Digest>Archives> February 2002

Group Works to Restore Historic Nevada Beacons on Lake Tahoe

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society is ...

Regular readers of Lighthouse Digest might be familiar with Rubicon Point Light on Lake Tahoe in Nevada, a wooden structure that many think resembles an outhouse more than a lighthouse. But this isn’t the lake’s only lighthouse. On the northeast shore of the lake there is a unique cluster of rustic buildings known as the Whittell estate. The centerpiece of the estate is the 1938 Thunderbird Lodge, now being restored by the not-for-profit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. Among other unusual features the estate includes two stone lighthouses. Wealthy Californian George Whittell Jr. (1881-1969), builder of the estate, was a man of eccentric tastes.

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George Whittell’s grandfather Hugh Whittell arrived in California during the Gold Rush after sailing around Cape Horn in 1849. He “grubstaked” miners, meaning he provided food, provisions and tools in exchange for a percentage of any gold found. Hugh’s son George married Anna Luning, the heir to a $29 million estate. George Whittell Sr. and Anna Luning then started the Whittell Real Estate Company.

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When George Whittell Sr. died, George Whittell Jr. inherited millions of dollars along with 33 buildings in San Francisco. The young George Jr. soon developed a reputation as a “millionaire playboy.” As a teenager he worked as an animal trainer for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He befriended a trainer named Frank Buck, later famous for his “Bring ‘em back alive” motto, and the two men soon started a safari business to bring wild animals back from Africa for circuses.

Whittell was married briefly to a showgirl and made frequent headlines in the local papers like “Son of President of Guatemala Sues for Damages from Being Thrown Downstairs While in Company of George Whittell Jr.” Whittell also developed an attraction for operating fast cars and boats, a hobby he put to good use as an ambulance driver for the Italian Red Cross during World War I. In Europe during the war he met and married Elia Pascal of Paris.

In 1930 Whittell bought around 40,000 acres of land, including 14 miles of shoreline around Lake Tahoe, paying an average of about $25 an acre. The major buildings of his estate were built between 1936 and 1939, with landscaping that included a waterfall fountain, a series of cascading pools, stone walls and walks, gazebos and a miniature stone house. There was a 600-foot tunnel through stone from the basement of the main house to the boathouse, with iron train tracks and handcarts.

Whittell loved wild animals and the residents of his private zoo — lions, elephants and giraffes — were allowed to roam freely on the grounds in summer. The large building that looks like a three-car garage was actually built to house elephants. It even had a fireplace to keep them warm on cool nights.

There are many legends about Whittell’s years at Tahoe, including stories of wild parties involving plenty of liquor, Reno showgirls, and high-stakes gambling in a guesthouse known as the Card House. A tall and athletic man, Whittell was also known to spar with the likes of Jack Dempsey.

In 1939, Whittell had a triple-planked mahogany speedboat, the Thunderbird, built in Bay City, Michigan and transported by rail to Lake Tahoe, and a 100-foot long boathouse was added to the estate in 1940. Two entrances led to the boathouse — one from the underground tunnel, the other a stairway down to lake level. The 55-foot Thunderbird has undergone much restoration in recent years. The boat is considered the “Queen of the Lake” and the present owners have started a company called Thunderbird Charters, based at Tahoe City Marina. They sometimes donate the boat to various organizations for fundraising events.

After a garage was added southwest of the main house, another garage was built across the driveway with a tall stone lighthouse in one corner. The base of the lighthouse is part of the exterior wall of the garage, and the lighthouse, at just over 50 feet tall, is about three times taller than the garage. The light once functioned, and there was even a working foghorn. In 1985 an entertainment room was built on top of the garage and around the lighthouse. There is also a second stone beacon to the north of the Card House, about 20 feet high and 25 feet from shore.

The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society is the owner/operator of the six acres that include the lodge and conference facility. The society is a stand-alone not-for-profit organization that operates the Thunderbird Lodge to benefit the public. The estate is now available for events and conferencing, with 5400 square feet of meeting space. The meeting rooms include the huge “Lighthouse Room” with an attached kitchen. The University of Nevada, the University of California at Davis, and the Desert Research Institute also use the lodge for remote scientific research.

The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, dedicated to the “environmental, cultural, educational and historical values associated with Lake Tahoe,” is working to completely the restore the buildings of the estate, including the two lighthouses. The group plans a grand opening in May 2002 and hopes to have the lighthouses and foghorn working by then. It will most likely be the highest above sea level of any working foghorn in the U.S.

If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to the restoration you can contact: Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, P.O. Box 6812, Incline Village, NV 89450. Or email to: info@thunderbirdlodge.org

This story appeared in the February 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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