Stamps of Approval
The twin aircraft engines roared to life on a late-July summer morning and the storied Thunderbird, a luxurious wooden boat commissioned by Captain George Whittell in the 1930s, headed out on Tahoe’s sleek waters from its custom boathouse on the East Shore.
The Hacker-designed, 55-foot watercraft ” called by some the Queen of Lake Tahoe or the Elvis of all wooden vessels ” picked up speed and cut through the deep, blue water on a run across the lake to Tahoe City.
The Thunderbird’s Honduran mahogany wood and stainless steel cabin gleamed brilliantly in the morning sun while an American flag whipped over the boat’s wake while the Allison Aircraft V-1710 engines ” from a World War II fighter plane ” hummed steadily.
This week, the United States Postal Service will pay tribute to one of Tahoe’s most elegant and historical icons when it unveils a new stamp that captures the image of the Thunderbird and three other wooden boats featured at the annual Concours D’Elegance that opens Aug. 9.
The stamps ” depicting a 1931 Gar Wood Triple Cockpit Runabout, a 1954 Chris-Craft Racing Runabout and a 1915 Hutchinson Brothers Launch in addition to the 1939 Thunderbird Hacker-Craft ” were released nationwide last week, after their national unveiling in Clayton, New York on Aug. 4.
“That stamp becomes a tiny little paper ambassador … capturing all of [Lake Tahoe’s culture and history] on a tiny little package that goes everywhere,” said Bill Watson, executive director of the Thunderbird Lodge that Whittell built on the East Shore.
The citizen’s stamp advisory committee reviews about 50,000 stamp suggestions each year, said spokesperson Teresa Rudkin. And every year, the postal service selects an average of only 35.
Rudkin said the postal service seeks out stamps that would be “representative of America in one way or another.”
“I think it was time; it was time to honor these really cool boats, these really cool types of collectible vehicle,” Rudkin said in a phone interview.
Three out of the four of the showcased boats call Lake Tahoe their home port, but Rudkin said that was coincidental.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to choose them from Lake Tahoe … these boats are significant all over the country,” Rudkin said. “The boats were chosen because the type of boats were just significant examples of great wooden boats ” boats that were popular or groundbreaking when they came out.”
Watson said he was dumbstruck when the Thunderbird was selected out of all the wooden boats in the nation, but when you consider its history and significance, it’s not difficult to see the postal service’s logic in its choice.
“This boat epitomizes the history of the wooden boat era,” Watson said.
George Whittell, a man mostly known for his 45,000-acre property along Lake Tahoe’s East Shore and his unique summer residence, the Thunderbird Lodge, had the Thunderbird vessel built in 1939.
“This is the queen of all wooden boats in Lake Tahoe,” Watson said. “It’s the pinnacle in design excellence … no penny was spared in its structure … [The Thunderbird] is just so representative of everything that made that art-deco era special.”
The woody has since passed through several different owners, including Bill Harrah, who referred to the vessel as a “70 [miles per hour] cocktail lounge,” Watson said.
The Thunderbird was transported back and forth from Tahoe to the San Francisco Bay, but it returned back to its original home in Lake Tahoe for good when Buzz Gibb launched it from the Tahoe City Marina in 1984.
Watson’s Foundation 36, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and restoring Nevada’s historical and cultural assets, acquired the boat in May 2007 from Buzz Gibb’s wife, Joan Gibb.
“[Joan Gibb] fought tooth and nail to make sure [the Thunderbird] stayed here,” Watson said.
It was during Joan Gibb’s watch when the postal service sought out the Thunderbird.
Rudkin said an undercover postal service representative went to the Wooden Boat Show at the Sierra Boat Company in Carnelian Bay in 2005 to scope out potential stamp candidates.
The stamp’s photographs were taken at the boat show and then touched up for the final product, Rudkin said.
“Because of the way the boats were on display … there were things that had to be removed,” Rudkin said. “[We had to] airbrush out some stuff that didn’t belong on the stamp.”
The unveiling will take place at the Concours D’Elegance V.I.P. day on Thursday, Aug. 9. Only 500 tickets, each selling for $100, are available.
The postal service hopes to involve the owners of all the boats in the unveiling, Rudkin said.