Tahoe’s love affair with wooden boats

What sets a woody apart from other boats on Lake Tahoe? Is it their sleek luxury, gleaming varnish and classic lines, or their ties to America’s golden age and the unbridled pursuit for the good life?

Woodies had their heyday in Lake Tahoe from the 1920s through the 1950s, longer than in other wealthy enclaves across the country thanks to the number of Civilian Conservation Corps jobs that buoyed the region during the Great Depression. But Tahoe’s love affair with the mahogany runabouts dates back to the early 1900s.


In this historic photographer, Tahoe locals Stan Dollar, Morlen Visel, Henry Kaiser and the Murphy Family ran boats in races on Lake Tahoe organized by the Tahoe Yacht Club, including the “Notre Dame.” The centerpiece of the South Tahoe Wooden Boat Classic and making her debut, built from the original Dan Arena plans, is a replica of the 1939 “Miss Notre Dame.” | Courtesy Antique & Classic Boat Society

The region’s tourism began in earnest with the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad over the Sierra in 1869, and as the Comstock Lode and related logging business dwindled near the turn of the century, the steamers used to transport lumber around the lake began reinventing themselves for the tourism industry. Visitors were soon stepping off the trains in Tahoe City and onto the steam-powered vessels.


“They have a completely different feel than a modern boat.
It’s a different experience, just like driving a vintage car versus a new car.
It’s a great experience to run around in these things.” -Herb Hall


Like the steamers’ adaptation to tourism, former logging camps converted to lakefront lodges and rustic camps to accommodate visitors – many of whom began buying property of their own. By the early 1900s, the wealthy elite, whose luxury resorts now dotted the lakeshore, found the newly developed wooden speedboats, affectionately known as “woodies,” to be the ultimate toys for playing on Lake Tahoe’s translucent blue waters.


Courtesy Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation

Meeks Bay Resort on Tahoe’s West Shore was one of the many hotels to offer boats for hire in the 1920s when resort owner George Kehlet began offering rides in his Stephens model boat Pico. Kehlet added more boats to his fleet in the years to come, and by 1932 he had earned a reputation for taking riders from Meeks Bay to Cave Rock in less than an hour. One of Kehlet’s famed boats, “Star Dust,” a 27-foot 1934 Chris-Craft, is on display at the Tahoe Maritime Museum in Tahoe City this summer.

Boat manufacturing quickly began to shift to fiberglass following World War II, and nearly all manufactures had switched from producing wooden to fiberglass boats by the mid 1960s.

Yet Tahoe’s love for woodies remains unceasing. With their rich woods and powerful engines, woodies remain the epitome of luxury and leisure in the modern era of fiberglass and jet engines. Events celebrating the wooden speedboats in Lake Tahoe started nearly as soon as companies stopped making them, with the first Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance held in 1972.

Asked what continues to draw people to the wooden runabouts, Herb Hall, president and CEO of Sierra Boat Company, said, “I think for a lot of Tahoe people, they really enjoy the aesthetic of mahogany; people want to have something that’s highly crafted, something that’s not quite so ordinary.”


Courtesy Antique & Classic Boat Society

Though they require heavy maintenance, Hall said most Tahoe boaters prefer refurbished classic woodies to the replicas or modern interpretations now on the market.

“They have a completely different feel than a modern boat,” continued Hall. “It’s a different experience, just like driving a vintage car versus a new car. It’s a great experience to run around in these things.”

Bill Means, a Homewood resident and Tahoe Maritime Museum member, recounts growing up on Fallen Leaf Lake in the 1950s and 60s and the thrill of watching the woody “DoDo” make its evening lap around the lake every day at 6 p.m.

Means’ passion for woodies remains to this day. Asked what makes all the work to restore and maintain the boats worthwhile, he says, “I think it’s looking at those 18 coats of varnish, at the boat’s shine after it’s all done.”

“And they just look so gorgeous on the water,” adds his wife, Patty.


South Tahoe Wooden Boat Classic

Each summer, locals and visitors are treated to two spectacular wooden boat shows – the South Tahoe Wooden Boat Classic and the Concours d’Elegance.

The South Tahoe Wooden Boat Classic is on tap first on July 29 and 30 in the Tahoe Keys Marina featuring more than 80 boats, hosted by the Antique & Classic Boat Society. This year’s theme is “Ladies and Gentleman: You Have A Race!”

The featured boat at this year’s event is a replica of the 1939 “Miss Notre Dame.” While not a Tahoe boat, she has a historic racing pedigree and carries her original 1927 Duesenberg W-24 engine. The original (third) “Miss Notre Dame” was built and driven for the 1939 racing season by a 22-year-old Dan Arena for owner Herbert Mendelson and would wear the racing number G-5. She can be seen and heard running this year at the show.

The event also introduces the “Hurricane IV,” featured in movies in the 1950s. The event also features historic Unlimited Class Hydoplanes, runabouts, utilities and cruisers. | tahoewoodenboats.com


Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance

This year’s 44th annual Concours d’Elegance will again be staged at the historic Obexer’s Boat Company in Homewood on Aug. 12 and 13.

Presented by the Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation, the 2016 Concours d’Elegance is celebrating the 80th anniversary of a boating icon: the featured Marque of Chris-Craft Racing Runabouts.

Chris-Craft started building Special Race Boats in 1934. It’s pre-World War II history also includes the famous “Painted Racers” of the mid-1930s, known as Red White and Blue boats because of their distinctive color scheme. The 19-foot model became the true genesis of the post-World War II Racer, the boats holding world record speeds in the 1 mile 225-E class (47.619 mph) and 5 mile 225-E class (45.330 mph). Only a handful of pre-war Chris-Craft boats remain.

For most of the general boating public, the Chris-Craft “Racer” is defined by the 19-foot split cockpit model built from 1947 to 1954. These boats are the focus of this year’s Marque Class.

By Amelia Richmond

For more information on Tahoe’s boating history visit the Tahoe Maritime Museum in Tahoe City, call (530) 583-9283, ext. 100, or visit tahoemaritimemuseum.org.



South Tahoe Wooden Boat Classic

Tahoe Keys | South Lake Tahoe

Friday, July 29
Show | Noon-5 p.m.
Beer Village | Noon-5 p.m.
$15 show until July 28 | $22 at event | Free 12 & younger
$15 Beer Village

Saturday, July 30
Show | Noon-5 p.m.
Beer Village | 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
$15 show until July 28 | $22 at event | Free 12 & younger
$15 Beer Village


44th Annual Concours d’Elegance

Obexer’s Boat Company | Homewood

Friday, Aug. 12
Show | 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Wine Village | 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
1-day ticket $25 advance | $30 at event | Free 12 & younger
2-day ticket $35 advance | $40 at event | Free 12 & younger
$25 Wine Village

Saturday, Aug. 13
Show | 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Roar Off | 4 p.m.
$25 advance | $30 at event | Free 12 & younger


Tahoe Maritime Museum
Thursday-Tuesday | 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. | Tahoe City
$5 | Free 12 & younger, members & military


Ride Boat Program
Every Sunday on “IV Phunn” | Homewood
$25 | $15 12 & younger | RSVP (530) 583-9283, ext. 100


Explore the museum’s collection
Aug. 20 & Sept. 17 | Noon-4 p.m. | Reno, Nev.



Historian Mark McLaughlin explores the history of the first boats on Big Blue

First Boats on Big Blue