Western Trips

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Tahoe Maritime Center – Museum & Gardens

The Tahoe Maritime Museum is a tribute and showcase for Lake Tahoe's classic wooden boat history. High in the Sierra Nevada range at Tahoe City, California is a unique museum that chronicles the history of wood boats.

tahoe maritime museum
Tahoe Maritime Center
The Tahoe Maritime Museum maintains a program of permanent and annually rotating exhibits that present stories and artifacts of Tahoe’s maritime past. 

These exhibits are open to the public year-round, and highlight the histories of Tahoe’s people and places. The museum's stated goal is to... strive to encourage an interest in, increase knowledge of, and maintain watercraft and marine artifacts significant in Lake Tahoe’s maritime history through the highest standards of historic preservation, innovative interpretation and public education.

Lake Tahoe and the Beautiful Woodies

Woodies had their heyday in Lake Tahoe from the 1920s through the 1950s, longer than in other wealthy enclaves across the country thanks to the number of Civilian Conservation Corps jobs that buoyed the region during the Great Depression. But Tahoe’s love affair with the mahogany runabouts dates back to the early 1900s.

With their rich woods and powerful engines, woodies remain the epitome of luxury and leisure in the modern era of fiberglass and jet engines. Events celebrating the wooden speedboats in Lake Tahoe started nearly as soon as companies stopped making them, with the first Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance held in 1972. 

classic wood boats
Lake Tahoe Concours d’ Elegance

In 1972 a group of Tahoe Yacht Club members and friends got together to share their passion for wooden boats. From this modest beginning, the Lake Tahoe Concours d’ Elegance has grown to play a significant role in the wooden boat community, as well as the Lake Tahoe maritime community.

 Since its induction in 1994 the Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation has hosted the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance focusing on the continuing growth of the show, the quality of boat exhibits, the highest of judging standards and practices, and most importantly, sharing the passion of wooden boats between exhibitors and public.The Museum maintains a program of permanent and annually rotating exhibits that present stories and artifacts of Tahoe’s maritime past.  These exhibits are open to the public year-round, and highlight the histories of Tahoe’s people and places.

Concours dreams and achievements are validated with first, second and third-place awards “in class” and with the presentation of special Perpetual trophies going to the most meticulously-restored, highest-point boats. Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation now has 17 of these special trophies made possible by the generous assistance of endowers, many who have competed and won their own share of precious “Concours silver, crystal, and mahogany” over the past 44 years of this event.


Thunderbird Lake Tahoe is home to America’s most recognizable—and possibly most valuable—wooden speedboat, the venerable Thunderbird yacht. Since America’s Great Depression, Thunderbird has transported guests in opulent luxury between high-mountain estates and luxury resorts.

There is lots to be said about the THUNDERBIRD, which is a 55 foot express speedboat designed by John Hacker and built by Huckins in 1939 for Captain George Whittell, a reclusive millionaire who owned most of Tahoe's east shore at the time.

thunderbird lake tahoe
The Thunderbird was launched on July 14, 1940 at Tahoe Boat Company, where she still lives, and was kept in a boathouse specially built by Whittell. THUNDERBIRD was originally powered by twin Kermath 550 hp engines.

William F. Harrah, who purchased it from Whittell in 1962. Harrah had it transported to his Automobile Collection restoration shop in Reno where it was reverentially refurbished. His workmen added a matching, brushed stainless steel flying bridge and replaced the original Kermath engines with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines, each developing 1100 horsepower. Harrah used it as his private yacht for the entertainment of his casino high-rollers and showroom headliners, such as Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby, to name a few. The boat was returned to Reno every winter where the mahogany hull was meticulously sanded down to bare wood and refinished with ten coats of varnish!

Ownership of the yacht was recently transferred to Foundation 36, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting Nevada's natural, cultural, and historic treasures. The yacht will now remain berthed in its original boathouse at the Thunderbird Lodge and can be viewed during tours of the old Whittell estate.

lake tahoe boats
High Hopes
High Hopes 

The High Hopes,  is unique in as much as it is the only 19 footer that has three cockpits. These were requester by the boat's owner and was completed at the factory. Built in 1937, the High Hopes has a M2 Chrysler Crown engine. The craft has been beautifull  restored and it's engine rebuilt. The High Hopes home port was Lake Minnetonka.

You may enjoy these additional articles regarding the Lake Tahoe area found on the links below...

Gatekeepers Museum

Little Known History of Lake Tahoe

Vite Vite 

The Vite Vite is considered a classic Lake Tahoe boat. The vessel was built in 1961 and is 16 feet long. The boat has a Chevrolet 283 V-8 engine.

wooden boat builders
Vite Vite from Besotes Boats
The craft was built by Besotes Boats. Besotes Boats were manufactured in Stockton, California.The Besotes brothers originally were building bodies for pick up trucks. They changed over to speed  boat building and were building boats for themselves when customers came around requesting that they build boats for them. It's estimated that from 1950 to 1973 approximately 200 Besotes speedboats were produced.
The Tahoe Maritime Museum is an excellent place to learn all about the wooden boat era at Lake Tahoe and across the country. This article is just a very small sample of the classic wooden boat story. There is much more to learn at the museum. I would recommend a visit to this unique museum anytime your travels take you to beautiful Lake Tahoe.

The museum is located at 401 West Lake Blvd., Tahoe City, CA. For additional information on current exhibits, events, etc, see website www.tahoemaritimemuseum.org. 

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)