Eccentrics of Lake Tahoe: Part II

Since the 1860s, Lake Tahoe has attracted unique and unusual characters, independent thinkers and entrepreneurs. Some made a living by providing services for tourists and visitors; others invested their wealth in Tahoe to build estates and summer resorts, often as an escape from the city. A few, who had little money, left their legacy in colorful quotes and remarkable stories.

Captain Dick Barter

Near South Lake Tahoe is a spectacular, glacially carved basin known as Desolation Wilderness. Towering above shattered cliffs of granite and glacial debris looms Dick’s Peak, elevation 9,974 feet, standing stoic and solitary. The obdurate mountain is a fitting monument to Captain Richard Barter, a man whose remarkable feats of survival have withstood the test of time.

READ MORE: Read Part I of Mark’s story

Dick Barter was a retired British seaman who shipped into Tahoe when he was hired to caretake a summer retreat built at Emerald Bay in 1862. Barter’s solitary life there was full of hardship and danger, especially in winter. For 12 years he lived the life of a recluse. The old sailor possessed a fatalistic spirituality. He expected death to come by drowning, avalanche or grizzly bear attack.

Dick’s Peak is a fitting monument to Captain Richard Barter, a man whose remarkable feats of survival have withstood the test of time.

Despite his eccentric lifestyle, the venerable sailor gained a reputation as an easy-going old salt that enjoyed the taste of bourbon whiskey. If Barter craved drink and conversation during the snowbound winter, he rowed his boat to the saloons in Tahoe City. In January 1870, while returning from a drinking session on the North Shore, a sudden gust upset his rowboat 2 miles off Sugar Pine Point. He struggled frantically in the cold water and finally succeeded in getting back into the boat. The weather was intensely cold and deadly hypothermia was setting in, but Barter furiously rowed against the biting wind shouting, “Richard Barter never surrenders!” The old captain’s grim determination saved his life.

Half-frozen, he rowed into Emerald Bay at daybreak, but his ordeal was far from over. He suffered severe frostbite in his feet and couldn’t walk, so he tied pillows to his knees to get about. While he recovered, he crafted a 7-foot miniature model of a man-o’-war steam frigate. When he could walk again, he also built and rigged a 4-ton sailboat that weighed 8,000 pounds. No one had visited him throughout the winter so when a San Francisco reporter showed up that summer to interview him Barter told him the story. When the journalist showed disbelief, Barter pulled out several frostbitten toes that he had amputated and then salted to preserve as a memento and evidence of his fearful night on Lake Tahoe.

On Fannette Island in the middle of Emerald Bay he installed a homemade coffin and erected a small wooden chapel over it as his final resting place. Fate caught up with Barter in October 1873 while he was sailing back from a South Lake Tahoe saloon. A sudden wind gust overturned his boat sending him to the depths of Big Blue.

Captain George Whittell

Captain Barter wasn’t the only screwy personality who lived at Lake Tahoe. George Whittell, an eccentric, playboy millionaire from California showed up in 1929 to buy land for development. Born into a wealthy San Francisco family in 1881, Whittell was the sole heir to his parent’s millions. “Junior” knew early in life that he wasn’t going to be a respectable businessman like his father and he charted out a wild lifestyle that would distress his parents and shock their staid upper-crust friends.

READ MORE: Explore the historic Thunderbird Lodge

As a rebellious teenager, Junior fell in love with circus animals and ended up following the Barnum and Bailey Circus around the country. He attended a slew of colleges and universities, but never graduated from any of them. When he was 22, he married a young chorus girl, but his father paid to have the union annulled. Shortly after, Whittell eloped with a British dancer, but his new wife filed for divorce just two years later.

During World War I, Whittell was commissioned a captain in Italy, a rank he maintained as a civilian. In 1919, he married Elia Pascal, a French debutante, who would remain his wife for the rest of his life. But after a few happy years together in California, Whittell’s frequent sexual dalliances convinced Elia to spend her time in Paris and the couple never had any children.

Captain Whittell was fortunate to be born into wealth, but he had a lucky streak, too. Shortly before the 1929 stock market crash, he liquidated $50 million in stocks and bonds. To protect his assets, he moved to Nevada to escape state income taxes. On arrival, he purchased about 29 miles of spectacular real estate on Tahoe’s East Shore.

Whittell planned to develop large resorts and hotels at both Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove. Fortunately, his vision to build the Sand Harbor Hotel and Casino, complete with 200 cottages and an aerial tram to a proposed ski resort above Incline Village, never made it past the drawing board. The aborted plans spared these two beautiful stretches of beach and shoreline at Lake Tahoe. Whittell then built the quirky Thunderbird Lodge, a three-story French chateau that overlooks the lake’s famed blue water. He also hired legendary marine architect John Hacker to design a unique Tahoe yacht. Sleek and stylish, the “Thunderbird” was powered by dual 550-horsepower aircraft engines and could reach 70 mph.

Stories abound about Whittell’s all-night poker games in the Thunderbird Lodge’s Card House with celebrities such as baseball great Ty Cobb, who had a cabin at nearby Cave Rock. Parties at the Captain’s summer playpen were relatively rare, but they were extravagant. Whittell had weeklong affairs with scantily clad showgirls from Tahoe casinos. Drinking was rampant and one underground room was used for smoking opium. Each summer, Whittell flew in his pet lion Bill.

In the late 1950s, Nevada forced the aged and ailing Whittell to sell his acreage to the state. Sand Harbor State Park was quickly developed, the first protected park on the Nevada shore. Thanks to the enigmatic George Whittell, who died in 1969 at age 87, people can tour his historic lakefront Thunderbird Lodge or enjoy 20 miles of pristine, undeveloped Lake Tahoe shoreline.

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Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.