2020 hindsight: Looking back on 100 years of historical events at Lake Tahoe
Shaped during the Ice Ages over 2 million years ago, Lake Tahoe’s history runs as deep as its chilling, inky-blue waters.
From tremendous snowstorms to tragic events to inspirational journeys to jaw-dropping booms in real estate, Lake Tahoe’s storied past is chock full of rich histories and mysteries alike.
As we enter a new decade, travel back in time with our list of the top 10 historical events that helped shape many different aspects of Lake Tahoe’s history — from 1920 to today.
Hindsight is, after all, 2020.
Support Local Journalism
1) 1921: Federal prohibition agents raid Truckee
In the wake of the 18th Amendment and the prohibition of alcohol in January 1920, Truckee’s notoriously rebellious citizens turned the town into a hotbed of bootleggers and underground speakeasies.
As the town’s reputation for basement distilleries and illegal stills grew, local constables were being paid by speakeasy operators to stay quiet, but that didn’t keep federal agencies from enforcing the ban on booze.
In March 1921, federal agents raided the homes of Truckee’s outlaws, uncovering hundreds of gallons of corn mash, fermented wine and jackass brandy, which the feds then dumped into the streets and sewers of Truckee, dubbing the town the “River of Wine.”
2) 1926: The Cal Neva Resort & Casino is built
Built by a wealthy San Francisco businessman, the Cal Neva Lodge was sold to new owners in the 1930s, who immediately obtained a Nevada gambling permit and turned the property into the North Shore’s first casino.
Straddling the California-Nevada border, the lodge hosted myriad celebrities over the years, including Bing Crosby and a young Judy Garland, who was discovered by a talent agent while performing at the casino in 1935.
Notorious mafia types and big gamblers flocked to the lodge in the 1940s and ‘50s, bringing along friends like the Kennedy brothers.
In 1960, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin teamed up with a notorious Chicago-based mobster to purchase the resort, after which they upgraded the concert hall, built a helicopter pad, and carved out the secret tunnels for Hollywood friends to travel throughout the property undetected by fans and paparazzi, like Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Sammy Davis Jr.
Although the once-bustling hotel and casino has sat empty since 2013, Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison purchased the property for $36 million in 2018, and has big plans to restore the historic venue to its former glory.
3) 1931: Myrtle Huddleston becomes first person to swim across Lake Tahoe
Amid the Great Depression, the tourism industry at Lake Tahoe took a dive, forcing local businesses to get creative with their marketing efforts.
To boost business, Tahoe City’s historic Tahoe Tavern Hotel offered $700 cash to any brave swimmer who could successfully cross the width of Lake Tahoe.
In the early morning hours on August 24, 1931, a widowed mother and world-class swimmer, Myrtle Huddleston, entered the bone-chilling waters of Lake Tahoe’s East Shore. By mid-afternoon, strong Southeast winds threatened to end Huddleston’s efforts, but she persevered through the waves and finally found calmer waters come nightfall.
Shortly after midnight, with her strength renewed, Huddleston somehow outswam her rowboat escort and found herself alone in the darkness. Just before dawn, her location was found in the final stretch of her swim, with only two miles left until she reached the shoreline at Tahoe Tavern.
Although the swim clocks in at 11 miles as the crow flies, Huddleston’s feat took an estimated 22 hours and 53 minutes due to the hardships brought on by cold water, wind and waves. Her record-setting triumph would remain unbroken for the next 21 years.
4) 1936: The Thunderbird Lodge is constructed
The sole heir to his parent’s fortune, George Whittell Jr. was known as an eccentric millionaire from San Francisco who traveled with the Barnum and Bailey Circus during his early ‘20s.
In 1929, just months before the stock market crash, Whittell liquidated $50 million in stocks and subsequently purchased 20 miles (more than 40,000 acres) of Lake Tahoe’s Nevada shoreline.
Although plans to construct a hotel, casino and ski resort never made it beyond square one, Whittell did successfully construct a three-story French chateau overlooking the pristine East Shore in 1936, known as the Thunderbird Lodge.
One of the greatest examples of architectural preservation and historic luxury real estate in Lake Tahoe, the main house included two master bedrooms, a living area and a fully equipped kitchen that still houses all its original appliances.
The estate also boasts a card house, caretakers cottage, cook and butler’s quarters, elephant barn, gatehouse and, finally, the boathouse, where Whittell stored his iconic 55-foot long mahogany yacht, the aptly-named Thunderbird.
Opting to leave the land surrounding the Thunderbird Lodge undeveloped, Whittell eventually sold a portion of the land to the state of Nevada and the U.S. Forest Service.
5) 1960: Squaw Valley hosts the Winter Olympics
Alex C. Cushing, co-founder of the Squaw Valley Development Corporation, formulated a persuasive campaign to host the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, ultimately winning by a narrow victory of 32 to 30 votes.
The decision to stage the 1960 Olympics in the remote and undeveloped terrain of Squaw Valley meant the infrastructure had to be built from scratch, including roads, bridges, administrative buildings, hotels, restaurants and the ski resort itself.
By December 1959, a lack of snow threatened to derail Cushing’s long-awaited dream, but at last, the snow Gods returned to the Sierra, blanketing Squaw Valley with over 13 feet of snow by the Feb. 18 opening ceremonies.
The exposure brought on by the internationally televised event gained world-wide recognition for the Tahoe-Truckee region, and launched a legacy of big mountain skiing at Squaw Valley.
6) 1963: Frank Sinatra Jr. is kidnapped from Harrah’s in Stateline
On the evening of Dec. 8, 1963, Frank Sinatra Jr. and his trumpet player were enjoying a quiet dinner in their hotel room at Harrah’s Lodge in Stateline, on Tahoe’s South Shore, as a Sierra snowstorm raged outside.
Just before their scheduled 10 p.m. performance, two gunmen dressed as room service waitstaff barged into the 19-year-old’s hotel room, blindfolded him, dragged him out into the blizzard and drove off in a Chevrolet Impala.
The resulting manhunt took nearly 100 California and Nevada sheriffs, 26 FBI agents, 54 hours and $240,000 in ransom money furnished by Frank Sinatra Sr. to ensure the release of his son.
Considered the most notorious kidnapping in America since the abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son in 1932, Frank Jr. was released from his captors in Southern California on December 11. All three kidnappers were later arrested, charged and sentenced to life in prison; however, they only served 12 years collectively.
7) 1974: The Godfather: Part II is filmed at Lake Tahoe
Although more than 125 Hollywood movies have been filmed in the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region over the past 100 years, one of the most iconic is, without doubt, “The Godfather: Part II,” filmed in 1974.
As the second installment in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy, the saga was filmed at the historic Fleur du Lac on Tahoe’s West Shore.
In one of the most notable scenes from the movie, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, foretells his big brother Fredo’s death, saying, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
Alas, Fredo meets his fate while fishing on Lake Tahoe, where he’s shot in the back of his head, after which his lifeless body plunges into the deep blue waters of the lake, never to be seen again.
8) 1982: Deadly avalanche strikes at Alpine Meadows
On March 31, 1982, during one of the most powerful storms in Sierra history, a catastrophic avalanche broke free, sending a massive wall of ice, snow and debris down Alpine Meadows Ski Resort.
The deadly slide buried the resort’s parking lot under 10 to 20 feet of snow, and wiped out the main ski lodge, several small buildings and the Summit Chairlift Terminal building, which housed ski patrol, lift operations and ski school, as well as avalanche rescue operations.
Altogether, 12 people and 1 dog were buried in the avalanche, and of those people, seven were killed (the dog survived and was discovered a day later).
Perhaps the most miraculous person to survive the avalanche was Anna Conrad, a 22-year-old resort employee who was buried for 5 days in a cocoon-like air space before being rescued by an avalanche dog from Truckee.
Although the experience caused severe frostbite that cost her right leg from the knee down and all her toes on her left foot, Conrad still enjoys big-mountain skiing and has worked with mountain safety operations at Mammoth Ski Resort over the last three decades.
9) 1997: President Bill Clinton leads first-ever Lake Tahoe Summit
In July 1997, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore led the first-ever Lake Tahoe Summit, ultimately reaffirming the federal government’s commitment to protecting and preserve Lake Tahoe’s clarity and the health of its surrounding forests.
Never in the history of Lake Tahoe had its famed environment received such lofty, nationwide attention, and with it the financial means to protect it.
Since the inaugural summit, nearly $2 billion in federal, state, local, individual and private funding has directly resulted in the reversal of Tahoe’s ecological decline.
10) 2019: record breaking snow in February
The 2018-19 winter season was an epic one, blanketing the Lake Tahoe Basin with over 600 inches of snow and setting the stage for an exceptionally long ski season, both in the backcountry snowfields and at ski resorts across the Sierra.
Although it wasn’t a record-breaking winter in terms of overall accumulated snowpack, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows did boast 315 inches falling in February alone, breaking its own record for the most snowfall in one month, previously set January 2017 at 282 inches.
Northstar California also surpassed its February 2017 record of 188 inches, clocking in at just over 200 inches in February 2019.
While winter 2017 still holds the rank as the largest winter on record, it’s safe to say 2019 will go down in history books as the most epic for Tahoe ski resorts.
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.