George Whittell had a life-long fascination with the latest technology of the day, particularly that which manifested itself in aircraft, automobiles and boats. Among the many he owned were a DC-2, outfitted for his private use, a Grumman Goose seaplane, six of the most uncommon Duesenberg motorcars, a 145' pleasure yacht and the legendary 55' speedboat, Thunderbird. The latter is certainly one of the most unique and elegant wooden vessels crafted in the Twentieth century and, like his Duesenbergs, is as much a work of art as a means of transportation.
Commissioned by Whittell specifically for Lake Tahoe while he was building his fabulous estate there, the Thunderbird was designed by famed naval architect John L. Hacker and built by Huskins Boat Works in Bay City, Michigan. Enamored of the lines of his DC-2 aircraft, also named Thunderbird, the eccentric millionaire requested that the hull and cockpit of his new speedboat resemble the fuselage of his personal airplane. Fashioned of double-planked mahogany and brushed stainless steel the new acquisition would enable Whittell to get about Lake Tahoe with unmatched speed and style. Outfitted originally with twin V-12, 550 hp Kermath engines, the vessel was capable of 60 knots. To accommodate the Thunderbird its notoriously reclusive owner ordered the construction of a 100-foot long enclosed boathouse with 600-foot tunnel that would connect it to the main residence, both blasted out of solid granite.
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, 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!
For more information about cruising aboard the Thunderbird Yacht: Take a Cruise