Myths and legends of Tahoe
Myth (mith) n. a traditional story serving to explain some phenomenon, custom, etc.
legend (lej’end) n. a story or body of stories handed down for generations and popularly believed to have a historical basis
Stories abound of Tahoe Tessie sightings, but other myths exist in Tahoe other than this mystical water monster. From the region’s historical hotels to great mansions, enough legends exist to inspire locals’ and tourists’ curiousity of the lake’s past.
“It’s because it has such a long, rich history,” Tahoe historian David Antonucci said of why so many Tahoe myths exist. “Legends were created as a form of entertainment. There was a lot of lore created.”
Many of the first Tahoe myths were created by the Washoe tribe, according to Antonucci. Those stories include a singing fish in Meeks Bay and a bird that lived at the bottom of the lake who snatched up tribal members.
“It was taboo for them to go out on the lake,” Antonucci said. “I think they may have created the story to keep people from drowning.”
Up until the early 20th century, locals believed you couldn’t float in Lake Tahoe, Antonucci said.
“They believed that because of the high altitude, the water was less dense,” Antonucci said. “They believed it was impossible for a human to float in the lake, so no one ever swam in the lake.”
Sometimes, true stories sound so crazy that they become legends, or not enough information exists so locals try to fill in the blanks. Take George Whittell, the reclusive millionaire who had Thunderbird Lodge built on the East Shore. His adventures are firmly cemented in Tahoe’s history, yet many of them are tall tales.
“A lot happened here significantly in it’s own right,” said Bill Watson, manager and curator of the Thunderbird Lodge. “It’s amazing what the locals have come up with.
Because he was so private, they had to make it up. There are enough fascinating chapters to this story that we don’t have to make up untruths.”
One “untruth,” according to Watson, is that Whittell lost the land that is now Kings Beach to Joe King in a poker game. That is not possible because Whittell never owned that land, according to Watson. However, Whittell did lose enough money to King that the amount could have aided King in buying the land, Watson noted.
Whittell’s tales are just one of a number of myths that lurk within the Lake Tahoe Basin.
At the Tahoe Biltmore, legend has it that a show girl committed suicide there and her ghost still haunts the casino.
Across the street at Cal Neva, Marilyn Monroe is said to taunt visitors by turning a hall light on and off.
And over at the Ehrman Mansion at Sugar Pine State Park, park rangers believe they have come in contact with a ghostly visitor.
Heidi Doyle, a State of California park ranger, said she and other rangers held a “stakeout” one night after someone found an indentation in a bed that was in a bedroom once occupied by Sydney Ehrman.
“This happened for several nights in a row,” Doyle said of the indentation. “Thinking that it was a homeless person, rangers did several all night stakeouts, only to come up empty handed. The indents stopped appearing and have not re-occurred since.”
Then there is the legend of Captain Dick Barter, the hermit who lived in Emerald Bay. He lived on Fannett Island in Emerald Bay and would take his boat to the nearest bar, according to park ranger Doyle.
“He was drinking one night and he sank during a storm,” Doyle said. “There is a rumor that on cold, foggy nights you can hear Captain Dick Barter’s spirit.”
No matter why or when Tahoe myths and legends were created, historian Antonucci says they add to the area’s personality.
“A lot of people that lived here were characters. They were rugged and creative,” Antonucci said. “They made these up to make Tahoe a more desirable place.”
Carl Buehler approaches the ceiling light at the end of the hallway with caution.
Although the Cal Neva employee has given this underground tunnel tour hundreds of times, he never knows what will happen under that light any given night.
“The light is the only light in our casino out of hundreds of lights that goes on and off by itself,” Buehler says. “There are no switches to this light. It is a 24 hour light.
Engineers have checked this light ” there is nothing wrong with this light. The bulbs have been changed. The electric is fine with it, there is nothing wrong. I tell people this and they say, well you have a switch to this. Well, I don’t have a switch.”
Buehler then explains that this is Marilyn Monroe’s light. She is the one that controls when the light goes on and off, he says.
“There is no explanation for this light, except that for whenever she wants to, she’ll just turn it on or off,” Buehler says as he approaches the outed light. “On the last tour I had as we were walking out, Marilyn turned the light off. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen nuthin’ like it.”
As Buehler points to the stairs at the end of the hallway just to the right of the light, he notes that the steps lead to nowhere and that they are blocked off. He says that a psychic who visited the casino said “there was a lot of spiritual energy through here” and saw Marilyn sitting on the second step crying.
“The psychic said Marilyn was crying because she doesn’t like the way Americans portray her,” Buehler says. “We took pictures right where she was supposed to be and sure enough, there was a big ball of light right where she was supposed to be.
It was a spiritual orb. You never know what you are going to get.”
And almost on cue, the light goes off. Marilyn has struck.
“If anybody asks me if this place is haunted I say ‘Hell yes,'” Buehler says. “It’s the craziest light I’ve seen. It’s bizarre.”
Cal Neva employees like to exchange ghost stories. In addition to the underground tunnels that Frank Sinatra built and the ghosts that haunt the stage, another part of the casino gives employees chills.
There are people who are afraid to go on the first floor. Someone was killed in room 101.
“The first floor down below is always cold,” said Frank Encinas, a Cal Neva security guard. “Even in July it is cold. Someone committed suicide down there. It gives you the creeps.”
Security guard Davis Dunihue said it is the last room rented in the entire hotel.
San Jose resident Lisa Eichler, who stayed at the Cal Neva one recent weekend with her boyfriend, claims she has psychic abilities and that she has felt ghosts elsewhere, but feels no such energy on the first floor of the Cal Neva.
“I don’t know. Just because there was a suicide doesn’t mean there are ghosts.
People who kill themselves want to leave and why would they stay,” Eichler says. “If I get scared, you should be scared. But I ain’t scared.”
Of all the legends of Tahoe, millionaire George Whittell has produced the most myths. An intensely private man, Whittell helped design and build Thunderbird Lodge on the East Shore, which he occupied as a second home in 1937. Locals tell stories of wild parties with showgirls and rowdy poker games, but many of those stories are untrue, according to Thunderbird Lodge Manager and Curator Bill Watson.
In the spirit of truth telling, we uncover the fact and fiction of George Whittell with information from Watson:
FACT: George Whittell had a mistress.
Whittell was married to Frenchwoman Eliya Pasqual, but his true love and daily companion was Mae Mollhagan, his secretary and head of the household. When she died after running her car off the road near the mansion, Whittell was devastated. He went into mourning, playing funeral music on loud speakers facing the lake. He had her car moved to the head of the driveway on the side of the car and would talk to her spirit. The car sat there until 1999, when the U.S. Forest Service bought the land. Mae’s ghost is said to live in the mansion.
FICTION: Whittell would signal Cal Neva showgirls with a flicking red light.
Although he did have red and green lights installed, it is very unlikely he used them to signal showgirls from across the lake, according to Watson. He would have showgirls over to make Mae jealous when they were fighting, but Whittell never had actual wild parties.
FACT: Whittell owned a lion.
It is well-known that Whittell loved animals. He even joined the circus and married a circus performer early in his life. He owned an elephant and his wife owned cheetahs and leopards, but his best friend was Bill the Lion, who would sleep in Whittell’s room. “He couldn’t tolerate anyone who couldn’t hold their liquor,” Watson said. “He would have them taken to the lion’s den and Bill would lick the faces of drunk guests.”
FICTION: Mingo the elephant is at the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
Whittell had a large garage built to hold Mingo, but the elephant did not like the elevation and hated to be away from his zebra companion that lived at Whittell’s main home in Woodside, Calif. He hired a seaplane to carry Mingo over Lake Tahoe, but it crashed on two test flights, so Whittell never used the plane.
FACT: A journalist was locked in the dungeon.
Whittell disapproved of a statement about himself that a San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote in the newspaper, so he invited her to his home under the guise of a party. He locked her in the lion’s den until she agreed she would retract the statement. She agreed to retract the statement, but only to be let free. The Chronicle sued Whittell.
FICTION: Whittell lost Kings Beach in a poker game to Joe King.
“That has been disproven,” Watson said. “Whittell never owned Kings Beach to lose it. It is said he lost enough to Joe King for King to build Kings Beach.” However, Whittell did sell the land to a developer that is now Incline Village.
Friday and Saturday, 5 and 6 p.m.
$8 adults, $4 for kids under 12
Call (775) 832-4000 for more information
Thunderbird Lodge Tours
Public tours closed in the winter, but private tours and events held at request.
Tours will begin again in June. To make reservations call the Incline Village/ Crystal Bay Visitor’s Center at 1-800-GO-TAHOE. Ticket prices are $27.50 per adult and $15 for children under 12 and include the shuttle ride and tour of the historic site. Children under 6 are not permitted.
The mansion is open for daily tours in the summer. For more information, call 525-7982.
The Truckee Hotel
In the lobby of the hotel sits the infamous mirror. To see it for yourself, visit the hotel at 10007 Bridge Street in downtown Truckee.
To check out Tahoe’s myths on your own:
Frank Sinatra’s Secret Tunnel Tour
At the Cal Neva Resort
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User