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Steamer searchlight restored

Linda Hiller

It is 1896 and you’re standing on a dock at Glenbrook, Lake Tahoe.

The Lake is shimmering and in front of you is the opulent steamer, the “Tahoe,” launched only days ago.

Your dress clothes feel itchy as you wait with the crowd to board. Standing there, you notice sunlight reflecting off a shiny brass searchlight perched atop the captain’s deck. As you board and find a place to sit, the steamer Tahoe fires up and backs off from the dock.

The Tahoe steamer was, in its day, an important factor in the everyday life of every Lake resident and visitor. It delivered mail, freight and passengers for 40 years.

Comstock entrepreneur and visionary, Duane Bliss, had the steamer built in San Francisco in 1895.

The steel-hulled boat – nearly 170 feet in length and just under 18 feet wide – was transported to Lake Tahoe in sections.

First, the huge pieces came to Carson City by rail, and then up the Clear Creek grade to the south by heavy horse-drawn wagons. After many months of reassembly, it was launched on June 24, 1896 at Glenbrook.

Tastefully trimmed in mahogany and brass, the Tahoe had a main salon, a dining room, a ladies’ cabin with seats upholstered in plush crimson with fine Brussels carpeting, and a gentleman’s smoking lounge with chairs of choice morocco leather.

It could carry up to 200 passengers and feed 30 at one time in the dining room. The open wooden deck was often used for dancing on moonlit nights.

But progress doomed the Tahoe. With the loss of the mail contract and the increase in roads and traffic around the Lake, the steamer went out of business in 1936, unable to meet its $125 per day cost to operate.

For nearly five years the Tahoe sat idle at Tahoe City, peeling and rusting, its beauty fading.

Finally, owner William Bliss, the son of the man who had originally launched it in 1896, decided to sink the boat so it could stay in the Lake it had reigned over.

So, at midnight one evening in 1940, the Tahoe was sunk in 500 feet of water near the dock at Glenbrook where it had been launched.

Fortunately, someone had the foresight to remove a few mementos before it was scuttled. One such memento is the searchlight.

Larry Cripe, who owns A-1 Restorations in Gardnerville, was recently hired by the Bliss family to restore the searchlight for a private museum.

“It was in pretty good shape when I got it,” he said. “It has a blue plaque dated 1884 on top, and the lamp is actually made of copper, brass and bronze.”

Originally the lamp was a carbide light.

“Like a miner’s headlamp,” Cripe said. “Then they electrified it, but it still had the reflective lens which goes into a mirror and then reflects in a beam,” he said.

“It was made in New York by the Huntington Searchlight Co., and it looks like the Scott Electric Light Co. converted it,” he said. “There are patent stamps for ’84, ’91 and ’94 on the lamp, and that is 1888, 1891 and 1894.”

Friends who watched him patiently hand polish and restore the lamp asked if he was going to replace the front glass, which had some chipping.

“That’s personality,” he told them, explaining that the front was composed of glass strips with slits in between for heat release.

Cripe, who has been restoring antiques for 30 years (“I started with cars when I was 12”), has specialized in clocks in the past.

Through his knowledge of clocks, he was able to locate a manufacturer and custom-order the green town clock which should soon be installed in downtown Minden.

As for the Tahoe searchlight, when Cripe is done with it, the Bliss family may display it in their own private collection.

“It was a privilege to work on it and a labor of love for me,” Cripe said. “I look at the picture of the Tahoe in an old book and see the searchlight and it amazes me to look at my workbench and realize it’s the same lamp right next to me.”

Larry Cripe can be reached at A-1 Restorations, 1428 Mission St. in Gardnerville by appointment, 782-2422.