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The eccentric George Whittell Jr.’s legacy reverberates at this popular Lake Tahoe waterside attraction.
Photo: Rachid Dahnoun (all)
Imagine owning 27 miles of Lake Tahoe’s beautiful shoreline encompassing more than 40,000 acres. Sound impossible? Not if your name was George Whittell Jr., the former owner and resident of Thunderbird Lodge, now an intriguing Nevada tourist attraction.
The son of a wealthy San Francisco couple whose families made their money from the California Gold Rush, Whittell was born into extravagance on September 28, 1881. An adventurous, sometimes defiant spirit defined Whittell from an early age—from African safaris to serving in World War I and ill-advised marriages to the high-society party scene, his was a life only imaginable for the absurdly rich. His love for high-stakes poker games and fast cars and boats, in addition to his collection of wild animals, quickly turned him into an icon. Much of his life was shrouded in mystery, rumors, and speculation.
After the stock market crash of 1929, Whittell was able to acquire an extremely large amount of inexpensive land on Lake Tahoe’s east shore south of present-day Incline Village in what is now Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. He purchased the land from the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company and several other landholders in the area. In 1937, he began construction of his summer home, the Thunderbird Lodge. After the lodge was completed two years later, Whittell would spend every summer thereafter enjoying his lakefront estate.
All of the materials used to build the lodge were acquired locally to ensure that it melded with its natural surroundings. In addition to the main lodge, several other buildings grace the property, including the Card House, Elephant House (where Whittell kept his enormous pet, Mingo), Lighthouse, Gatehouse, and Boathouse. The Boathouse contains Whittell’s wooden speedboat, the Thunderbird.
The Thunderbird is one of the most famous boats to cruise the pristine blue waters of Lake Tahoe. Designed in the image of a DC-2 aircraft, it’s 55 feet long and constructed from double-planked mahogany and brushed stainless steel. Originally powered by twin 550-horsepower V-12 Kermath engines, the vessel could reach a speed of 60 knots (almost 70 mph). In 1962, Whittell sold the boat to Bill Harrah, who restored it and replaced the Kermath engines with two 1,100-horsepower V-12 Allison aircraft engines. Harrah called the boat “a 70-mph cocktail lounge.” Today, the boat is owned by Foundation 36 (a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Nevada’s historic treasures) and has been returned to its original home at the Thunderbird Lodge. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Thunderbird.
Late in Whittell’s life, the State of Nevada used eminent domain to confiscate large tracts of Whittell’s land to form Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. Whittell sold 9,000 acres, which became Incline Village, to developers, donated land to the University of Nevada, Reno for research, and gifted a large tract to St. Mary’s hospital. After Whittell’s death in 1969, his remaining lands were sold to investment banker Jack Dreyfus, who then sold large parcels to the United States Forest Service. By 1998, all that remained was 145 acres surrounding Thunderbird Lodge. In a federal government land-swap transaction, the acreage transferred into the public trust, and the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society assumed ownership of the historic buildings.
Designated a National Historic Site, Thunderbird Lodge hosts 10,000 visitors a year and is open for seasonal tours and special events year round. Tours can be taken by land or water. By land, visitors meet at the Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau for a short bus ride to the lodge. The tour takes visitors on a journey into the extraordinary life of Whittell. Guests get to see the main lodge, the Thunderbird boat, secret underground tunnels, the Card House, and more. They also hear exciting stories about Whittell’s brief stint as a teenager in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, his pet lion, Bill, and the shenanigans that transpired around the lodge’s legendary poker table. The tour is conducted by the knowledgeable docents of the Thunderbird Lodge and available from late May to mid-October, Tuesday to Saturday. Private tours are also available year round for groups of 15 or more.
Woodwind Cruises and the Get On Tahoe Water Shuttle offer waterborne options to gain access to the lodge from the north and south shores. On a roughly five-hour tour, Woodwind’s vessel, the Tahoe, departs from the south shore and includes continental breakfast, an en-route narrated tour of the east shore, a Thunderbird Lodge tour, and lunch. Get On Tahoe’s boat, the M/V Blue Warrior, departs from the north shore and features coffee and breakfast pastries, a tour of the lodge, and beautiful views of Sand Harbor and the palatial homes of Lakeshore Drive in a three-hour tour. Both boat tours are available roughly June through early fall.
The Thunderbird Lodge also provides one of the most scenic and unique places to host a special event. With more than 3,000 square feet of interior space, the lodge is equipped to handle weddings, meetings, and conferences. The 1,500-square-foot conference room and 1,800-square-foot Lighthouse Room (with a large commercial kitchen) can accommodate smaller events.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing events at the lodge is its winemaker dinners. Four times a year, Lake Tahoe’s best chefs are paired with California’s best winemakers for an unforgettable evening. Winemaker dinners are set in the Lighthouse Room, where patrons are treated to panoramic views of the lake while they relax and enjoy an extraordinary dining experience. Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique and White Cottage Ranch wine will be featured Sunday, September 19, and Bistro 7 and Wines of Italy will be featured Sunday, October 17. Tickets for both dinners can be purchased at thunderbirdlodge.org.
“We’re all here because of the history,” says Thunderbird Lodge’s executive director Bill Watson. “Our goal is to turn visitors into patrons.”
Tues.-Sat., late May to mid-Oct.
$39, adults; $19 children 6-12 (younger than 6 not permitted)
Tues.-Sat., early June to Sept.
$110, adults; $55, children 6-11 (younger than 6 not permitted)
Get On Tahoe Water Shuttle
Call for days
$110 per person
WORTH A CLICK
Foundation 36—Protecting Nevada’s Treasures
DID YOU KNOW?
George Whittell High School is located in Zephyr Cove, on Lake Tahoe’s east shore. The high school celebrated a 50th-anniversary reunion in June. whittellreunion2010.com