Those who wonder how it is that more than 20 miles of Tahoe's east shore evaded the development schemes that altered the shoreline landscape of the rest of the lake in the mid-1900s can now tour the Thunderbird Lodge for a thorough lesson of an important part of Lake Tahoe's history.Tour guides, along with the new executive director of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, Bill Watson, will tell you that while George Whittell Jr. may be renown as the rich rapscallion hailing from San Francisco who ordered construction of the Thunderbird Lodge in 1937, his most important contribution to the history of Lake Tahoe is not the lodge itself - but rather the preservation of the lake's east shore at a time when the rest of the basin was beginning a construction boom."This really is Whittell's legacy," said Watson indicating with his hands the miles of pristine shoreline surrounding the lodge's small harbor.Watson's fascination with the history of Tahoe, including the eccentricities of Whittell himself, his own appreciation for the lake and his determination to "give back" to the northern Nevada community are a few of the reasons he said he decided take over the position of executive director for the society - a bonafide 501-C3 since 2000 - in February of this year.
Congruent with the mission of the preservation society, maintaining educational summer tours for the public and preserving and restoring the lodge are top priorities on Watson's agenda.As a former successful entrepreneur himself, Watson also indicated an interest in refining the special events program at the lodge and streamlining lodge efficiency."It costs approximately $600,000 a year to keep this place and our three staff afloat," Watson said. "And that does not include money for enhancements."While the preservation society only employees three people, more than 95 local volunteers help to maintain the grounds, give tours and run the gift shop.
"There is no way," said Watson, "that you could run this place without the volunteers. This is an amazing amount of space to run and they do an incredible job."One of those volunteers is Betty Harriman, an Incline Village resident who has given guided tours at the lodge for the past three years.Harriman said she decided to become a docent after taking a couple of tours herself and being fascinated by the history of the estate and its story. Her motivation, she said, is derived in part by her feeling that it is important for people to have a deeper awareness of Tahoe's history."I think my favorite part is being able to share such a beautiful spot and the history of (the spot) with other people," Harriman said. "It is a part of Lake Tahoe's history that I don't think many people are aware."
Harriman and Watson both emphasized that the gardeners are an exceptionally important part of the lodge's upkeep."We have a big crew of gardeners, mostly women, and they work one day a week and keep the grounds just looking great," Harriman said. "(On my tour), I always point out that we are very fortunate to have such a good crew."Like executive director Watson, Harriman said she thinks Whittell's most significant contribution to Lake Tahoe is the legacy of virgin shoreline he left in his wake."Whittell was a playboy and he was extremely self-indulgent but in spite of himself he preserved a huge portion of the lake from development," Harriman said.
Many believe it was Whittell's preference for seclusion, exaggerated as he aged, that diminished his desire to develop his property. But Watson has his own theory: "I think Whittell was a closet environmentalist," he said. "He was interested in climatology of the Tahoe basin, his kept accurate logs of weather patterns and a number of his writings were about the devastation caused by the Comstock (logging) era."Just before his death in 1969, Whittell sold a large portion of his land holdings to the forest service and to Nevada State Lands ensuring that Tahoe's east shore would remain largely undisturbed forever.The Thunderbird Lodge itself was excluded from this sale and did not become part of the public trust until 1999. That same year, Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society was conceived and in 2002 the lodge was opened to the public the first time.To learn more about guided tours or other events at Thunderbird Lodge visit www.thunderbirdlodge.org or call the lodge at (775) 832-8750.