Cruising across Lake Tahoe’s blue waters in a vintage wooden boat, its varnished mahogany and chrome lines glistening in the sun, feels like a trip back in time to the days when Frank Sinatra graced the casino stages and gin martinis flowed like the Truckee River.
It’s that feeling of nostalgia that has captured the attention of boat enthusiasts and collectors for decades, driving them to spend a whole lot of time and money ensuring those wooden boats keep turning heads on Lake Tahoe.
Big Blue has a rich history surrounding wooden boats, dating back to the 1860s when wooden steamships were used to transport passengers and cargo, including tons of timber for the Comstock Lode’s mines, the first major U.S. silver ore discovery in Nevada’s Virginia Range.
At the turn of the century, as the mines slowed down and the logging business waned, the camps transformed into lodges and resorts, and the steamers found new purpose in Tahoe’s budding tourism industry.
Visitors, in awe of Tahoe’s beauty, began buying up property and building homes along its shoreline — and what lakefront cabin would be complete without a boat?
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The heyday of “woodies” in Lake Tahoe spanned the 1920s to the 1950s, with boats made by manufacturers like Gar Wood, Hackercraft, Chris-Craft and Century skimming across the lake to friends’ homes or with water skiers in tow. But by the end of World War II, boat manufacturers began producing boats with fiberglass, and come the mid-1960s, nearly all wooden boat production had ceased.
But modern watercraft did not end Lake Tahoe’s love affair with wooden boats.
In 1972, the inaugural Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance wooden boat show took place at Chambers Landing.
“It was basically an informal collection of wooden boats from a few aficionados. At that time, the boats weren’t even that old, but the event just grew from there,” says Brian Robinson, a Concours committee member.
Forty-seven years later, Concours now welcomes over 70 qualifying boats to its two-day judged event, slated for Aug. 9-10 this year, at Obexer’s Boat Company in Homewood on Tahoe’s West Shore.
“We focus on originality and authenticity,” explains Robinson. “The quality of the restoration is paramount, but we’re looking for boats restored to an as-delivered-from-the-factory standard.”
Like many of the Concours participants, Robinson grew up around wooden boats.
“My father was restoring these boats in the late ‘80s. We worked on them together,” says Robinson. “There’s a sense of nostalgia with these boats, especially on Lake Tahoe. A lot of the boats are handed down, generation to generation, within the same family.
“People have fond memories of growing up around these boats so they keep them alive because of that.”
WINDOW TO THE PAST
Without a doubt, the most famous wooden boat to cruise Lake Tahoe is the Thunderbird, a 55-foot, custom-built speedboat commissioned by the eccentric millionaire, George Whittell Jr.
Whittell was born into immense wealth and spent his life of opulence collecting exotic animals — including an elephant named Mingo, which he brought with him to Lake Tahoe — expensive cars, boats and properties, all while engaging in a series of marriages and flings that fueled California and Nevada’s rumor mill.
In the early 1930s, Whittell 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, Thunderbird Lodge. A year later, his boat, built by famed naval architect John L. Hacker to resemble his personal DC-2 aircraft, arrived in Lake Tahoe. The craft cost $87,000 to build, the equivalent to roughly $1.5 million today.
Whittell jetted around on the boat for the following two summers, but when the U.S. entered WWII, fearing he would lose the Thunderbird to the war efforts, he hid it away in the lodge’s boathouse, where it remained through the end of the war.
As Whittell aged, he became more reclusive, and the Thunderbird was rarely seen until it was purchased by casino magnate William Harrah in 1962.
“The glory years of the Thunderbird were the years when Bill Harrah operated her,” says Bill Watson, chief executive of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society and curator of the lodge. “Those were the years that Bill Harrah would entertain the entertainers from his showroom onboard the vessel.”
Harrah brought the likes of Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli out on the Thunderbird, which he outfitted with two vintage WWII fighter aircraft engines.
“He wanted to go much faster than the boat’s original top speed of 45 mph,” explains Watson. “He was able to achieve a speed more like 70 mph, which is an incredible speed for an 18-ton vessel.”
When Harrah died, the boat was sold to Joan and Buzz Gibbs, who would later gift a portion of the boat’s sale to the nonprofit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society in 2007.
Today the Thunderbird is worth around $5.5 million, making her the most expensive wooden runabout commuter vessel in America. Operations and upkeep of the boat, which runs on expensive airplane fuel, costs nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year.
The Thunderbird still cruises Lake Tahoe’s waters for private charters, which will set you and 19 of your friends back at least $10,000 in donations to the preservation society. The boat also takes out students for educational programming and terminally-ill children through Make A Wish Foundation.
“The boat serves as a window into Lake Tahoe’s past,” says Watson. “She’s a valuable educational tool and a floating classroom.”
A LABOR OF LOVE
While owning a modern boat takes a lot of time and money, it doesn’t come close to the work that goes into keeping wooden boats afloat on Lake Tahoe.
The second oldest commercial touring boat still in operation in Lake Tahoe — and another beautiful woodie — is aptly named “The Tahoe.”
The Tahoe has cruised Big Blue’s waters since 1950, when she was brought here by Edward B. Scott, the author of “The Saga of Lake Tahoe,” a dense 519-page historical account of the region published in 1957. Scott used the custom-built boat for cruises, charters and taxi rides.
Under new ownership, the 40-foot woodie sank several times on a buoy in Carnelian Bay, but eventually found its way to Steve Dunham, who restored the boat to its former glory and began leading tours on it around the lake.
Today, The Tahoe is owned and operated by Chris Larson, who takes passengers for cruises through Emerald Bay to Vikingsholm, a historic Scandinavian-style mansion, and the Thunderbird Lodge.
Larson describes owning a wooden boat as a “labor of love.”
“We’ll spend about a month in the spring just sanding and varnishing and touching things up to get ready for the cruising season,” he says. “We’d like to spend more — we just don’t have the weather and the time.”
Diondra Colquhoun, who runs boutique wine tastings aboard a modified 1953 Chris Craft Double Cabin Fly Bridge Cruiser, agrees.
“I was actually told by somebody that you never actually own a wooden boat,” she says. “You’re just its caretaker. It is very true. There’s a lot of constant work that goes along with it.”
The 40-foot woodie named “Golden Rose” was reconstructed in the style of a Venetian water taxi by her previous owner. The chrome work was all replaced with plated 24-karat gold, and roses were etched into the windows.
To match the unique feel of the Golden Rose, Colquhoun and her husband Shane serve up a variety of boutique wines from Northern California and Nevada. In fact, it was seeing the Golden Rose for sale online in 2016 that convinced the Colquhouns to take their wine bar idea for Tahoe out onto the water.
“It’s an intimate experience on the boat with about 12 to 14 people aboard tasting wine as we cruise from the (Tahoe) Keys to Emerald Bay,” says Colquhoun. “We can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
“It’s like owning a classic car,” adds Larson. “When you’re out on the water on a busy day and 100 people are watching the boat cruise by, that final product, it makes all the work worth it.”