Looking back: Take a deep dive, and drive, into Tahoe’s history

Claire McArthur / Sierra Sun
Donner Memorial State Park preserves the site of the Donner Camp where the ill-fated emigrants were snowbound during the winter of 1846-1847 and resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Brian Baer/California State Parks

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” — a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, the great American writer and humorist, who left his own mark on Lake Tahoe through his poetic descriptions of the basin.

Indeed, Lake Tahoe has endured many different eras of history, some of which echo to this day, but all are woven into the fabric of this unique landscape. From the iconic mansions dotting the shores to rustic cabin museums, take a trip back in time — and around the lake — with this historical tour. 

Tallac Historic Site

Start your historical tour in South Lake Tahoe at the Tallac Historic Site, a 74-acre stretch of land once home to the “Grandest Resort in the World” and three estates built by wealthy San Franciscans. In the 1860s, pioneers in search of gold settled on Lake Tahoe’s South Shore, and with the subsequent completion of the transcontinental railroad, the area became a popular vacation destination. 

Though the 100-year-old Tallac Resort no longer stands, the Baldwin Estate now houses exhibits on the former proprietors of the resort and the Washoe Tribe, who inhabited the Tahoe Basin long before settlers headed west. At the Pope house, built in 1894, take a tour to soak in the beautiful architecture and learn about the luxurious lifestyles of the families who summered in Tahoe. The third estate, the Heller Estate, was built in 1923 and is now called Valhalla, the name of the great hall of the Viking’s Heavenly Palace in Norse Myths — an apt name given the home’s vaulted central living space and 40-foot stone fireplace. Valhalla hosts public and private events, while the estate’s boathouse is now the backdrop for concerts, theater and other cultural events. 

Vikingsholm Castle 

Heading clockwise around the lake, the next stop is Emerald Bay State Park to check out Vikingsholm Castle, a 1929 stone summer home built by wealthy philanthropist Lora Josephine Knight and lauded as one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the western hemisphere. While listening to Eagle Falls pour into the bay, walk the one-mile trail to take a tour of the house and hear about the great lengths it took to construct the building with hand hewn and forged materials, granite boulders and intricate carvings. Don’t forget to peer out at the tea house built on the top of Tahoe’s only island, Fannette Island, where Knight would often host afternoon gatherings. 

Hellman-Ehrman Mansion

Located at Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park in Tahoe City, Hellman-Ehrman Mansion was completed in 1903 on 2,000 acres owned by San Francisco businessman I.W. Hellman. His daughter, Florence Hellman Ehrman, inherited the estate, which was built with the most modern technology available, including steam generators that produced electricity until commercial power was available in 1927. Other buildings on the property point to the opulent lifestyle of those inhabiting Tahoe at the time, including a caretaker’s cottage, children’s house, maids’ quarters, butler’s cabin, ice house, coach house, power house, a dressing room, two boat houses and a boatman’s cabin. 

The Hellman-Ehrman Mansion is a stunning example of the high-end summer retreats built by the socially elite along Tahoe’s shores in the early 1900s.
John Palmer/California State Parks

Gatekeeper’s Museum 

Where Tahoe’s only outflow, the Truckee River, meets the lake sits the Gatekeeper’s Museum, a reconstruction of the original cabin that once housed the Watermaster in Tahoe City. Though someone is still responsible for controlling the water out of the dam, the Watermaster no longer lives on site and the building is now a museum showcasing Tahoe’s history from the Washoe Tribe to the mining boom. The museum features a massive collection of handwoven baskets, some nearly 150 years old, from Native American tribes across North America. Other exhibits highlight the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) and the life of black bears. 

The Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City has an extensive collection of handwoven Native American baskets dating back between 1890 and 1940.
John Palmer/California State Parks

Watsons Cabin Museum  

A 10-minute walk down the shoreline and history buffs will find the Watsons Cabin Museum in Tahoe City. Constructed in 1908 with hand-hewn logs and native stone, the modest cabin is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest log structure in North Lake Tahoe. Step back in time with the antique interiors and other highlights like an Indian grinding stone discovered by the son of the original owner, Robert Watson, and Tahoe City’s first constable. 

Donner Memorial State Park

Though there’s no shortage of outdoor activities to partake in at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, don’t miss your chance to learn more about the history of the region at the visitor center’s Emigrant Trail Museum. Illuminating exhibits tell the story of the Native American tribes that first lived here, the harrowing tale of the Donner Party’s winter stuck in the Sierra in 1846-1847 on their attempted journey out west, and the Chinese laborers who toiled to build the transcontinental railroad. Outside the museum is the Pioneer Monument, a statue of a family of four settlers that was completed in 1918 and sits atop a 22-foot pedestal, the height of the snow during the winter that trapped the Donner Party.

The Pioneer Memorial statue sits outside the visitor center at Donner Memorial State Park.
Brian Baer/California State Parks

Historic Stateline Fire Lookout 

Take an easy hike to the former location of one of Tahoe’s earliest fire lookouts overlooking Crystal Bay. The 2-mile, out-and-back trek takes visitors to the base of the now-removed fire lookout, constructed in 1936, where spotters kept a vigilant eye on the forests for wildfires. Placards showcase photos of the old tower along with other historical tidbits about the area. Though technology has advanced beyond human patrols, wildfires continue to be a major force that shapes life in the Sierra Nevada. 

Thunderbird Lodge was the summer retreat of eccentric millionaire George Whittell Jr.
Provided/Fielding Cathcart

Thunderbird Lodge

Round out your circumnavigation of the lake with a pit stop at the famous Thunderbird Lodge in Incline Village. In the early 1930s, eccentric millionaire George Whittell Jr. acquired 40,000 acres on the Nevada side of the lake — including 25 miles of shoreline — for commercial development, which ultimately never came to fruition. In 1939, however, he completed construction of his summer home and famed lakefront mansion. Whittell was born into immense wealth and spent his life of opulence collecting expensive vehicles, properties and exotic animals — including an elephant named Mingo, which had its own house at Thunderbird Lodge.

The grand stone estate fits seamlessly into the lakefront and features beautiful masonry, ironwork and woodwork. Connected to the house by a tunnel, the property also has a card house, where the men would play and smoke cigars; a boathouse for Whittell’s 55-foot wooden speed boat, the Thunderbird; a butler’s house; and a lighthouse. It’s as unique as the man who dreamed it all up. 

Take a tour of the opulent Thunderbird Lodge and its grounds in Incline Village.
Provided/Lauren Arends

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2022 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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