Famed “Thunderbird” turns 80

Nathan Dethlefsen

By Bill Watson, Chief Executive & Curator

In 1939, flamboyant Tahoe summer resident Captain George Whittell Jr. commissioned naval architect John L. Hacker to design a new kind of speedboat: one having the lines of his Duesenberg automobiles and DC-2 aircraft. He envisioned a powerful and stylish yacht that would seamlessly cut through the afternoon chop kicked up by zephyr winds along Lake Tahoe’s East Shore.

Whittell specified the boat’s fit and finish: double-planked Honduran mahogany over a frame of sawn white oak, polished stainless-steel houses and gleaming crystal accents.

Eric Jarvis

A year-round boat, there was forced-air cabin heat to keep passengers cozy on inclement days, hot- and cold-running water, a shower, wardrobe, four Pullman-style berths, galley and an ample head. No creature comfort was overlooked.

When Hacker lost his own shop in the Great Depression, he worked from Ben Huskins’ Bay City, Mich., boat works. Hacker anticipated a 36-month construction schedule. However, with laborers desperate for employment and working three shifts each day, Thunderbird was delivered in 11 months for a then-staggering price of $83,500. After November trials on the Saginaw River, Hacker shipped her the following summer by rail to Lake Tahoe.

Thunderbird arrived at Mayfield’s Boatyard in Tahoe City on July 12, 1940. Mayfield’s, the former railroad engine house and shops, is now home to Tahoe Yacht Club and Tahoe City Marina.

Historical Whittell photos from the Thunderbird Archives

Making headlines across the nation, Whittell deprived the waiting press of a “scoop” when, in the wee hours of July 15, 1940, he slipped “Thunderbird” quietly out of Mayfield’s as reporters slept soundly nearby. Whittell berthed his new toy in a cavernous steel boathouse blasted into solid rock and connected to his stone castle — Thunderbird Lodge — by a 600-foot-long tunnel.

During World War II, at the age of 60, the U.S. government deemed Whittell too old to serve the war effort. Possibly feeling dejected, he lost his passion for technology, socializing and gallivanting, which included cruising aboard his yacht.

Twenty-two years after building his prized vessel, Whittell sold “Thunderbird” to casino magnate Bill Harrah. Harrah added a flying bridge and replaced her twin Kermath Sea Raider engines (having only 83 operating hours) with Allison V-12 aircraft engines. He then coined her his “70 mile-an-hour cocktail lounge” and entertained on board Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minelli and many more.

Today, the party continues aboard “Thunderbird” yacht. The nonprofit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society meticulously cares for “Thunderbird” yacht at her original home, the historic Thunderbird Lodge estate on Lake Tahoe’s East Shore. The preservation society uses the yacht extensively for its school and maritime heritage programs, partnerships with children’s organizations such as Make-a-Wish Foundation and Boys and Girls Clubs, and as a fundraising vehicle for its own museum and preservation endeavors.

“Thunderbird” is on view at Thunderbird Lodge, which is offering limited tours this summer. | thunderbirdtahoe.org

Chronology of “Thunderbird” yacht’s first 80 years

Spring 1939 | Captain George Whittell, Jr. commissions naval architect John L. Hacker to design and build Thunderbird.

Summer 1939 | The yacht is constructed at Huskins Boat and Motor Works, Bay City, Mich.

November 1939 | Launch and sea trails on the Saginaw River, Kermath engines achieve top speed of 45 mph.

Spring 1940 | Fitting out and fitting-out cruise(s).

Early July 1940 | Loaded onto a flatcar and transported by rail from Bay City to Tahoe City.

July 12, 1940 | Arrives at Norman Mayfield’s Tahoe Boat Works, now Tahoe City Marina.

July 15, 1940 | Birthday launch on Lake Tahoe, destined for Whittell’s enigmatic Thunderbird Lodge on the East Shore.

Summers 1940-41 | Skippered by Whittell on Lake Tahoe, who attends Chamber’s Landing boat races.

1942-1962 | Laid up at Thunderbird Lodge boathouse.

September 1962 | Purchased by casino owner Bill Harrah; locals regularly see celebrities aboard Thunderbird.

1963-1964 | Harrah repowers Thunderbird with Allison motors from WWII P38 fighter aircraft and adds deck house.

June 30, 1978 | Harrah dies; Thunderbird hauled to Harrah’s Auto Collection in Sparks, Nev.

June 1979 | Following Holiday Inn’s acquisition of Harrah’s casinos, Thunderbird auctioned to journalist Owen Owens.

November 24, 1979 | Owens dies unexpectedly.

1981 | Hoteliers Joan and Buzz Gibb acquire Thunderbird from widow Lois Owens.

Fall 1981-Spring 1982 | Bottom repaired and interior replaced at Svendsen’s Boat Works, Alameda, Calif.

1982-1983 | Used as a charter service on San Francisco Bay from Jack London Square in Oakland.

1984 | Buzz Gibb acquires Tahoe City Marina and returns Thunderbird to where she was launched 44 years earlier.

1984-2006 | On Lake Tahoe, Gibbs used Thunderbird to raise more than $2 million for charity.

2001 | Joan Gibb returns Thunderbird to her original home, Thunderbird Lodge National Historic District.

2007 | As part purchase and part gift, Joan Gibb conveys Thunderbird to the Nevada nonprofit Foundation 36.

2011 | Foundation 36 conveys Thunderbird to nonprofit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.

2011-present | Maintained and operated by Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society for educational and charitable purposes.

2015 | Thunderbird celebrates her 75th birthday on Lake Tahoe.

2014-2017 | Lake Tahoe is in a drought; the yacht is laid up for engine and bottom refurbishment.

July 15, 2020 | Thunderbird celebrates 80 years on Lake Tahoe.

July 15, 2040 | With your tax-deductible gifts to thunderbirdtahoe.org, the yacht will be able to celebrate her 100-year birthday.