If you’ve spent any time at Lake Tahoe, you may have noticed the California side is far more developed than the unspoiled eastern shoreline in Nevada. Few visitors realize this is thanks to a peculiar and reclusive millionaire who built his summer residence on the lake in 1936, and in doing so, unwittingly conserved much of the beautiful land along the east shore.
The millionaire in question is George Whittell Jr., who was born into one of the wealthiest families in San Francisco at the time and inherited a gilded-age fortune. He was worth the equivalent of billions today by the time he purchased 40,000 acres and nearly all of Lake Tahoe’s eastern shoreline. There, he built the Thunderbird Lodge, a storybook estate on the waterfront with sweeping views of the lake and mountains, where he spent the rest of his summers indulging in Great Gatsby-style high-society.
Whittell, who was also known as “the Captain,” had a Tudor Revival-style stone mansion built as his residence, designed by the prominent Nevada architect Frederic DeLongchamps. The grounds also feature a decadent card house, caretaker’s cottage, butler’s house, and a boathouse for Whittell’s prized speedboat, the Thunderbird, which is connected to the main house by an underground tunnel replete with a dungeon and opium den.
Perhaps most unusual of all is the large stone elephant barn built for Mingo, Whittell’s pet Sumatran elephant. Whittell loved animals and collected various exotic breeds that lived at Thunderbird Lodge. Aside from Mingo, he favorited an African lion named Bill who used to accompany him everywhere, including rides around the lake in his convertible. Though he famously hosted luminaries like baseball legend Ty Cobb and fellow millionaire recluse Howard Hughes for debaucherous all-night card games, more often than not he preferred to be alone with his exotic pets.
Whittell had originally planned to develop the Lake Tahoe property into a high-end resort and casino, but found he liked having no neighbors and opted for seclusion instead. Thus, he kept the land to himself for decades to come, and it remains largely untouched to this day. Despite all the stories of his flamboyant lifestyle, Whittell’s most lasting legacy is his accidental one: as a nature conservationist.
After the Captain’s death in 1969, the bulk of the pristine land was purchased by the State of Nevada and the U.S. Forest Service and became the Lake Tahoe—Nevada State Park. The same sale ensured that recreational opportunities could exist for years to come along the lake in Nevada. In California, the area remains privately owned.
The Thunderbird Lodge, however, remained private property. The estate is now owned by the nonprofit Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, which maintains it as a house museum where visitors can experience this intriguing chapter of Lake Tahoe’s history.