by Bill Watson member of the Northern California/Lake Tahoe chapter
In the early 20th Century, flamboyant Captain George Whittell, Jr. was a very wealthy young man having many extravagant hobbies and obsessions, including acquiring the best machines that modern technology had to offer. He owned multiple airplanes, Duesenberg luxury motorcars, and a small fleet of watercraft, including custom-made vessels. Whittell enlisted Naval Architect John L. Hacker to engineer what would become one of Whittell’s most valued prizes, Thunderbird yacht. She was built in 1939 by Huskins Boat and Motor Works in Bay City, Michigan. Originally fitted with twin 12cyl Kermath 550hp Sea-Raider engines (and two 4-91 Gray motors for auxiliary power), the 18-ton craft topped out at blazing 43.1 miles per hour during her sea trials on Michigan’s Saginaw River. Whittell fitted her with the era’s latest technology: mahogany-paneled cabins, red leather upholstery, crystal mirrors, electric heat with window defrosters, running hot water, and a phone system to communicate from ship-to-shore. Total cost? $87,000, or $1.5 million in today’s dollars.
Launched in 1940 on Lake Tahoe, Hacker’s design was influenced by Whittell’s love of aircraft, specifically the sleek look of his personal DC-2 aircraft, also named Thunderbuird. In 1962, an aging Whittell sold his beloved watercraft to casino mogul Bill Harrah. Harrah refitted the craft with a pair of 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 WWII fighter aircraft engines from the P-38 Lightning, each delivering 1,150HP to 23” propellers. Having undergone multiple retrofits in her storied life, Thunderbird still captures the aeronautical beauty of the art deco age.
Aboard Harrah’s new toy, Frank Sinatra negotiated a return to Nevada to perform in Harrah’s showrooms (after casino regulators evicted the celebrity from the Silver State’s casinos for cavorting with shady underworld characters) , Sammy Davis, Jr. frolicked with his children, Gerald Ford contemplated his pardon of Richard Nixon, and Tony Bennett met his future wife. These are just a few of the stories handed down by guardian owners of Thunderbird over the years. Following two decades in the care of the Joan and Buzz Gibb family, retired casino-industry executive and Nevada historian Bill Watson purchased the yacht so that she could return home to the steel boathouse at Whittell’s Lake Tahoe manse, Thunderbird Lodge.
Celebrating 80-years on Lake Tahoe, Thunderbird yacht today serves the charitable and educational mission of the non-profit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. To cruise aboard this classic piece of Lake Tahoe history takes one back to a simpler time of unadorned luxury, elegance, and indulgence. For more information, visit www.ThunderbirdTahoe.org