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Tahoe’s mini Hearst Castle: Thunderbird Lodge
by Harry Spencer
Aug 28, 2009 | 1231 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy photos/Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society -
The Thunderbird Lodge (above) was built in the 1930s by the flamboyant and wealthy George “Captain” Whittell (below) near Sand Harbor on Lake Tahoe.
Courtesy photos/Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society - The Thunderbird Lodge (above) was built in the 1930s by the flamboyant and wealthy George “Captain” Whittell (below) near Sand Harbor on Lake Tahoe.
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If you travel over the Mt. Rose Highway to Lake Tahoe and take a left where the road dead ends at Incline Village, you will then proceed a few miles to Sand Harbor. Once you have passed that large beach you begin looking to your right for the entrance to the Thunderbird Lodge — aka the Whittell Castle.

Currently, the stately edifice and grounds are under the ownership of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society and tours can be scheduled by calling (800) GO-TAHOE (468-2463). That was part of the information relayed to members of the local Good Old Days (G.O.D.) club last week by the executive director of the society, Bill Watson.

Watson gave a wide-ranging history of the building and a never-before-heard insight into the history and flamboyant lifestyle of the original builder, George Whittell.

Watson himself started his association with the T-Bird preservation group some three years ago and became so interested that he is now the full-time executive director and is greatly involved in the ongoing fundraising to keep the property as a viable entity.

In giving the background of the original builder, he noted that the Whittell family and another family, named Luning, both from the Bay Area, ammassed great wealth in “grubstaking” early miners in Nevada.

“In fact,” Watson said “at one time the two families between them owned some 20 percent of the city of San Francisco.”

Young George Whittell, however, was little interested in being the scion of such a successful family and instead opted to go to Europe during World War I as an ambulance driver even before the United States entered the war. He had an Earnest Hemingway type of career, even to getting wounded while serving.

After the war, young George eschewed any interest in the family fortune until one day when he was called on the carpet and told it was time for him to “man up” and become active. At that point in time he made what was the single most important decision of his life, as well as for the family’s well-being, when he said they should liquidate their stock holdings and convert to gold and government bonds — most propitiously, as it turned out, since shortly thereafter the stock market crashed and many of the other great family fortunes in this country were wiped out.

When George Whittell first came to Tahoe he acquired most of the shoreline on the Nevada side of the lake, some 23 to 26 miles from the Cal Neva point all the way to the Kingsbury Road. There were some isolated pockets of property on the shoreline that he did not control — such as Glenbrook — but for all practical purposes he was sole owner of the vast amount of shoreline. Because of the single ownership he is credited with the great amount of open space land that still exists in pristine condition along the eastern side of the Lake in the Sky.

Eccentric as he was brilliant, after the lodge was finished he stocked it with several wild animals and even had a pet lion named Bill that was so docile he would take it on rides in one of his many Duesenberg convertibles that he prized.

His high-stakes poker games at the Thunderbird Lodge were legendary and drew such players as Howard Hughes and others of that ilk.

Another amenity he created was the 55-foot Thunderbird yacht, which is still moored in its underground slip at the lodge.

Tour dates for the public run from June through October.

Celebrity Corner

As will probably be the case for many decades to come, the John Wayne movie “True Grit” showed again the other night on cable TV. The stellar performance of Wayne’s long career as Rooster Cogburn in “Grit” was the one that earned him an Oscar. I recall at the Academy Awards of that era that the MC, Bob Hope, came out wearing a black eyepatch and that pretty much gave the evening away as to who was going to win for Best Actor.

Doing a pretty good turn in that movie was Glenn Campbell, who was far better known for his singing ability than for his thespianic talents. Strangely enough, Glenn stood up to the task of going head to head with Wayne in a number of scenes and got pretty good reviews himself.

It was close to the time this film came out that Wayne made his second trip to Reno for the Silver Spurs awards. He had originally received the first of the awards way back in 1948 and his second trip to Reno was to participate in the award to his late friend, Ward Bond. It was on this occasion I drew the task of accompanying him to the Reno airport for his flight back to Hollywood. To his dismay, and to my good fortune, his flight was delayed several hours so we spent the waiting time in the bar of the Ambassador room at the airport.

Campbell showed up in 1975 as a participant in the Clint Eastwood Celebrity Tennis Tournament at Incline Village, Lake Tahoe. He still looked youthful and was appearing at one of the major hotel/casinos on the south shore. Another major celebrity at the tennis tournament, which provided the greatest number of top entertainers ever to gather on the north shore, was Pilar Wayne, former wife of John Wayne.

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.

Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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