Retrospective: Delve into the heart of Tahoe’s history and drive

Thunderbird Lodge was the summer home of eccentric millionaire George Whittell Jr.
Provided/Fieling Cathcart

“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” – a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, the great American writer and humorist, who left his own mark on Lake Tahoe through his poetic descriptions of the basin.

Indeed, Lake Tahoe has gone through many different eras of history, some of which still resonate today, but all of which are woven into the fabric of this unique landscape. From iconic mansions that dot the shores to rustic cabin museums, take a trip back in time—and around the lake—with this historic tour.

Tallac historic site

Begin your historic South Lake Tahoe tour at Tallac Historic Site, a 74-acre tract of land that was once home to the “world’s largest resort” and three estates built by wealthy San Franciscans. In the 1860s, pioneers in search of gold settled on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, and with the subsequent completion of the transcontinental railroad, the area became a popular vacation destination.

Although the 100-year-old Tallac Resort no longer exists, the Baldwin Estate now houses exhibits about the resort’s former owners and the Washoe Tribe, who inhabited the Tahoe Basin long before settlers moved to the west. At the Pope House, built in 1894, take a tour to soak up the beautiful architecture and learn about the luxurious lifestyles of families who summered in Tahoe. The third estate, the Heller Estate, was built in 1923 and is now called Valhalla, the name of the great hall of the Viking sky palace in Norse myths – an apt name given the central vaulted living space of the house and the 40 foot stone fireplace. Valhalla hosts public and private events, while the estate’s boathouse now serves as the backdrop for concerts, theater, and other cultural events.

Viking Holm Castle

Traveling clockwise around the lake, the next stop is Emerald Bay State Park to check out Vikingsholm Castle, a 1929 stone summer residence built by wealthy philanthropist Lora Josephine Knight and hailed as one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the Western Hemisphere. As you listen to Eagle Falls rush into the bay, walk the 1-mile trail around the house and learn about the tremendous effort it took to construct the building with hand-hewn and forged materials, granite boulders and intricate carvings. Be sure to check out the teahouse built atop Tahoe’s only island, Fannette Island, where Knight often held afternoon gatherings.

Hellman-Ehrman Manor

Located in Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park in Tahoe City, Hellman-Ehrman Mansion was completed in 1903 on 2,000 acres owned by San Francisco businessman IW Hellman. His daughter, Florence Hellman Ehrman, inherited the estate, which was built with the most modern technology available, including steam generators that produced electricity until commercial electricity became available in 1927. Other buildings on the property indicate the opulent lifestyle of those who inhabited Tahoe at the time, including a gatehouse, children’s home, maids quarters, butler’s cabin, icehouse, shed , a power plant, a dressing room, two boathouses and a boatman’s cabin.

The Hellman-Ehrman Mansion is a superb example of the upscale summer retreats built by the social elite along the shores of Tahoe in the early 1900s.
John Palmer/California State Parks

Guardian Museum

Where Tahoe’s only outflow, the Truckee River, meets the lake is the Gatekeeper’s Museum, a reconstruction of the original cabin that once housed the Watermaster in Tahoe City. Although someone is still responsible for controlling the water from the dam, the Watermaster no longer lives on site and the building is now a museum showcasing Tahoe’s history, from the Washoe Tribe to the mining boom. The museum features a massive collection of hand-woven baskets, some nearly 150 years old, from Native American tribes across North America. Other exhibits highlight the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) and the lives of black bears.

Watson’s Cabin Museum

A 10-minute stroll along the shoreline and history buffs will find the Watsons Cabin Museum in Tahoe City. Built in 1908 with hand-hewn logs and native stone, the modest cabin is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest log structure in North Lake Tahoe. Step back in time with antique interiors and other highlights like an Indian millstone discovered by the original owner’s son, Robert Watson, and Tahoe City’s first constable.

The Pioneer Memorial statue stands outside the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center.
Brian Baer/California State Parks

Donner Memorial State Park

While there’s no shortage of outdoor activities at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, don’t miss your chance to learn more about the area’s history at the Emigrant Trail Museum at the Visitor Center. Light displays tell the story of the Native American tribes who first lived here, the harrowing story of the Donner Party’s winter stuck in the Sierra in 1846-1847 as they attempted to travel west, and the Chinese laborers who worked hard to build the transcontinental railway. Outside the museum is the Pioneer Monument, a statue of a family of four settlers that was completed in 1918 and sits atop a 22-foot pedestal, the height of snow during winter who framed the Donner party.

Donner Memorial State Park preserves the site of Donner Camp where the unfortunate emigrants were snowed in during the winter of 1846-1847 and resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Brian Baer/California State Parks

Historic Stateline Fire Lookout

Take an easy hike to the former location of one of Tahoe’s first fire lookouts overlooking Crystal Bay. The 2-mile round-trip trek takes visitors to the base of the now-defunct fire lookout, built in 1936, where spotters kept a watchful eye over the forests for wildfires. Signs feature photos of the old tower as well as other historical information about the area. Although technology has overtaken human patrols, wildfires continue to be a major force shaping life in the Sierra Nevada.

Thunderbird Pavilion

End your tour of the lake with a stop at the famous Thunderbird Lodge in Incline Village. In the early 1930s, eccentric millionaire George Whittell Jr. 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 the construction of his summer residence and his famous lakeside mansion. Whittell was born into immense wealth and spent his life of opulence collecting expensive vehicles, estates and exotic animals – including an elephant named Mingo, who had his own home at Thunderbird Lodge.

The large stone estate blends in perfectly with the edge of the lake and features beautiful masonry, ironwork and woodwork. Connected to the house by a tunnel, the property also has a house of cards, where men gambled and smoked cigars; a boathouse for Whittell’s 55-foot wooden speedboat, the Thunderbird; a butler’s house; and a lighthouse. It’s as unique as the man who dreamed it all up.

Take a tour of the opulent Thunderbird Lodge and its grounds at Incline Village.
Supplied/Lauren Arends

Editor’s note: This story appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Tahoe magazine.

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