Tahoe Characters



This weekend I was invited by members of the Tahoe Rotary Yacht Club to join them for a dinner and tour at the legendary Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe’s east shore. Docents led us through the labyrinth that was the estate of enigmatic gambling playboy George Whittell and shared stories of the wild and crazy life of this Tahoe millionaire.

Born in San Francisco on September 28, 1881, George and his twin brother Nicholas were the only children of George and Anna Whittell who controlled a banking and real estate fortune. Nick died at the age of four, leaving George, or Junior as his family called him, as the sole heir to the family’s millions. Junior knew early in life that he wasn’t going to be a respectable businessman like his father and he charted out a wild lifestyle that would distress his parents and shock their staid upper-crust friends.

As a rebellious teenager, Junior fell in love with circus animals and ended up following the Barnum and Bailey Circus around the United States. In this photo he is using his mouth to feed treats to his pet lion Bill.

George Whittell attended a slew of colleges and universities, but never graduated from any of them. When he was 22, he married a young chorus girl, but his father quickly paid to have the union annulled. Shortly after, Whittell eloped with Josie Cunningham, a dancer from a popular British stage show. His parents failed to break up this relationship, but Cunningham herself filed for divorce just two years later.

Painting of Whittell’s wife Elia Pascal, a Parisian debutante, with one of their pet cats. George and Elia were married to each other from 1919 until Whittell’s death in 1969, but due to his sexual escapades they rarely lived in the same house and never had children. 

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Whittell’s father paid the Italian government to commission Junior as an army captain, a title he would use the rest of his life. He did drive an ambulance during the war and was slightly injured.

Captain Whittell was fortunate to be born into wealth, but he had a lucky streak too. Just months before 1929 stock market crash, he liquidated $50 million in stocks.

Partial view of the main room in the relatively small Thunderbird Lodge taken from the second floor where George and his wife Elia had separate bedrooms.

When the country entered the Great Depression and millions of Americans were forced into poverty, Whittell was loaded with money. To protect his wealth he moved his residency to Nevada to escape state income taxes. In Nevada, Whittell financed a partnership to purchase and develop about 29 miles of spectacular real estate on Tahoe’s east shore.


Photograph of George Whittell with one of his Greyhound dogs in his bedroom. Off to the right is a doorway leading to a spiral staircase that climbs to a “crow’s nest” where George did most of his sleeping

Whittell had planned to develop large resorts and hotels at both Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove. Fortunately, his vision to build the Sand Harbor Hotel and Casino, complete with 200 cottages and an aerial tram to the proposed Reno Ski Bowl (Mt. Rose) ski resort, never made it past the drawing board.

Stories abound about Whittell’s all-night poker games in the Thunderbird Lodge’s Card House with celebrities like baseball great Ty Cobb who had a cabin at nearby Cave Rock. Whittell gambled in the extreme. My wife Nora’s father Tom watched “The Captain” bet thousands of dollars a hand at Tahoe casinos during the 1930s. The money he lost over time to Joe King enabled the developer to purchase what is now Kings Beach on Tahoe’s north shore.

The aborted developments spared Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove, two of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline at Lake Tahoe. In 1938, Whittell forced his partners out and took control of the 40,000 acres. Whittell reportedly paid about $2 million for the land at a time when lakefront property cost only $12 per foot.

Originally this room was supposed to be the boathouse, but the yacht that Whittell had built for it was much too big. (The rear wall of glass faces directly out onto the lake.) So Whittell decided to convert it into an indoor swimming pool, but while it was under construction one of the workers fell off the ladder, broke his neck and died. Whittell, a superstitious man, ordered the room left exactly like when the accident occurred and it hasn’t been touched since.  

Whittell then retained Reno architect Frederic DeLongchamps to build a residence on Tahoe’s east shore. The opulent Thunderbird Lodge features intricate architectural details created by skilled Native American stonemasons from Carson City’s Stewart Indian School, Italian ironworkers and Scandinavian wood craftsmen.

It took 100 workers more than two years to build the three-story French chateau and other stone structures that overlook the lake’s famed blue water.

Part of the 600-foot-long tunnel that winds its way underneath the estate. The tunnel leads to many side rooms and eventually into the second boathouse built to accommodate Whittell’s new speedboat. The tunnel was constructed by Indian stonemasons and the rock work is amazingly smooth. The metal tracks in the floor allowed employees to push small mining carts loaded with household supplies to the main buildings.

Whittell also hired legendary marine architect John Hacker to design a unique Tahoe yacht. Sleek and stylish, the Thunderbird was launched in 1939. Powered by dual 550-horsepower aircraft engines, the boat could reach 70 mph. Tricked out with an art-deco stainless steel superstructure, the yacht is considered a “one of a kind masterpiece.” 


Perhaps the most visually stunning of all the wooden vessels still plying Tahoe water is the Thunderbird, a 1939 55-foot Hacker-Craft launched from Tahoe City on July 14, 1940.

Parties at the somewhat reclusive Captain’s “summer playpen” were relatively rare, but they were extravagant. Old timers still talk about Whittell’s weeklong affairs with scantily clad showgirls from Tahoe casinos.

Each summer Whittell flew in his pet lion named Bill. He brought in a polar bear one year and another time flew in a baby elephant named Mingo. The polar bear didn’t stay long and after a week at high altitude Mingo had to be returned to California.

Each fireplace in the house has a unique fire screen design. This is from one of the small rooms off of the tunnel. Rumors for the purpose of this room abounded until scientific testing of residue on the rock walls indicated that it was an opium den.

Over the years Whittell spent much of his time with Mae Mullhogen, his business secretary and favorite mistress. In 1954 she died in a car crash after a shopping trip to Kings Beach. Grief-stricken, Whittell became more reclusive.

Guests with the Tahoe Rotary Club were encouraged to take their dinner plates and wine to any location on the estate. A small group of us found our way to this charming gazebo with remarkable views of Lake Tahoe.

In 1958 the state of Nevada negotiated an agreement with Whittell to establish Sand Harbor State Park, the first state park on the Nevada shore. George resisted additional efforts by the Nevada legislature, but the old captain was finally forced to sell his remaining acreage to the state which banned commercial development and protected the shoreline for public enjoyment.


Sunset view from the Thunderbird Lodge gazebo.

Longtime Rotarian and skipper Mickey Daniels transported about 35 guests aboard his commercial fishing vessel Big Mack II.




Tahoe Characters



Near South Lake Tahoe is a spectacular, glacially-carved basin known as Desolation Wilderness. Towering above the shattered cliffs and glacial debris looms Dick’s Peak, elevation 9,974 feet, standing stoic and solitary in this region of rugged extremes. The obdurate mountain is a fitting monument to Captain Richard Barter, a man whose remarkable feats of survival have withstood the test of time.

Desolation Wilderness features scenic hiking, camping, rock climbing, and swimming in the summer, and stellar snowshoeing and backcountry skiing during the winter

Dick Barter was a retired British sea captain who shipped into Tahoe when he was hired by the son of commercial stager Ben Holladay. In 1862, Holladay had pre-empted the unoccupied land surrounding picturesque Emerald Bay and built a two-story, five-room villa. The following year Holladay hired Captain Barter to take care of the estate during the harsh winter months.

The decision to employ an old sea captain to protect a remote mountain hideaway made good sense. When deep snow blanketed the Sierra, the only way in or out of the bay was by boat. To survive the winter there a caretaker had to be seaworthy. Captain Barter was definitely the right man for the job.

Mountain glaciers carved out Emerald Bay (right) and the smaller Cascade Lake basin just to the south. The Emerald Bay glacier managed to push through its terminal moraine to reach the Tahoe Basin. Current water levels allow for boat access. The road on the ridgeline of the lateral moraine between the two is not for the faint of heart!

Barter’s solitary life at Emerald Bay was full of hardship and danger, but for 10 years the captain lived the life of a recluse at Holladay’s isolated cottage.

Despite his eccentric lifestyle, the venerable sailor gained a reputation as an easy going old salt that enjoyed the taste of bourbon whiskey. If Barter craved a drink and conversation during the snowbound winter, he sailed for it. It was 16 miles from Emerald Bay to the saloon in Tahoe City, and a risky voyage in a small boat. But neither distance nor danger deterred Barter’s efforts to reach his favorite watering hole.

Captain Barter was a fatalist who expected death to come by drowning, avalanche, or grizzly bear attack.

In January 1870, the old captain almost met his maker when a sudden gust upset his boat two miles off Sugar Pine point. He struggled frantically in the cold water, but finally succeeded in getting back into the boat. The weather was intensely cold and deadly hypothermia was setting in, but Barter refused to give up. After what seemed like an eternity in the numbing water, the 63-year-old skipper climbed back into the little dinghy and furiously rowed against the biting wind shouting, “Richard Barter never surrenders! Richard Barter never surrenders!” The old captain’s grim determination saved his life.

The half-frozen sailor rowed into Emerald Bay at daybreak, but his ordeal was far from over: Months later he recounted his story to a visiting journalist from a San Francisco newspaper: “And so, after many hours’ labor, I reached my landing, crawled into the house, and for 11 weeks I never left; ‘cause you see, my feet and one hand was froze and I couldn’t get out.”

Ben Holladay’s cottage would have been located on the shoreline in the foreground.

Since Barter couldn’t walk on his feet he tied a small cushion to each knee in order to get around. Despite his serious injuries, the old captain wasn’t idle. During his three month solitary confinement Barter meticulously crafted a seven-foot miniature model of a man-o’-war steam frigate. He showed it to the reporter who noted that it was a marvel of workmanship.

Captain Barter and his dog next to the model ship. “Every rope, block, and sail was in its proper place; a wind-up clock hidden in the hold drove the running gear and propeller. On the deck of the wooden vessel stood 225 crew members, officers, marines, boatswains, and sailors, all hand-carved from small pieces of wood.”

It was an amazing feat, but the self-reliant recluse had also built and rigged a full-sized boat. No small replica, the ship weighed four tons, which he launched by himself. Not a single person had visited him throughout the whole winter and spring.

After examining the skipper’s work and appreciating the physical challenge their construction required, the journalist was a bit skeptical that the old sailor had really experienced that near-fatal ordeal the previous winter.

To prove his case, Barter limped over to a dressing table in Holladay’s cottage and removed a small jewelry box. He lifted the lid and handed it to the newspaperman exclaiming proudly: “Them’s my toes!” Inside the little box were several of the captain’s frostbitten toes that he had amputated and then salted to preserve as a memento of his fearful night on Lake Tahoe. 

Beginning of the newspaper article where the journalist describes meeting Captain Barter and listening to his amazing tale of survival.San Francisco Daily Alta California, August 22, 1870. 

Barter knew that his luck on Tahoe wouldn’t last forever. On Fannette Island he chipped out a burial crypt in the granite, installed a coffin, and erected a small wooden chapel over it as his final resting place. But he would never get the opportunity to use it.

Reluctant to die inside his employer’s cottage, Captain Barter built this small chapel so that when he was ready to die he could “just crawl inside the coffin and shut the lid.” 

Fate finally caught up with Barter in October 1873 while he was sailing back from South Lake Tahoe where he had spent the evening drinking. A sudden wind came and overturned his boat, sending him to the depths of Tahoe. Portions of the wrecked boat were salvaged off the rocks near Emerald Bay, but Captain Barter’s body was never recovered.


Fannette Island is the only island in Lake Tahoe. The tiny structure on top is not Barter’s chapel. It is a granite teahouse constructed for Laura Knight, a later owner of the Emerald Bay property. 

***This story is an excerpt from “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 2”








Tahoe Characters


Mickey Daniels is a funny guy who loves practical jokes, but when it comes to catching fish in Lake Tahoe, he’s all business. As skipper of Big Mack II, a 43-foot-long fishing boat designed and equipped specifically for Tahoe, Mickey spends most mornings trolling the depths searching for trophy-size trout and the beefy Mackinaws that make his clients smile and come back for more.

Mickey Daniels is a master guide, a passionate, knowledgeable fisherman who after 50 years experience, knows the moods and seasons of Tahoe better than anyone.

Featured in many sportsmen magazines, Mickey loves to teach his customers about the secrets of fishing one of the world’s deepest mountain lakes, mixing both fact and fiction in an entertaining style that keeps people chuckling during those rare lulls when the fish aren’t biting.

Mickey Daniels is best known as the owner of Mickey’s Big Mack charters in Carnelian Bay, but his personal history is as colorful and adventurous as his daily forays out into Big Blue. In June 2009 I interviewed the Skipper and we discussed his life.

Happy anglers on Big Mack II after a fruitful summer morning catching “fish, fotos, and fun.”

Born on October 3, 1937, in Canoga Park in Los Angeles, Mickey’s family moved to Rio Linda (Sacramento County) where they operated a gas station store. Later, when his dad got a job as a welder in a Richmond shipyard, they pulled up stakes again. His father also worked as the captain of a ferry boat on the Columbia River in Washington State, which may explain how Mickey acquired his aquatic genes. The family next settled in Sacramento where Mickey’s dad ran a small business until his death in 1949. Mickey was only 12-years-old at the time and his father’s death hit him hard.

While attending Sacramento High School, Mickey played football (in the era when players wore leather helmets) and chased girls until his graduation in 1955. His love of sports inspired him to pursue a career as a high school coach so he attended junior college where he participated in football, basketball, water polo and swimming. His ability at swimming led him to a job giving lessons to aspiring California Highway Patrol recruits.


Mickey’s sportfishing charters are a year-round adventure at Lake Tahoe.

His experience with the CHP recruits got him thinking about a career in law enforcement, so Mickey joined the Marine Corps in 1957. He served two years including a stint with the Military Police at a San Diego brig. After his honorable discharge, Mickey returned to Northern California and went back to teaching swimming for the Sacramento Unified School District.

While working in Sacramento, Mickey spent a lot of time at Lake Tahoe water skiing with friends. He tried snow skiing at Granlibakken, but never became very proficient at it. During the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, Mickey attended the Games both weekends.

Mickey Daniels (right)  with his friend and neighbor John “The Shark” Baker at the weekly “Tahoe Old Timers Liars Club” gathering held at CB’s Pizza most Friday nights.

At that time, Mickey’s girlfriend and future wife, Sharon Bechdolt, lived in Tahoe City and every weekend Mickey drove up from Sacramento to see her. The Bechdolt family has a long history in Tahoe City—owners of the old Tahoe Inn and the Tahoe City Golf Course—so when Mickey married Sharon in 1960, he joined one of the oldest and most influential clans on the North Shore.

His father-in-law, Carl Bechdolt, Jr., welcomed Mickey with open arms. When Mickey mentioned that he would like to become a Tahoe City deputy, Carl called the Sheriff at 2 a.m. one weekend to secure a job for his new son-in-law. Mickey was interviewed that Monday and without any training, was issued a gun, badge and patrol car the next day.

Before Mickey Daniels became a fishing captain, he served the community as a Peace Officer and California’s last constable.

The newlyweds lived behind a gas station in Tahoe City and soon had three children. Mickey served with the sheriff’s department for three-and-a-half years, rising to the rank of sergeant. During the December 1963 kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., at South Lake Tahoe, Mickey manned the Tahoe City roadblock as law enforcement tried to catch the kidnappers. Despite the cordon that encircled the lake, the abductors managed to escape the dragnet in a snowstorm.

Another satisfied customer on Big Mack II.

In 1964, Mickey left Tahoe City for Sacramento where he trained at the California Highway Patrol Academy before joining the force. He was first assigned to Indio in Southern California, and later transferred to South Lake Tahoe. In early 1967, Mickey was sent to Truckee and assigned to patrol both the Truckee and Tahoe City areas. Sharon and Mickey divorced that year and to make ends meet, he got a job working nights as a stock clerk at the Safeway store in Kings Beach.

In typical Tahoe fashion, Mickey often worked two jobs to survive, a schedule that sometimes kept him out of trouble. As a local cop in the early 1960s, he even shined shoes at the Tahoe City Golf Course, much to his boss’s chagrin.

Not everyone will catch fish this size, but if you get “skunked,” Mickey will buy you breakfast.

In 1969 Mickey offered his assistance to Tahoe City’s legendary Swedish-born constable, Harry Johanson, who had recently retired and then broken his hip. (See Tahoe Nugget #244.) To help Harry rehabilitate, Mickey moved into a room in Johanson’s house where he spent two years helping Harry get back on his feet again. To this day Mickey says it was an honor to have spent time with the iconic Tahoe lawman.

The Big Mack II pulling into its berth at the Sierra Boat Company in Carnelian Bay. Note Garwood’s Restaurant in the background. If you call ahead, the chef will prepare your catch for dinner that night.

Also in 1969, Mickey and two other Truckee CHP officers were suspended for “excessive facial hair.” Top CHP brass ordered the men to trim their mustaches and sideburns, or lose their jobs. And even though Mickey still says the whole incident was blown out of proportion, he proudly laminated the original newspaper article for posterity.

In the late 1960s, Mickey had to comply with the California Highway Patrol’s strict regulations on facial hair. “Bad Boy, Bad Boy, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”

In 1985, Mickey married Nora in a West Shore wedding where a rare, early September snowstorm chased everyone into a nearby boat storage facility. The couple is still happily married and live on North Shore Lake Tahoe.

At Mickey’s surprise 70th birthday party held in Tahoe City in 2007, Dr. Charles Goldman, a noted environmental scientist at the University of California – Davis, and an expert on the Lake Tahoe ecosystem, gave tribute to Mickey and acknowledged his contributions to our understanding of the Tahoe fishery. Mickey has been tagging and releasing caught fish for years, keeping records that track and document the movement and lifespan of the big Macks that prowl Tahoe’s depths.

Every Fourth of July, Mickey takes friends and family out on Big Mack II for food, laughs, and fireworks.

For 27 years Mickey helped supply fresh fish for the annual Tahoe City Big Mack Feed, a charity event the he co-started as a fund raiser during his run for Constable in 1978. He’s also an active member of the Tahoe City Rotary Club. Mickey Daniel’s ongoing contributions to community and Tahoe science are second nature to him, whose favorite comment is: “It’s all part of the system.”

Big Mack II at its Carnelian Bay berth, waiting for another day’s adventure.

Visit Mickey’s Big Mack Charters website for information on how to book your perfect day in paradise.



Tahoe Characters



Following the warmest August on record in Reno, Nevada, September 2012 also went down as the toastiest in the Biggest Little City since 1888, with an average temperature more than 5 degrees above normal. Sacramento set a new Sept. record with 26 days at or exceeding 90 degrees.

Ironically and testament to California’s diverse range of microclimates, San Francisco was extraordinarily chilly at more than 6 degrees below normal in September, setting a new record for the lowest monthly mean temperature at 58.1 degrees. The average daily maximum temperature in the City by the Bay was only 64 degrees, definitely not beach weather in what is normally a mild month on the coast.


Near record high temperatures will ebb as approaching low pressure brings cooler weather and a slight chance of showers at Lake Tahoe for the start of next week. If any rain does wet the bucket, it will be the first measureable precipitation for the 2013 water year.

The summerlike conditions in the lower elevations translated into one of the most pleasant Septembers at Lake Tahoe in memory, with high temperatures around 80 degrees and lows in the 40s. The warm spell extended summer fun in the mountains all the way into October.

The balmy weather and clear blue skies have made outdoor activities a real treat, especially since the crowds of summer are gone. Autumn is the perfect time to visit one of Lake Tahoe’s hidden treasures, a spot that is often bypassed by today’s fast-paced visitor. Nestled in the Tallac Historic Site located just a few miles north of South Lake Tahoe are the remains of the Baldwin Estate.

The Baldwin Estate leads to a series of Old Tahoe mansions that harken back to Tahoe’s Golden Era.

You can spend a relaxing day at the Tallac Historic Site touring early 20th century lakefront estates, visiting the museum, and playing Frisbee with your dog on nearby sandy beaches. In high season beautiful Baldwin Beach prohibits pets, but the crescent strand affords spectacular views.

Baldwin Beach on October 1, 2012.

This charming and beautiful location was once a lavish resort built by a character named Elias “Lucky” Baldwin in the late 19th century. In the summer of 1879, Baldwin visited a Tahoe hostelry owned by Ephraim “Yank” Clements. He walked beneath the unspoiled stands of old growth timber and strolled along the sandy beach.

This gremlin-like tree burl was an unusual attraction for the merchant and miner clientele that patronized Yank Clement’s Tallac Point House, as was the spring-mounted dance floor that made guests dance “whether they knew how or not.”

The demand for tunnel supports for Comstock silver mines had already taken a terrible toll on the majestic pine forest that once cloaked the mountains around Lake Tahoe. The next year Baldwin bought Yank’s 2,000 acres, small hotel and one mile of lakefront, which was lost to foreclosure. Baldwin re-named the property the “Tallac House” for a nearby mountain. 

Baldwin named his resort after 9,785 foot Mt. Tallac, the highest mountain along Lake Tahoe, and one of the best hikes in the region. The snowfield at the upper right portion of the peak is a popular backcountry spring skiing challenge.


Baldwin’s new resort soon became the pride of Lake Tahoe and one of the classiest resorts in the country. The bold move helped usher in Tahoe’s golden age of deluxe vacation accommodations for the High Society of California and Nevada.

During the 1880s, high country tourism was still in its infancy; Tahoe City’s permanent population was 25 people. Baldwin’s upscale hotel and casino would boost Tahoe’s reputation as a “destination resort” for travelers looking to be pampered in luxury rather than experience the rustic backwoods fare common at that time.

One female correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin who visited Lake Tahoe in August 1886 reported that the folks she met were “a queer class of people—old hunters, miners, and inn keepers of [primitive hostels]. Their knowledge of the inclinations and desires of tourists is exceedingly limited.”

Ironically, Baldwin’s moniker “Lucky” came from a windfall of $2 to $5 million dollars realized from his investments in those very Comstock mining operations that had decimated the Tahoe Basin.

Back in 1866, Baldwin possessed a security safe containing bundles of Hale & Norcross mining shares. At the time, the stocks were worth less than he had paid for them, but he didn’t want to sell at a loss. Before he left on a big game hunting expedition in India, he told his broker to sell his stock at a specific price. But later, when the broker tried to sell the shares, he realized that Baldwin had taken the key to the safe. Meanwhile miners at the Hale & Norcross discovered a rich vein of silver. The stock soared in value, and when he returned to San Francisco, Baldwin’s mining shares were worth a fortune and the nickname “Lucky” was his for life.

Tallac Hotel guests out on a 19th century boating excursion. The Tallac Hotel (background) served 8 course dinners to the music of a string-and-organ quartet and housed a gambing casino. The resort was expensive and offered activities and sports of all kinds.   

E. J. Baldwin was known more for his fondness for fast horses and young women than protecting the environment, but he saved the towering trees along the beach by building a sawmill on his property at Fallen Leaf Lake. The mill provided lumber for new construction, thus preserving the original forest in the area.


As the winter snowpack melts each spring on Mt. Tallac, a “cross-of-snow” emerges on its southeast face. The name “Tallac” is derived from a Washoe Indian term that means “large mountain.” 

Lucky Baldwin’s womanizing escapades are legend. He married five times (including his fourth wife who was only 16), had countless affairs and illegitimate children, and fought numerous breach-of-promise and seduction suits. To facilitate summer flings, Baldwin had a private two-story “love nest” built on the sprawling grounds of his Tahoe estate.

On January 5, 1883, Lucky’s cousin Veronica Baldwin shot him in the arm after he allegedly assaulted her and then fired her from his employ. The headline in the San Francisco Call read: “Yesterday at 10:00 o’clock a young woman shot E.J. Baldwin through the left arm at the level of the heart as he was leaving his private dining room on the second floor of the Baldwin Hotel [in San Francisco].  She fired at him from a distance of six feet, without warning. She was immediately disarmed and arrested.”

Veronica admitted that she tried to kill Baldwin because he had allegedly fathered her baby, but he declined to testify against her at trial and she left the state. Once described as “the most beautiful girl on the Pacific Coast,” she moved to Denver and opened a parlor in the city’s Red Light District.

Louise Perkins was 19-years-old when she sued E.J. Baldwin for an alleged sexual encounter.

Baldwin’s national reputation as a philanderer was well-deserved, but the libertine always claimed, “My public reputation is such that every woman who comes near me must have been warned in advance.” J.B. Marvin, first chief clerk of the famous Baldwin Hotel, agreed “Baldwin didn’t run after the women; they ran after him.”

Baldwin was 57 years old when sued by Ms. Perkins.

Lucky Baldwin died in 1909 at the age of 81 leaving a fortune of $25 million. After his funeral, San Francisco Examiner reporter Al Joy wrote “His was the only funeral of a famous man I ever covered where not a sob was heard nor a tear seen.” As one observer remarked, “Baldwin had friends, but they were outnumbered by his enemies.”

Baldwin’s 19th century land purchase protected old growth forest as well as these important wetlands. Tahoe’s diminishing water clarity is partially caused by the loss of these riparian zones which filter nutrient-loaded runoff sediment before it enters Big Blue.

Despite Baldwin’s somewhat unsavory personal character, locals and visitors owe him a dept of gratitude for saving a piece of old Tahoe and giving us beautiful Baldwin Beach.

My brother Tom checking out the water temperature at Baldwin Beach during his Sept. 2012 visit.

The Washoe Indian Tribe lost their traditional Tahoe lands during the cultural invasion of the 19th century. Recently there have been efforts to return some land and access to these First Nation people.


Baldwin Beach. Locals and savvy tourists know that September is one of the best months to be at Lake Tahoe. 

UPDATE: THIS JUST IN! Last week a school-age girl named Laney Brint found a silver quarter dated 1892 while she was wading in the water just 50 yards off the beach from where Lucky Baldwin’s Tallac Hotel & Casino was located. A guest may have dropped it during a 19th century boating excursion or maybe someone threw it in the lake for good luck at midnight New Year’s Eve. Either way, Lucky’s luck is now Laney’s!

 Laney Brint’s treasure from Lake Tahoe led her to the story of Lucky Baldwin!



Tahoe Characters



It was a sad day for the small community of Tahoe City in the spring of 1932. Citizens dressed in black were in the process of burying the town’s first constable, the revered pioneer Robert Montgomery Watson.

Watson had arrived at Lake Tahoe in the 1870s and was appointed Tahoe City’s first constable in 1906. Constable Watson served his community until 1932 when he died of pneumonia at the age of 80.

When Harry E. Johanson rode into town on that fateful April day, he observed a somber funeral procession and Watson’s casket being drawn across the snow-covered meadow towards the Tahoe City Cemetery. Businesses were closed and school bells tolled.


First Tahoe City constable, Robert Montgomery Watson, was a noted horseman who helped re-open and mark the old Emigrant Road over Squaw Valley. Today it is known as the Western States Trail and site of a 100-mile-long horse race and also a world-famous ultra endurance foot race of similar length.

Born in Sweden in 1899, Johanson had demonstrated exceptional youthful athleticism by taking top honors in many skiing, swimming and long distance running competitions. He ended up winning a total of 84 medals and trophies, including a third place finish just behind future Finnish Olympic gold medalist Paavo Nurmi.

Johanson studied architectural drafting at the University of Upsala and after graduation he joined the Swedish Army Air Corp. In his late 30s, Harry decided to immigrate to the United States, but the quotas were full and instead he sailed for Canada. He took on a variety of jobs as he worked his way west, traveling the wilds of northern Canada to hunt, fish, and compete in sporting events like long distance swimming contests.

The versatile Swede eventually became an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. While serving three years with the “Mounties” he learned horsemanship and dog sledding, skills that would serve him well at Lake Tahoe.

Like his predecessor Constable Watson, Harry Johanson was an accomplished horeseman.

Finally Johanson received the long-awaited paperwork that allowed him to legally enter the United States and he briefly worked as a draftsman in the sweltering Imperial Valley of Southern California. It didn’t take long for the Scandinavian-born, back-country expert to decide that it was the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevada where he would feel most at home.

Johanson came to Lake Tahoe to take a caretaker position at a West Shore estate. He didn’t expect to permanently settle in Tahoe City for long, but once he saw the stunning scenery decided to stay. Residents found the newcomer polite and well-versed in the skills necessary for travel and survival in a snowbound environment.

During Tahoe’s long, snowy winters, dog sled was a better form of transportation than cross-country skiing. In addition, sled dogs could also pull the injured or ill to safety.

In late 1934, he received his citizenship and shortly after became Tahoe City’s second constable. It soon became apparent, however, that “Harry Jo” as locals liked to call him, would be much different than Robert Watson. Watson was known as a quiet, reserved family man; Johanson was a confirmed bachelor with a flamboyant personality that defined him as a confident, self-made man.

Despite a well-deserved reputation as a “ladies man,” Harry Johanson always said he preferred dogs to women. Photo courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society.

Harry Jo covered his beat of 200 square miles by horseback in summer and dogsled in winter. Harry loved dogs. One of his favorite quotes was “A man’s best friend is his dog, better even than his wife.” Johanson kept up to 15 dogs at a time, most them malamutes, to pull his sled. Despite heavy winter storms that buried the region in deep snow, Harry made his rounds checking on year-round residents. Blessed with incredible endurance and an expert on cross-country skis, in 1937 he circled Lake Tahoe in one day.

During the 1930s, Hollywood directors filmed many of that era’s adventure movies at Lake Tahoe, including such epics as “Call of the Wild” (Harry stood in for Clark Gable), “White Fang,” and “Rose Marie.” 

Johanson’s dog sled team always drew a crowd.

Harry Jo preferred the devoted companionship of his dogs over any commitment to a woman, but the handsome constable with wavy blond hair certainly enjoyed the “fairer sex.” His brief marriage to local schoolteacher Dorothy Zaharias produced a child, but Harry argued that he was not the father and she angrily left town with the baby. Afterward, Harry said, “The more I see of women, the more I love my dogs.”

Despite his well-publicized sentiments regarding marriage and women, he nevertheless flirted with many of the eligible females in Tahoe City, always wearing his dashing uniform and service revolver, even while drinking in the local taverns. Harry was a bit short in height and often wore lifters in his shoes, but he still charmed the ladies. Rumor has it that the beautiful actress, Jeanette MacDonald, star in “Rose Marie,” was one of his conquests.


The beautiful actress Jeanette MacDonald starred in the movie “Rose Marie” filmed at Lake Tahoe in 1936. Legend has it that Harry Johanson (who did stunt work for her co-star Nelson Eddy) successfully seduced MacDonald during her stay at the lake. 

Constable Johanson played an active role in regional law enforcement, not only capturing crooks (once nabbing a murder suspect in Tahoe City), but also in confiscating slot machines and shutting down local gambling operations. Johanson wore other hats too, simultaneously performing the duties of deputy sheriff, deputy tax collector, and deputy coroner.

Harry Johanson lived in the house that is now Wolfdale’s Cusine Unique restaurant on the main street in Tahoe City. This structure was originally built in Glenbrook, Nevada (near South Lake Tahoe) and towed across the lake to Tahoe City. In July 2012 a few of Johanson’s relatives visited the restaurant and owner/chef Douglas Dale gave them a tour of the building and showed them the jail Johanson designed.

Tahoe City was such a tiny community back then, when Harry bought his house, some locals complained about why he lived so far out of town.


As a trained architect, Johanson designed this “new” jail located on Tahoe City’s Commons Beach. The old jail was a dank, concrete bunker built nearby.

Prisoners’ view from Johanson’s Tahoe City jail.

After 32 years of service to his community, Johanson resigned in 1967. More than 200 people attended his retirement dinner at Sunnyside Lodge. Harry Jo eventually moved to Reno and died in 1980, but was buried in Tahoe City’s Trails End Cemetery, which he had renovated in the 1950s.


Special thanks to my friend Mickey Daniels — California’s last constable; Captain of Big Mack II