Completed at a cost of $87,000 (about $1.5 million in today's dollars), Whittell took delivery of the Thunderbird in 1940, and it first crossed the mountain lake's sparkling blue waters on July 14th of that year. The aging playboy used it fairly extensively that summer and the next, retrieving friends from nearby communities and showgirls from the Cal-Neva casino for lavish parties at his estate. Following the entry of the U.S. into World War II, however, Whittell became afraid that his beloved yacht or its engines might be conscripted into military service, and he hid it away in Lodge's boathouse where it remained throughout the war.
As Whittell grew older he became even more reclusive and was rarely seen by anyone in the Tahoe area. The yacht was also seen so infrequently that it seemed to some who caught a glimpse nothing more than an apparition.
After Whittell broke his hip late in life and refused surgery to repair the fracture, he ended up confined to a wheelchair and unable or unwilling to use the Thunderbird. Suspended by slings in the boathouse and mostly ignored following the summer of 1941, the yacht was rescued by casino magnate 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 (which when removed had only 83 original hours on them) 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 (left, with Harrah and wives), Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Liza Minnelli, 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!
After a succession of owners, the yacht was recently transferred to the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.