Editor’s note: This column has been updated based upon corrected information received from the Sierra State Parks Foundation.
Kelly Cave spends her workdays giving tours of the Hellman-Ehrman mansion, part of Sugar Pine Point State Park on the shore of Lake Tahoe. Built in 1903, it and 2,000 acres of surrounding land once belonged to Bay Area financier Isaias Hellman.
Cave is an environmental scientist who says her passion lies in “educating people about the importance of the environment” and “talking with people about history and science.” She does plenty of both as a tour guide and supervisor for the Sierra State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that works with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to manage the Tahoe region’s parks.
Cave likes answering questions, and on a recent Friday morning tour, she fielded a range about the mansion and its surrounding grounds—including whether or not it’s true that Lake Tahoe is a hotbed for murders “because bodies don’t float in it.”
And someone asked a question Cave said is among the most common she gets: “How did all of this become a state park?”
“I would say—let’s see, I give this tour six times a day—so about six times a day I get this question about ownership and … how it changed from private to government ownership,” she said.
The short answer, according to Cave, is that California’s Parks Department was interested in the land, and the family no longer wanted it, in part because of the expense of its upkeep. In 1968, the family sold its home and land to the state of California in for $6.5 million.
It’s understandable that people might wonder how and why a family would give up a mansion and thousands of acres of lakefront property. Nonetheless, it’s the reason this part of the lake isn’t privately owned. And, interestingly, it isn’t the only case in which a large tract of Tahoe land that was private became public. The Hellman-Ehrman mansion is one of three historical Tahoe homes that now lie on park lands.
Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay was built for millionaire Lora Knight. Completed in 1929, it functioned as a summer home for her family before being sold. It and hundreds of acres might still be private property had the mansion’s last owner, lumberman and philanthropist Harvey West, not made a deal with the state of California in the early 1950s to “donate one-half of the appraised value of the land and the Vikingsholm outright, if the state would pay him the other half of the land value.”
Thunderbird Lodge, completed in 1939, lies on the Nevada side of the lake, just south of Sand Harbor. It was the home to Bay Area millionaire George Whittell, Jr., who also purchased 40,000 acres of surrounding land with some partners, intent—at first—on developing it. According to one of those partners, Norman Biltz, Whittell quickly changed his mind about selling. In a 1967 interview with the University of Nevada, Reno’s oral history program, Biltz said he went to Whittell and was told, “Whatever price you bring to me on the sale for approval, I’ll turn down. … If it’s a hundred a foot, I’ll turn it down; if it’s two hundred a foot, I’ll turn it down; if it’s five hundred a foot, I’ll turn it down.”
In the late 1960s, the state of Nevada forced Whittell to sell 5,300 acres through eminent domain, which became the foundation for Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. Another 10,000 acres were sold to the Forest Service and Nevada State Parks by the remaining property’s next owner, Jack Dreyfus. In 1998, the last of the land became parks land, and the home came under the care of the nonprofit group Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.Ω