Wooden boats on parade at Lake Tahoe

“LAKE TAHOE IS WATER. CLEAR, cold, deep blue and majestic,” E.B. Scott writes in The Saga of Lake Tahoe (1957), a definitive book on America’s largest Alpine lake. But the lake also has a captivating past, led by its maritime history. The first boats on Tahoe were the Washoe on their “dugouts,” followed by steamships such as the SS Tahoe in the late 1800s and small water craft.

No boat is more inextricably tied to Lake Tahoe than the “woodies,” pleasure crafts manufactured by Chris-Craft, Gar Wood, Hacker and others that plied the lake in the ’20s. In 1940, real-estate tycoon George Whittell introduced the largest and most elegant of all mahogany hulled “woodies” to Tahoe — Thunderbird. “Fifty-six feet in length, the Thunderbird is quadruple mahogany planked, with her underside copper sheathed,” writes Scott.

Casino magnate William Harrah bought Thunderbird from Whittell in the ’60s and used it as his private yacht for showroom headliners, such as Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra. “Harrah called her his 70-mile-per-hour cocktail lounge,” says Bill Watson, chief executive and curator for Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, a nonprofit that operates the lodge and boat.

As she neared 75 years old a few years ago, Thunderbird faced an uncertain future: She was grounded because of damaged engines and low water at Lake Tahoe. Now the boat’s two V-12 Allison aircraft engines have been overhauled, she has received a new bottom, and the lake has reached its natural rim for the first time in 10 months. This has cleared the way for the yacht to return to the lake this summer—to its home at Thunderbird Lodge in Incline Village.

On Tahoe’s West Shore, Concours d’Elegance, America’s premier wooden boat show, will feature other famous boats, including a 1954, 19-ft. Chris-Craft Racing Runabout named Duckers, owned by Bill and Nancy Kehoe of Loomis.

In 2003, the Kehoes lovingly restored Duckers, which once sunk to the bottom of Lake Tahoe when its hull leaked. In their Loomis workshop, the Kehoes returned the Chris-Craft to its original glory, replacing the bottom, and adding new wiring, chrome work, windshields and upholstery to the boat. “This is definitely a passion,” says Bill.

Their hard work was amply rewarded: In 2007, Duckers was one of a few Tahoe boats immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp, celebrating the bygone era of mahogany speedboats.

(Photo: Steve Lapkin, H2omark.com)

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