Happy birthday Thunderbird: Popular Tahoe yacht turns 82

Ashleigh Goodwin

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — George Whittell’s former yacht, Thunderbird, celebrated 82 years on the water on Thursday, July 14. It’s home is a boat house carved into the shore of Lake Tahoe near Incline Village.

The Thunderbird Lodge, Whittell’s historic 6.51-acre estate, boasts spectacular views, art, Tahoe history, and brilliant architecture. The remote castle is complete with underground tunnels which gives it a mysterious feel. 

“Whittell owned 27 miles of the 71 mile stretch of Tahoe’s beach front parcels and had original plans for extensive development,” said Bill Watson, curator and executive of the Thunderbird Lodge. 

Watson added plans were laid in 1939 with a partnership established with a Reno man named Norman Biltz. The two set out to produce a casino, hotel, marina, and equestrian center in Sand Harbor. Plans for the remaining parcels were to be carved into 100 foot wide by 600 foot deep sections for house lots. There were similar plans for Zephyr Cove where the namesake resort is now. 

For some reason in 1939 plans for a city of lights and action dissolved. Watson said, “He stopped selling property, pushed his partners out, and tore down the foundation that Sierra Nevada Construction had just poured for the large complex in Sand Harbor.” 

Except for Incline Village, Whittell undid what he had set out to do with development.

“I think that it probably wasn’t as simple as this but, he looked out on the lake one day and thought, ‘I don’t want to see casinos and people,’” Watson said.

As Whittell’s attention turned to the expansion of his home he began construction on a boathouse to safely secure his newest love, a 55-foot long torpedo shaped yacht he named Thunderbird. 

The thunderbird fuels up in Tahoe City on it’s birthday.

The boat was carefully crafted out of double-planked mahogany and brushed stainless steel by Naval architect John Hacker. Then constructed by Huskins Boat Works in Bay City, Michigan. The boat specifications were outlined by Captain Whittell himself. Once completed it was shipped to Tahoe City via railway in the spring of 1940. 

Whittell was a collector of rare automobiles, aircrafts and now a boat fashioned to look like the fuselage of his DC-2 aircraft, also named Thunderbird. 

The $87,000 boat made waves as it traveled across the United States by train so when it arrived reporters were eager to report on the launch. Whittell announced the launch for July 15, 1940 but in the early morning hours of July 14 that same year Whittell snuck to the docks with a crew for a maiden voyage. The yacht was a party boat for two years hosting showgirls and select friends of Whittell for extravagant parties in his castle. 

Unfortunately Whittell suffered a broken hip, refused its repair and ultimately hung Thunderbird out to dry for 20 years. One of Whittell’s only friends purchased the yacht and cars in 1962 — William Harrah, a fellow car enthusiast. When Harrah took ownership of the magnificent woody it was restored with two interesting adjustments, twin WWII fighter engines from a P-38 aircraft. 

The original twin V-12, 550 hp Kermath engines, were removed with only 83 original miles 22 years after it was launched. In their place Harrah secured Allison V-1710 engines which were used in war aircrafts during WWII.

Bill Watson ready’s the boat to cruise on it’s birthday.

The restoration of the private yacht once again dazzled party guests on the crystal-clear water of the lake and even brought about a new nickname, the 70 mph cocktail lounge. The floating cocktail loung hosted casino high-rollers and showroom headliners, such as “Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby and Liza Minnelli, to name a few,” Watson said. 

According to the Thunderbird Lodge website, “The boat was returned to Reno every winter where the mahogany hull was meticulously sanded down to bare wood and refinished with ten coats of varnish!”

When Harrah passed away Holiday Inn purchased the cars, planes and yacht and auctioned them off. 

The Thunderbird was sold to Owen Owens, a man dying of cancer. To own the famous yacht was a bucket list item he checked off, even if only for a few short months. 

From there the boat took a trip to Jack London Square in Oakland under the ownership of married couple Clyde and Joan Gibb. The Gibbs made a life developing within Jack London Square, Thunderbird Properties and others. After a time, it became clear the salt water was a poor choice for the yacht and it was returned to the Lake Tahoe Basin. 

When the Gibbs divorced the boat was awarded to Joan. Later, the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society came to be and remains the owner of the historic vessel.

“The house and boat are the visible parts of his legacy, but his real legacy is the open space we enjoy on the East Shore,” Watson said. “The Nevada side doesn’t look like the California side.”

The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society’s goal is to maintain the area beloved by so many for generations to come. Thunderbird lodge is one of their top priorities. While the team for the lodge is small it is mighty. There are only four paid employees. As a nonprofit the estate’s future depends solely on the generosity of donors, tours, and members who contribute regularly. 

Public access is available by appointment only. Appointments can be made via the Thunderbird Tahoe website or through the Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitor’s Bureau

Ashleigh Goodwin is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sun.

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