History comes to life at Thunderbird

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The historic Thunderbird Lodge is a wonderful glimpse into the luxurious side of Lake Tahoe’s history. Today, the lodge is a popular site for weddings, retreats and corporate functions, and also as a museum for the Lake Tahoe Preservation Society providing educational tours for kids and adults.

A wealthy recluse, George Whittell Jr. lived life by his own rules creating stories that blurred the lines of rumors and myth. His legacy lives on along the undeveloped areas of the East Shore of Lake Tahoe and the stunning Thunderbird Lodge. The son of a San Francisco real estate and railroad tycoon, Whittell chose to skip college and instead joined the Barnum and Bailey circus launching a love affair for exotic animals and self-indulgent behavior.

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Whittell returned to the West Coast and purchased 40,000 acres of land along Lake Tahoe and began construction on what was to be his summer estate in 1936. The lodge was design by Frederic DeLongchamps, who also designed the Reno Courthouse and the Carson City Capital building. The lodge represents a high level of expertise in stone masonry, ironwork and woodwork. The main building included two master bedrooms, a main living area and a fully functional kitchen that still houses all of the original appliances, and bedrooms for servants.

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The Card House stands separate from the main house and is where the boys would play late night, high-stakes poker games. A secret door through the shower connects the Card House to the main house and allowed Whittell to escape the games unnoticed when things weren’t going his way. Also accessible via the secret tunnel is the boathouse where Whittell kept his immaculate “Thunderbird” yacht. One of the most recognizable and possibly most valuable wooden speed boats, the “Thunderbird” is powered by two jet engines and remains in operation today although the boat has be docked recently for repairs. The historic boat recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

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The original intention was to develop the rest of the land, however, after completing the summer estate, Whittell chose seclusion over development and held on to the land for three decades, eventually selling a portion to be developed into what is now Crystal Bay. Another portion of the land was sold to the State of Nevada and the U.S. Forest Service and remains undeveloped today.

After Whittell’s death in 1969 the lodge and estate were purchased by a New York financier, Jack Dreyfus who built a large addition to the main lodge featuring expansive views of Lake Tahoe.

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Today, the Thunderbird Lodge and is owned and operated by the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. The society is a nonprofit organization that curated a collection of Lake Tahoe artifacts, documents, films and photographs and provides educational tours and classes to the public to celebrate the rich history of the area. Public tours of the Thunderbird Lodge are offered by boat and by land Tuesday through Saturday from Memorial Day to mid-October offering participants a glimpse into the life of George Whittell Jr. On Friday evenings, guests may enjoy light appetizers paired with regional wines while visiting the estate. The lodge is also open for weddings and corporate events.

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The “Thunderbird” yacht remains a highlight of every estate tour. The boat recently underwent a major overhaul, repairing each of its twin Allison engines. In years past, the yacht was available for private cruises, however the Thunderbird Preservation Society is currently raising funds for necessary repairs to the boat’s bottom. Interested parties can help preserve this important piece of Lake Tahoe’s maritime heritage by joining the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. Membership also includes invitations to member’s only events such as winemaker’s dinners featuring menus curated by local chefs in collaboration with regional wineries.

Public Tours
Offered Tuesday to Saturday through mid-October by shuttle, boat or kayak. All tours require advance reservations and no self-guided tours are offered.

For more information about the Thunderbird Lodge, the Preservation Society or how to plan a visit, go to thunderbirdtahoe.org.

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Jenn Sheridan

Jenn is a freelance writer using words, photos and digital media to connect people to the outdoors.