Celebrating 75 Years: Today and Beyond


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In 2001, the Gibbs returned Thunderbird to her original home in the Whittell boathouse. In 2007, Joan Gibb conveyed Thunderbird to the care of the non-profit Foundation 36 with the goal of conveying her to Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society (TLPS) which took place in 2011.

The spring of 2014 it was discovered that her engines were in dire need of rebuilding and with the determination of donors, volunteers, and crew, both Allison engines were rebuilt and are in working condition.  However, the water level of the lake was less than cooperative. Due to drought conditions, we were not able to get her out of the boathouse for cruises – but it was conducive for even more repairs.

Here is the next course of action according to Dave Triano of Triano Marine Design who will be overseeing the restoration:

Over her 75 year history, the Thunderbird yacht has been through some very significant changes. It has been said that over the years the wood in the bottom of the Thunderbird  has been replaced twice. However, my own investigation of the actual wood and construction of the bottom has led to a much different conclusion.

The original hull is composed of two layers of South American Mahogany (Swietania Macrophylla species). The inner layer is laid on a diagonal to the keel, while the outer layer is laid longitudinally. In between these layers (each approximately 3/4” in thickness), a ‘gasket layer’ of canvas bedded in red lead was applied. This original construction method was common in the years prior to World War II, and it certainly had its drawbacks: although it basically kept the water outside of the boat and allowed for the natural expansion and contraction of the wood, this inner layer would lose its true effectiveness within 8-10 years of construction.

Wood samples have been taken throughout the hull, and it is clear that over 80% of the wood present on the bottom of Thunderbird is original wood; the previous work on the bottom only replaced about 20% of the outer planks present. This was normal practice, at the time that each wood plank was failing, there was probably no need seen to replace the ‘good wood’ on the rest of the hull. In addition, 3 sheets of stainless steel were added to the aft section of the hull, fully covering the existing wood structure from one chine to the other. Presumably, this was to remedy leakage issues in this area, and perhaps add some structural rigidity to the aft end of the boat, which tended to move much more with the installation of the Allison V-1710 engines.

Owners of original construction antique boats can attest to the annual ritual of the ‘soak-up’, where their boat is suspended in the water and the wood cells are allowed to swell with water. This process enlarges the cells, swelling the wood in all dimensions, and tightens up the interstices between planks that may have developed. This action is not a sign of health, it is a sign of the deterioration of the original fastening and placement of the wood, but it is an essential characteristic of this original construction technique. Before the very successful 2013 season, Thunderbird required almost 3 months of suspension to ‘soak up’…. clearly a sign of difficulty. The wood cells in the original wood of our amazing boat are essentially dead; they have lost their ability to move water through their cell membranes. This is why the decision has been made to replace the bottom on Thunderbird, we will ensure her safe, dry operation for the next 75 years, and perhaps more. In the next installment, I will discuss the technique we will be using to replace this tired wood, respecting the original construction and design while integrating a proven, modern technology to replace the original canvas/red lead gasket layer.

-Davis Triano


So you can see we have some exciting plans for her future and more to come!

Lapkin 2008 (6)

Photo by Steve Lapkin.  TLPS Archives.

Copyright:  stevelapkin.com

Lapkin 2008 (8)

Photo by Steve Lapkin, TLPS Archives.

Copyright:  stevelapkin.com


Thunderbird was chosen as one of the boats to grace the US Postal stamps in 2007. TLPS Archives.

_MG_8929 as Smart Object-1

TLPS Archives.

_MG_9027 as Smart Object-1

TLPS Archives.

_MG_9157 copy

TLPS Archives.

Celebrating 75 Years: The Gibb Years


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Bill Harrah died in 1978 and the yacht was auctioned off.  The purchaser was Owen Owens, who unexpectedly died in November of 1979. Buzz and Joan Gibb purchased the yacht in 1981 from Owens’ widow and become the longest owners to date, owning it for 26 years.   The Gibbs used the boat by far the most, enjoying her both on Lake Tahoe and the San Francisco Bay.


The Gibbs and friends enjoying a sunny day out on the lake. TLPS Archives.


During her time as under the Gibb ownership, her transom read Piedmont. It has changed at least five times. TLPS Archives.


Joan and Buzz Gibb became friends with former Whittell butler Father Don Mason.  They invited Fr. Mason to Tahoe and took him for a ride out on the Thunderbird.  Fr. Mason had loved the boat as a young man and it meant the world to him to once again see her being the queen of the lake.

Joan and Gibb Season Greetings

The Thunderbird was intertwined with the Gibb family for many years. TLPS Archives.


Receiving some much needed work in Alameda in 1981. Note the very different transom art. TLPS Archives.


Thunderbird on the San Francisco Bay. TLPS Archives.


Under the Golden Gate Bridge. TLPS Archives.

cruising the bay

Cruising the bay. TLPS Archives.

TBird Pres Ford

President Ford being welcomed aboard the Thunderbird by Buzz Gibb. TLPS Archives.

Tony Bennett

Buzz and Joan Gibb with Tony Bennett. TLPS Archives.


Buzz Gibb with Thunderbird at Tahoe City Marina. Note the cabin structure roof had been moved for transport. TLPS Archives.


Snow on the Thunderbird as she is moored at Tahoe City Marina. TLPS Archives.

Celebrating 75 Years: The Harrah Years


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Harrah purchased the yacht in 1962.  Under his ownership came her most notable changes: the flying bridge and the replacement of her original Kermath engines with with two V-12 Allison aircraft engines.

Harrah’s crew getting Thunderbird ready for her first departure in years from the boathouse in 1962. TLPS Archives.

TLPS463 - Copy

First they towed her out to point her bow first. TLPS Archives.

Then she made her grand appearance! TLPS Archives.

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First time out after almost two decades. TLPS Archives.

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There were a few stops and engines tweaks. TLPS Archives.

Here she is getting hauled out on the way to a new life. TLPS Archives.

Along with new engines and bridge, she received a new interior. TLPS Archives.

TLPS406 - Copy

TLPS Archives.

Harrah used the yacht to entertain. TLPS Archives.

Harrah used the yacht to entertain. TLPS Archives.

191 damage. TLPS Archives.

1971 damage. TLPS Archives.

During the winters, Harrah kept her in the boathouse at Thunderbird Lodge.  The surge gates unfortunately were damaged and between a storm and another Harrah boat hitting her, severe damage occurred.

Damage to the transom. TLPS Archives.

Damage to the transom. TLPS Archives.

Launching after repair.  TLPS Archives.

Launching after repair. TLPS Archives.

At  Harrahs's Skyland home.  TLPS Archives.

At Harrahs’s Skyland home. TLPS Archives.

Celebrating 75 Years!


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This month we will be celebrating Thunderbird yacht’s 75th Anniversary.  Over the next few weeks I will be posting photographs of her various stages of ownership.  Enjoy!

The Beginning~

Thunderbird was designed by the legendary naval architect John L. Hacker and built at the Huskins Boat Works – Bay City, Mich.


Thunderbird under construction at Huskins Boat & Motor Works. TLPS Archives.


Thunderbird under construction at Huskins Boat & Motor Works. TLPS Archives.

Construction 1939 (5)

Thunderbird under construction at Huskins Boat & Motor Works. TLPS Archives.

Construction 1939 (13)

Thunderbird under construction at Huskins Boat & Motor Works. TLPS Archives.

Construction 1939 (7)

Thunderbird under construction at Huskins Boat & Motor Works. TLPS Archives.

Seat Trial Saginaw River (6)

Thunderbird being prepared for her November, 1939, sea trials. TLPS Archives.

Seat Trial Saginaw River (10)

Thunderbird underway during her sea trials on the Saginaw River. TLPS Archives.

Seat Trial Saginaw River (14)

Thunderbird on the Saginaw River. TLPS Archives.

Seat Trial Saginaw River (5)

Second run on the Saginaw River. TLPS Archives.

Seat Trial Saginaw River (4)

Successful sea trial meant she was ready for fitting out and delivery. TLPS Archives.

She arrived and was launched on the lake July 15, 1940


Nevada State Journal, July 17, 1940


Delivery of the Thunderbird at Tahoe City. TLPS Archives.

Whittell and friends enjoyed her for several years


Thunderbird on Lake Tahoe, circa 1940-1941. TLPS Archives.

Screenshot (30)

Thunderbird in front of the Lodge during Whittell’s 60th birthday celebration, September, 1941, from the Whittell films. TLPS Archives.


Interior view of the Thunderbird of unidentified passengers. Whittell Films, TLPS Archives.

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Thunderbird underway during Whittell’s 60th birthday celebration, from the Whittell films. TLPS Archives.

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Thunderbird underway during Whittell’s 60th birthday celebration, from the Whittell films. TLPS Archives.

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George Whittell Jr. and guests celebrating his 60th birthday on Thunderbird. From the Whittell films. TLPS Archives.


Thundbird sitting in her cradle in the boathouse in the early sixties. Crane Family Collection, TLPS Archives.


Crane Family Collection, TLPS Archives.

But then she was forgotten and left to hang in the boathouse for many more…

Lake Levels



Anyone who has spent several years at Lake Tahoe knows that the lake fluctuates – this is one of the dry years for certain.  Below is a photograph of the lagoon at Thunderbird Lodge I took this weekend.  You can see how low we are right now – and why the lake is too low for the yacht to leave the boathouse.


For comparison, here are some slides from mid 1960s when the Crane family visited Thunderbird Lodge.  You can really see a stark difference! There is no beach to be seen.

Full lagoon

TLPS Collections.

Warren Crane served as Whittell’s personal engineer for several years and was Whittell’s longest serving employee.


TLPS Collections.

Warren and his family often visited Thunderbird Lodge and would stay in the Caretaker’s Cabin on the property.

The  slides were donated by Joey and Myrna Pesce in 2012. Myrna is Warren’s daughter and seen in several of the slides of the family’s time at Tahoe.

We here at TLPS are very grateful for their generous donation!

Spot the Differences!


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I am currently going through the Crane/Pesce family slides from 1962.  Looking at this wonderful shot of the lakeside view of the Lodge, can you spot all the differences from today?  (Click on the image for a larger version)  Please respond, I would love to hear what you notice!

– Jesse


The Thunderbird Lodge in 1962. TLPS Collection.

The Terrace/The Solarium



One interesting architectural feature that has come and gone from Thunderbird Lodge is the enclosed solarium.  When I first came to Thunderbird, I came across this picture taken from inside the Great Room.

Solarium at the Whittell Estate.  Frasher Collection, Pomona Library.

Solarium at the Whittell Estate.The Frasher Foto Postcard Collection.

However, I could not figure out which room it showed.  Then to add to the mystery, I also found the “solarium” listed in the 1939 appraisal inventory, so I figured that the picture had to be it, but where was it?

With a bit of searching and investigation, I figured out that today’s outside terrace on the second (main) floor had at one time been the solarium.   However, looking at very early pictures of the exterior, it is clear that it was much like it is today – with an open porch on the second floor on the lakeside.  You can see the open area in these two photographs.  The first photograph is during construction of the Lodge and you can see the canopy over the terrace.

Whittell Castle

The Lodge during construction. TLPS Collection.

Lodge from plane. TLPS Collection.

Lodge from plane. TLPS Collection.

I eventually discovered photographs from Whittell’s time that showed the enclosed solarium from the exterior.

Lodge with solarium and awnings.The Frasher Foto Postcard Collection.

Lodge with solarium and awnings.The Frasher Foto Postcard Collection.

Here we can also see that the enclosed solarium was constructed at about the same time as the upper balconies and walkways on the lakeside and ends of the building.  We know that the solarium and balconies were added by 1939 as they appear in September appraisal of that year.  It is also noted that George Whittell kept a bed on the balcony to enjoy the summer nights. So, somewhere between completing construction in 1938 and the appraisal in 1939, Whittell made these changes.

The other mystery is when was the solarium demolished and become a terrace again? Today, we enjoy the terrace as a lovely outside space easily accessed from the Great Room.  But did Whittell return it to its original state or was it later owner Jack Dreyfus who did numerous changes on the house during his ownership? From this photograph taken shortly before the Dreyfus additions, it appears the solarium is already gone, however, it is hard to say.

Lodge exterior prior to Dreyfus additions.

Lodge exterior prior to Dreyfus additions. TLPS Collection.

Sadly I have no record of when the changes took place, but we can see that the exterior appearance of the lakeside of the Lodge has changed several times over the years.

View of the terrace today from the remaining balcony area. Originally the balcony would have been larger.  TLPS Collection.

View of the terrace today from the remaining balcony area. Originally the balcony would have been larger. TLPS Collection.

Which do you prefer – the enclose solarium or the open terrace?

Greetings from Thunderbird!

Sorry for the lack of posts recently!  In my constant thirst to be the best museum education professional possible, I have been working towards my Masters of Arts in Teaching, which means four months of student teaching.  Hence the blog has been neglected while I share my love of history with high school students.  But soon I will be back in the full swing of things at Thunderbird – and what a time to be back!  This year is the Thunderbird yacht’s 75th Anniversary!  Due to low water levels at Lake Tahoe, she will not be gracing the waters this year, but that does not mean she does not deserve a grand celebration! TLPS has a great deal of wonderful things lined up this summer to celebrate our beloved boat, so please check our website often for updates:  Thunderbird Lodge Lake Tahoe

I promise more amazing Thunderbird history to come soon!

The Thunderbird, 1962

The Thunderbird, 1962

Mae Mollhagen


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For those who follow this blog, you know that I have not completed the Elia piece yet.  Her early history continues to be very elusive and I have some new leads I wish to follow up on before I post about her.

However, I have found a great deal about the other important woman in George Whittell Jr.’s later life: Mae Mollhagen.  Mae was Whittell’s long-time secretary and companion.  She was also allegedly his mistress.  I saw allegedly because it was all from other people’s oral histories that we have this notion of their relationship.  I have no actual proof; no diary or note marking her as more than a secretary and close friend of Whittell’s. Also keep in mind, all relationships have an ebb and flow to them, so their relationship most likely changed over time.  I will leave it up to you, the reader, to define their relationship.  No matter how it was defined, Mae was a major part of life at Thunderbird.


A screenshot from the Whittell Films. This is Mae and George walking near the Lodge, 1941. TLPS Archives.

Mae was born Milwaukee, Wisc. On May 3, 1895 to Arthur and Maggie Mollhagen, both of who were Canadian.  She had two brothers and two sisters.  Mae and her siblings grew up in Saginaw, Mich.  Her sister Bessie was an artist and her other sister, Carmen, was a very well respected music teacher in the community.  While I cannot find exactly when Arthur died, Maggie was head of the household living with children in the 1915 city directory of Saginaw.  She is noted as a widow at this point.  The boys would go on to move to their own homes. James, stayed in Saginaw.  The eldest, Leo, fought in World War I.

Mae went to train to be a nurse at Allegheny Hospital in Pittsburg.  After she finished her training, Mae returned to Saginaw and living with her mother and sisters.  It is in the 1930 census that Mae starts shaving a few years off her age, something that would continue up until her untimely death.  By this time she was a private nurse.  In 1933 Mae takes her first trip to Hawaii by herself; a fairly large endeavor for a single woman at this time.  It also speaks to her spend-thriftiness that she had the money to indulge in such an extravagance at this time, or perhaps her employer paid her fair, which would happen later on when she worked for Whittell.  Mae also shaved off three years of her age on the ship’s manifest.

Then at some point around this time Mae meets George Whittell Jr.  I certainly wish I had some document telling me how and when they met.  My best guess is that since her travels to Hawaii were by ship that left San Francisco, it was during her time in the city before or after her departure the two met.


Mae, again from the films, 1941. TLPS Archives.

While I am not sure exactly when she started working for Whittell, Mae appears in the 1934 home film with Whittell at Furnace Creek.  Then I have Mae in Nevada by 1936 as she is listed in the Reno roll of voters.  Subsequently she appears in the 1940 census living at Lake Tahoe and working as a secretary for a “private estate.”  Her age is listed as 39, rather than the 45 she was.  Most notable is her listed income of $5,000+.  Given inflation, today that would be a salary of over $84k.

In August 1952 I found her traveling with her mother, leaving Liverpool going back to NYC.  I find this one of interest for a few reasons.  Mae is listed as 57, putting her correct birth year back on mark, perhaps her 84 year old mother caught her fibbing.  The other point of interest is that there is a stricken address of RF? ? Kings Mnt. Woodside California addresses (in other words, the Whittell estate address) and replaced with the Mollhagen address in Saginaw.

Mae is also found in the city directory for Redwood for several years, mostly at the Whittell estate.  However, just like George and Elia Whittell, she keeps her Nevada residency.

According to most accounts, Mae traveled with Whittell as he went back and forth between his Woodside estate and Thunderbird Lodge.  It is interesting that in the early Whittell films we see little of Mae, but more of Elia.  That certainly changes as the films progress over time.  Elia is almost absent and Mae is front and center.  Mae’s nephew, Jimmy, even came to Incline Village and managed the Ski Beach campground for Whittell.  Jimmy and his family stayed in Incline and were valued community residents, all four of their children graduated from Incline High School.  In 1944, the newspaper the Nevada State Journal, it is listed the guests of Elizabeth Rose McLean and Ensign William Lewis, in which we can find both Mae Mollhagen and George Whittell, but not Elia. It is clear that Mae traveled with Whittell and was openly his companion.

The most tragic part about Mae’s story is her very untimely death.  Driving back to Incline Village from Crystal Bay on the afternoon of September 1, 1954.  According to initial reports, Mae was traveling at a fairly high rate of speed when she lost control of her station wagon after striking the soft sand of the shoulder and she overcorrected.  It then collided with another car carrying a family of five.  All five suffered some injuries, but all survived.  The inquest into the accident showed the Mae was in the wrong lane and she died of multiple skull fractures when she was thrown from the vehicle. Witnesses stated that Mae had been traveling in the wrong lane for a while, had actually missed two other vehicles before hitting the one that would kill her. All the newspaper articles referred to her at Whittell’s secretary.  By the time of her death, Mae had shaved off ten years from her age.

According to her nephew’s wife, Jimmy delivered the sad news to Whittell.  The story goes that Whittell ordered specific organ music to be played over the loudspeakers at Thunderbird.  Jimmy related to his wife that it was very loud and uncomfortable to listen to.  A year later, Whittell brought Maggie out to go through Mae’s belongings.  He also took her out on the Thunderbird yacht, the first time the yacht had been used in a very long time and perhaps the past time he went out on his boat.

Mae was buried with her sisters in the family plot in Saginaw.  Maggie outlived all of her daughters, none of whom married and all died relatively young.

Mae’s damaged station wagon was brought to Thunderbird Lodge by Whittell where it stayed until around 2000, when it was erroneously removed.

Mae's Crashed Woodie - Copy

The wreck of the station wagon on Thunderbird Lodge property. Date unknown. TLPS Archives.

This is just a brief history of Mae.  There is a great deal more to her than what I wrote here, but I hope this gives you an idea about her.  From oral histories that are in the archives, she was a very strong-willed woman who was meticulous.  From listening to her brief interactions with Whittell on film that were captured, I would say that she was not the submissive type at all.  The collection contains many letters from Whittell transcribed and signed by Mae; she clearly was his most trusted employee.  Maybe someday some journal or letters of Mae’s will show up and give us more insight into this interesting woman and her time at Thunderbird?