Thunderbird Lake Tahoe
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The Sands of Time: History of Sand Harbor

The resources of the Tahoe Basin were prized long before Europeans made their discovery of the lake. In fact, Sand Harbor was used extensively by the Washoe Tribe as a summer camp. Throughout the century preceding the State’s acquisition of park lands, the harbor’s picturesque shores were also valued by a variety of private land owners. From lumber barons to wealthy eccentrics, the Jewel of the Nevada State Parks system has a history as colorful as Lake Tahoe’s blue sky waters.

The Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company

To cash in on the need for timber to support mining operations of the Comstock, Walter Scott Hobart organized the SNW&L Co. By the early 1880’s, the company controlled thousands of wooded acres in the Tahoe Basin, and a lumber mill in Incline. Timbers cut from Tahoe’s east shore were towed to Sand Harbor behind the company’s steamship Niagara. Logs then made their way to the Incline Mill on railway cars that ran out over the harbor on piers, and north along current day State Route Highway 28. The lumber continued on its way to Virginia City on the steam powered Great Incline Tramway, which ran straight up the mountain with a vertical rise of 1,400 feet. Towards the end of the 19th century, timber along the east lakeshore became scarce. The railway and sawmill were dismantled and moved to a new location north of Truckee.

Walter Scott Hobart Jr.

Following the death of his father in 1892, Hobart Jr. inherited his family’s wealth and land holdings. Known as the Slapdash Sage of Sand Harbor, he exhausted much of his acquired fortune on a lavish summer resort along the shores of Lake Tahoe. Located in the current day boat ramp area of Sand Harbor, the compound included two luxury cottages, a kitchen/dining complex, a pump house, a generator building, and three servant’s cabins. A skeet range was located near the south end of what is now the main swimming beach. The existing SNW&L Co. log train building was whitewashed and renovated to serve as a boathouse/clubhouse, with an adjacent pier where Hobart Jr. kept his prized racing boat Orange Blossom. Hollywood royalty and the social elite were entertained aboard Hobart’s Lake Tahoe yacht, the Quic Chakidn, until it was commandeered by the U.S. Navy during WWII for secret wartime experiments.

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The Fuller Family Summers

In the early 1920’s, Hobart leased the master cottage at Sand Harbor to Frank W. Fuller, Vice President of the W.P. Fuller & Company paint firm. His son, Frank Jr., and family continued to enjoy summers at the harbor until 1966. Fuller Jr. had a passion for flying and moored his Gruman Goose seaplane, and later his Gruman Mallard, on the shores of Sand Harbor. Boaters enjoyed the spectacle of watching Fuller’s planes lift gracefully out of the water and rise above the lake.

Millionaire George Whittell Jr.

Born to one of San Francisco’s wealthiest families, Whittell Jr. lived off the millions inherited from his parents. He avoided the 1929 stock market crisis (and some believe contributed to it), by liquidating fifty million dollars in stock holdings just months before the crash. George moved his fortune to Nevada, and during the early 1930’s, purchased most of the east side of Lake Tahoe. His land holdings included Sand Harbor, where he planned to build a casino. Between 1936 and 1939 Whittell focused on the construction of his own magnificent summer estate, the Thunderbird Lodge, which was also home to his famous yacht, Thunderbird, and a variety of big game animals. The historic estate is visible to the south of Sand Harbor – beach visitors can still catch a glimpse of the Thunderbird yacht cruising by on warm summer evenings.

Finally…A Park!

As years passed, George Whittell Jr. grew more reclusive, gradually abandoning his development plans for Tahoe’s east shore in favor of maintaining his own private hideaway. In 1958, Whittell reluctantly agreed to lease a portion of his lakeshore property at Sand Harbor to the State of Nevada for public use. A decade later, judicial action forced him to sell 5,000 acres; this land acquisition became the foundation for Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. Grand opening ceremonies were held in 1971, and early in the 21st century, more than one million visitors enjoy the park annually.