Tahoe Historical Tour



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.



Tahoe Sierra Nature


On July 29, 2012, an angry lakefront property owner allegedly shot and killed a well-known bear named “Sunny” on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. Sunny, the unofficial mascot of the Tahoe BEAR League, a bear advocacy group, was shot in the back after wandering onto a property to get food from a cooler left outside on a porch.

“Sunny” was a friendly, mellow bear that enjoyed daytime strolls (hence her name).

The shooting death of Sunny enraged many residents in the Homewood neighborhood where she was remembered fondly. Anne Bryant, Executive Director of the BEAR League said, “This was a bear that was very much loved. She was a gentle, sweet bear. She was a neighbor.”

Part of a new bear awareness exhibit at the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society’s Gatekeepers Cabin Museum located near the Tahoe Dam in Tahoe City. Note that it is “Sunny’s” face in the center panel. People and bears must learn to cohabitate with each other in the Tahoe Basin.

Unlike the grizzly bear which was hunted and poisoned to extinction in California by the 1920s, the California Black Bear is a common mammal found throughout the Sierra Nevada.

Grizzly bears were the most dangerous animal in early California. These ferocious predators terrorized Indians, vaqueros, Forty-Niners and ranchers. They were hunted to extinction by the 1920s in the Golden State.

In the Tahoe Basin, bears have become a nuisance problem for some homeowners. In certain areas around the Lake, bears are often breaking into houses in search of food. Once a bear locates an easily accessible food source, destructive behavior can become a persistent problem, especially for second homeowners who are often away for weeks at a time with food left in cupboards and refrigerators.

Tahoe homeowners that have been victimized by intruding bears are less sympathetic to the plight of these beautiful animals just trying to survive in an increasingly urbanized region. Tahoe residents are urged to be “bear aware.”

Black bears are naturally afraid of people and easily scared away, but they are also intelligent and learn quickly.

Several companies have sprung up recently that will electrify a home’s perimeter and windows to discourage bear intrusions using electrical shocks. These new technologies are much more efficient and humane than older tactics such as hammering scores of nails through lumber and placing the boards with the metal nail tips up below exterior windows or doors.

The fur of California black bears can be black, brown, blonde, or copper red in color. This display is also at the new North Lake Tahoe Historical Society’s “Ursus Among Us” exhibit.

Bears are omnivores that in nature have a varied diet, but in Tahoe they have also learned that it’s much easier to raid unsecured dumpsters behind restaurants for pizza crusts or other kitchen refuse, than rambling through the woods looking for insects, berries, and grubs.

In recent years, restaurant employees have been encouraged to keep trash dumpsters securely locked. Volunteers have distributed rock climbing carabineers to secure dumpster lids and prevent unwanted bear activity. More and more homeowners are installing “bear boxes,” bear-proof metal containers to hold their trash cans.

Dumpster labels have been distributed to Tahoe restaurants to increase awareness of bear feeding problems.

Much of the blame for nuisance bear activity is placed on unaware residents and tourists who put trash outside days before collection pickup. Waste food attracts bears, as well as neighborhood dogs, coyotes, and raccoons.

Urban visitors have little knowledge of the civilization-wilderness interface where humans and animals must learn to cohabitate in harmony. Sunny’s death was a stark wake-up call that Tahoe residents and visitors have a long way to go before that harmony is achieved.