TAHOE NUGGET #246: TAHOE’S PONDEROSA RANCH
It’s been nearly eight years now since visitors to Lake Tahoe could treat their imagination with a visit to the legendary Ponderosa Ranch in Incline Village, Nevada. The popular western theme park, where some scenes from the television series Bonanza were filmed, closed in September 2004 after it was purchased by David Duffield, the wealthy founder of the software company PeopleSoft.
The loss of the Ponderosa Ranch, among northern Nevada’s most popular tourist destinations, disappointed fans from around the world, testament to the long-running program’s universal appeal among many cultures. The show’s re-runs are still watched by millions of people who love America’s 19th century western cowboy lifestyle and landscape.
Bonanza premiered on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in September 1959 and was so successful that the Lake Tahoe-based story ran for 14 seasons until 1973, with 430 weekly episodes produced. It was America’s first western television series filmed in color and during the mid-1960s ranked as the number one rated program in the United States.
The TV show’s opening credits depicted a hand-drawn map that indicated the location of the fictional Cartwright family’s vast Ponderosa Ranch at north Lake Tahoe, and the Nevada communities of Virginia City, Reno and Carson City. The map, drawn by artist Robert Temple, boasted bold hues of blue for the Lake, with vibrant tones of red and orange depicting the virtual 600,000 acre (1,000 square miles) ranch. Considering that all previous TV series were produced in black and white, the dramatic colors at the beginning of each Bonanza episode really caught the viewer’s eye.
Temple had his geography wrong with Reno placed west of Carson City instead of north, so to correct the orientation he added a compass rose that pointed northwest. (In 2010, this iconic map was donated to the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, joining other Bonanza memorabilia.)
It wasn’t just color film that made Bonanza stand out among other weekly television programs. The creators behind the show were unique in how they addressed controversial cultural issues that previous TV series had ignored. Bonanza’s screenwriters pushed the accepted boundaries of America’s contemporary family values with provocative storylines that included racism, interracial romance, ageism, and many other sexual and racial taboos of the day.
Although most scenes in Bonanza were filmed at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, for six seasons in the 1960s, portions of the weekly production were shot at Lake Tahoe and Truckee.
The Ponderosa Ranch theme park itself was established in the early 1960s by William Anderson who moved to Incline Village in 1962 from the Bay Area. Anderson was an ardent horseman and outdoorsman, so when Incline Village developer Art Wood told him that he would sell him some land cheap if he would establish a riding stable for visitors he agreed. At one point, the Bonanza film crew arrived and asked Anderson if they could corral their horses and buggies at his stables.
As the Bonanza TV show’s popularity grew, more people traveled to Incline Village asking where the fictional “Cartwright Ranch” was so Anderson and actor Lorne Greene came up with a plan to build a real Ponderosa Ranch and open it to the public. Anderson went into debt to establish his 570-acre theme park, including having to sell his last shotgun and an antique car to make payroll, but it all paid off. Not only was the park popular with families and cowboy aficionados for four decades, but the ranch buildings were used for conventions and business meetings.
In 1963, actor Lorne Greene received the Reno Rodeo’s annual Silver Spurs Award, considered the “Oscar” for the most popular western TV stars at the time. The Reno Chamber of Commerce promotion ran from 1950 to 1965, with the inaugural presentation made to actor John Wayne and movie director John Ford.
Even after the discontinuation of the Bonanza series in 1973, more than 300,000 people visited the park every year. The operation provided jobs for Tahoe locals, pumped money into the economy, and helped spread the word about Lake Tahoe’s spectacular beauty worldwide. Two television movies were filmed on location at the site, “Bonanza, the Return (1992) and “Bonanza Under Attack” (1994).
Of the four main characters in the long-running Bonanza series, Dan Blocker (Hoss), Michael Landon (Little Joe), Lorne Green (Ben Cartwright), and Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright), none survive today.
Shortly before filming began for the final season of the show, actor Dan Blocker died from complications after a surgical procedure, so the producers cut him out of the storyline by killing his character “Hoss” in an accident. This was the first time a TV series had incorporated an actor’s death into the story line by having his character die.
Dan Blocker as the “Hoss” character died before the final season of Bonanza.
For those wanting to learn more, William Anderson, who died in June 2008 at his ranch home in Dayton, Nevada, wrote a book titled, “Bill’s Big Bonanza: The autobiography of a third grade dropout who came to build, own and operate the world’s most famous ranch.” The book provides historical insight into the creation and back story of the Ponderosa Ranch.
Bill Anderson with his wife Sharon during an interview on his 80th birthday at their Dayton, Nevada, home in 2003. Anderson died in 2008.
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