Something different: a day at the lake |

Something different: a day at the lake

Tahoe's Thunderbird Lodge.
File photo

My 15-year-old granddaughter made her first solo trip to visit me last week from Colorado. I decided a tour of the famous Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe would be a memorable experience. Since the lodge isn’t like other attractions that you just drive up to and park, I suggested we make a day of it and take the 5-hour-tour by boat with The fascinating history lesson began as we boarded the 1950 “Tahoe,” a 20-passenger wooden cruiser at Zephyr Cove.

“Capt. Cook,” yes, that’s really her name, told us the vessel was named after the original SS Tahoe, a 169-foot-long steamship that operated on Lake Tahoe at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Self-made silver and lumber magnate Duane Leroy Bliss commissioned San Francisco’s Union Iron Works to construct the ship in 1894. It launched in 1896 from Tahoe City and carried up to 200 passengers, cargo and the daily mail with two wood-burning boilers turning a 2,400-horsepower turbine that drove the huge three-bladed props powering the ship. When the railroad was completed and the SS Tahoe lost the U.S. Mail contract in 1934, D.L.’s son, William Bliss, found the ship too costly to operate and was forced to sell the family heirloom. For years it sat defunct just off Tahoe City’s shores subject to deterioration and vandalism. We were told when World War II came along the Bliss family repurchased the steamship only to end up sinking her in the depths of Lake Tahoe following rumors that the Japanese wanted to buy it for much-needed wartime scrap metal. Today the classic Tahoe cruise line “Cruise Tahoe” (formed in 1950) operates the smaller vessel we were on named in honor of the original “Tahoe” steamship.

This was the beginning of the many fascinating stories shared that day as we cruised along the shoreline. Before pulling into the dock, the captain gave us an overview of George Whittell, Jr., the colorful millionaire who built the lodge covering his life of privilege, travels, romantic escapades and the innovative ideas he put into practice at the property. The famous Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site is located right on the water on the lake’s northeast shore. Most people only get to see it from the paddle wheelers and other boats as they cruise by on the lake. It is a rare privilege to enter the home of the ingenious, albeit eccentric millionaire who began its construction in 1936 as a summer residence. It was designed in the “Rustic” style by famed architect Frederic DeLongchamps.

The national historic site is comprised of the George Whittell Estate, the Thunderbird Yacht, the Donald W. Reynolds Lake Tahoe History and Culture Program, and a collection of Lake Tahoe artifacts, documents, photographs, and films entrusted to the Society’s museum archives. The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, a non-profit organization operates Thunderbird Lake Tahoe for charitable purposes. It is interesting to note that the elegant and beautifully maintained site is a non-profit 501-C corporation receiving no government support. It is over 90 percent run by volunteers and meets its costly operating and maintenance expenses are met by supporting memberships, yacht rental, weddings and special events, tours, and other exclusive fundraising efforts, etc.

First on our tour were portions of the interior, including the underground tunnels and a “break room” (a former opium den) for the workers while building the 600-foot long tunnel. We got a good look at the Thunderbird yacht in its attached 100-foot boathouse and even heard the roar of her two vintage V-12 Allison Aircraft engines although they are said to “purr” when cruising, reaching speeds approaching 70 mph. Completely restored in 2015, the 55-foot magnificent wooden boat has been plying Tahoe’s waters for more than 75 years. She boasts Honduran mahogany hardwoods, polished stainless steel, and elegant crystal. George Whittell who once owned much of Lake Tahoe’s east shore hired John L. Hacker in 1940 to construct a boathouse to contain her, and the tunnel connecting it to the residence.

Then our group moved on to the walkways of the beautiful grounds with magnificent mountain and lake views, lush landscaping, a waterfall, and pools. The weather was perfect and our cozy group of 18 passengers enjoyed a delicious lunch of ham, beef or turkey sandwiches on freshly baked croissants with pasta salad and fresh fruit there in the estate’s gardens.

If a unique day like this sounds interesting to you, check out website or call 775-230-8907. You will also find less expensive options for visiting the lodge at

Contact Anita Kornoff at