Sierra history: A look at Lake Tahoe’s wonderful wood-powered steamship past | SierraSun.com

Sierra history: A look at Lake Tahoe’s wonderful wood-powered steamship past

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun

On August 7-8, the annual 2015 Concours d'Elegance will be held at Obexer's Boat Company on Lake Tahoe's west shore.

This internationally acclaimed wooden boat exhibit gathers together some of the world's most beautiful watercraft in a celebration that reminds us of how maritime vessels have shaped the Tahoe Basin's earliest history.

For nearly a century, wood-powered steamships plied the waters of Lake Tahoe, about a dozen in all, with an assortment of purpose and utility.

In 1872 the Governor Stanford started operating on the lake as the first Tahoe steamer built exclusively for tourist transportation.

Named after one of the directors of Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford, who later became governor of California, the boat was based in Tahoe City.

The Governor Stanford was a side-wheeler that boasted an expansive upper deck for sightseeing.

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At nearly 100 feet long and 15 feet wide, the ship was criticized for being slow, but it could ferry up to 125 passengers around the lake in just eight hours.

PLYING THE LAKE

Another steamer hit the pristine waters of Lake Tahoe in 1875. This boat was the Niagara, an 83-foot-long passenger ship that was later remodeled with grained woodwork and exquisite Brussels carpet installed in its well-appointed saloon.

The Niagara provided reliable service for a quarter of a century until 1900 when it was beached in Tahoe City and dismantled for firewood and scrap metal.

In August 1876, a new vessel joined the 19th century Tahoe steamer fleet. The Meteor was an 80-foot-long workhorse that plied the lake year-round.

At the time of her launch, she was considered the fastest boat of her kind in the world, with a maximum speed close to 30 mph depending upon the load.

Meteor and her sister ship Emerald II were owned by Duane Leroy Bliss, a timber baron whose business interests evolved from resource exploitation to tourism development.

In 1938, after 52 years, Meteor was taken out of service and permanently docked at Tahoe City. It joined the Emerald II, which had also been beached and repurposed to an imaginary Pirate Ship by local schoolchildren.

When Emerald II was dismantled and sold for scrap metal it catalyzed Tahoe City children. Students at the Tahoe City School pleaded that Meteor be spared and converted into a maritime museum on Commons Beach. Their request was denied.

The Meteor was given a new coat of fresh white paint and then towed toward Glenbrook, Nevada. In the middle of the lake her seacocks were opened and the pioneer vessel dove into the depths, settling among the other decommissioned steamers in Tahoe's watery boat graveyard.

INTRODUCING SS TAHOE

Finally, in June 1896, the last and most magnificent steamer of them all was launched at Glenbrook. At nearly 170 feet long, the steel-hulled SS Tahoe was the largest and most elegant ship to sail Big Blue.

The ship was decked out with a nicely appointed dining room and saloon, along with space for freight and mail operations. Initially powered by wood, it was converted to an oil burner that condensed the exhaust and made it much quieter than previous steamers on the lake.

This handsome vessel with clean lines was fondly known by all as the "Queen of the Lake," a popular role she performed faithfully for nearly 45 years.

Powered by twin engines with a combined 1,200 horsepower, the Tahoe was nearly twice as long as any of the previous steamers and could transport 200 passengers at 25 miles per hour.

Gracious appointments included deep grained mahogany trim and polished brass instrument housing along with a large brass bell to get everyone's attention.

The narrow white hull set off her sleek beauty and cut the water cleanly, but the design became a liability in windy or stormy weather when the boat rolled heavily, making passengers uncomfortable and sometimes seasick.

The ship's clear piercing whistle shrieked upon her arrival at ports of call, drawing excited crowds as she delivered news, mail, visitors and supplies.

The Tahoe was a vital summertime link between shoreline communities around the lake.

Maritime history reveals that during the course of 40 years of service, the Tahoe was only late once when a clogged smokestack delayed operation for several hours.

CARS BEGIN TO TAKE OVER

As time marched on, automobiles slowly put the lake's remaining steamers out of business. It didn't help when a competitor with a modern gasoline-powered boat managed to secure the Tahoe's lucrative mail contract.

In August 1940, Tahoe was towed out to the boat graveyard, but the beloved ship did not sink quietly like the Meteor.

It refused to go under until explosives were deployed and the Grand Dame of Lake Tahoe finally succumbed.

Today, the SS Tahoe rests peacefully on the bottom of Big Blue, protected by the crystal blue water that she had cruised for nearly half a century.

Historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. Find Mark's books at stores or http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Follow Mark's blog: http://www.tahoenuggets.com.

Editor’s note

This is the second in a two-part series of stories. Click here to read Part One.