recognized as the first person in California to establish a record of daily weather measurements shortly after his arrival in San Francisco.

Sergeant James A. Barwick was an observer with the U.S. Signal Corps in Sacramento, Director of the California Weather Service and Meteorologist to the State Board of Agriculture. In 1892 Barwick was concerned about improper weather station and instrument siting among cooperative observers that could skew weather statistics. The same issues crop up today among climate change skeptics.  

Tennent was a skilled craftsman from Philadelphia who made nautical and mathematical instruments for sea-faring ships. It had taken him 95 days to journey from Philadelphia to San Francisco via the Panama Canal — he walked the last 110 miles from Monterey.

Upon arrival, Tennent ordered weather instruments from the East and began his official observations in August 1849, and maintained daily measurements until February 1871, an impressive 22 year effort. He supplied his meteorological data to local newspapers, which were eventually published in Tennent’s Nautical Almanac.

U.S. Signal Service Station and Sacramento headquarters of the Meteorological Department of the State Agricultural Society. Note weather instruments on roof. Not surprisingly, average wind speeds dropped in many cities, including the “Windy City” Chicago, Illinois, when anemometers were removed from the tops of buildings.

Along with Sacramento and San Diego, San Francisco is among California cities with the longest weather records. Appropriate for a town where its beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once wrote, “A city where you can get a sunburn in the fog and pneumonia in the sun, freeze during baseball season and swelter during football, and read any morning that ‘it was the coldest day since last August.’”