The Fascinating Story of Lake Tahoe's Rich Maritime History

From transportation and shipping to water sports, there is a long history of people making use of Lake Tahoe's water.

The beautiful blue surface of Lake Tahoe seems to beckon travelers, enticing them to venture out into that magical space between water and wind. It’s a call that has been answered for generations in various forms of maritime travel.

The Washoe Indians were the earliest people to summer at Lake Tahoe, spending the warmer months on its shores and traversing the cool, glassy waters by canoe.

Modern vessels came to the lake not long after Tahoe’s “discovery” in 1844. The first steamship, Governor Blaisdel, launched in 1864 to carry passengers and cargo and conveyed timber for use in the Comstock Lode’s mines. In 1895, D.L. Bliss, for whom a West Shore state park is named, commissioned the Union Iron Works of San Francisco to build an opulent steamer.

The S.S. Tahoe, or as it was also known, “the Queen of the Lake,” was Tahoe’s grandest steamship of the era. It was 168 feet long and contained a main travel compartment, parlor and staterooms. It carried up to 200 passengers in addition to mail and freight. As automobiles became the main source of transportation, however, and the road circumnavigating the lake completed, the S.S. Tahoe lost its glory. In August of 1940, it was scuttled off the Glenbrook shore. 

Maritime History Lake Tahoe

As steamers waned, wooden boats, or “woodies,” became popular. Lake Tahoe was a speedboat racing playground for the elite, who favored the elegant mahogany and chrome lines of Rivas, Chris-Crafts and Gar Woods.

One such extravagant woodie is the Thunderbird yacht, which can still be seen at the East Shore’s Thunderbird Estate. The estate was built in 1939 by eccentric magnate George Whittell Jr., who decided that if he was going to have the most spectacular home on the lake, he needed the most spectacular boat to go with it. He commissioned naval architect John L. Hacker to build the 55-foot yacht, complete with aircraft engines and styled after Whittell’s Duesenberg automobiles and his Douglas DC-2 aircraft.

Built in Michigan, the Thunderbird arrived at Lake Tahoe in 1940. When World War II broke out, Whittell, afraid the craft’s engines would be conscripted into military service, hid it in the Thunderbird boathouse, where it remained mostly neglected until it was bought by casino magnate Bill Harrah in 1962. The end of World War II ushered in a golden age of speedboat racing on Lake Tahoe, where people including Stanley Dollar, Henry Kaiser and Bill Stead frequently competed.

Maritime History Lake Tahoe

The boats were sleek and fast. Some, such as Kaiser’s Hornet II—rechristened Fleur de Lac, after the West Shore magnate’s lakefront estate—were repowered with war-surplus airplane engines. Kaiser’s Scooter Too, which raced beginning in 1955, was said to reach speeds of 180 miles per hour. 

The glory of Tahoe’s on-water past is on display at the Tahoe Maritime Museum, just outside Tahoe City on the Tahoe Tree property. Its collection boasts more than 30 crafts, from Shanghai, a recovered 1890s steam launch, to elegant runabouts. Also find a collection of inboard and outboard motors, racing trophies, historic Lake Tahoe photographs, vintage water skis and more.

Today, many Lake Tahoe visitors bring their own boats, but even if you’re notarriving with a vessel, there are many boat rentals and tours available, from paddleboards to rent by the hour to luxurious chartered lake cruises. No matter what youchoose, you’ll be following a long and storied tradition on the lake.