Monday, December 15, 2003
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
Sunken ship eyed for historic register
SS Tahoe, scuttled intentionally in 1940, helped usher in modern age of tourism
By SEAN WHALEY
REVIEW-JOURNAL CAPITAL BUREAU
The SS Tahoe is seen underneath about 400 feet of water.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW MILLENNIUM DIVE EXPEDITIONS
The SS Tahoe in its heyday. The ship, which ferried tourists to lakeside resorts, was sunk in 1940.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, RENO LIBRARY
CARSON CITY -- It sits about 400 feet below Lake Tahoe's surface, a historic steamer that helped usher in the age of modern tourism in the early 20th century.
Scuttled intentionally in 1940 when highways and autos made other forms of transportation around the alpine lake obsolete, the SS Tahoe rests in Glenbrook Bay, a ghostly apparition that would seem to be well-protected from relic hunters or entrepreneurs seeking to make a profit from its remains.
The depth of the SS Tahoe makes it virtually untouchable.
Martin McClellan, a Reno resident who reached the Tahoe in 2002 as part of a scuba dive project called New Millennium Dive Expeditions, said there have been discussions by various individuals over the years about raising the Tahoe.
And on one of their visits to the Tahoe, a grappling hook and buoy system was found that was used to try and retrieve objects from the ship about 20 to 25 years ago.
McClellan doesn't want the Tahoe raised, and he doesn't want it razed either.
"I just want to see her protected," McClellan said. "I want to see the site protected."
As a result of the expedition and those concerns, the Tahoe soon may be added to the National Register of Historic Places. The listing would offer protection and potential sources of funding to further explore and document the nearly 170-foot twin-screw steamer.
The state Board of Museums and History on Friday voted to submit the Tahoe to the U.S. Department of Interior for inclusion on the list. A final decision could come as early as March.
"The Tahoe is arguably one of the more glamorous ships to sail Lake Tahoe," said Ron James, Nevada's historic preservation officer. "She played a key role in opening up Tahoe for development and tourism.
"The SS Tahoe is the most famous and most revered of all the ships," he said.
If it wins a place on the register, the Tahoe would also become the state's first such underwater site.
Bert Bedeau, a historic preservation specialist with the state who helped prepare the application for the national register, said the Tahoe was one of several steamships operated by the Bliss family from Glenbrook on the east side of the lake.
The Tahoe was constructed by the Union Iron Works of San Francisco. It was then disassembled and shipped by rail to Carson City in pieces. It was then taken to Glenbrook by wagon from Carson City, assembled and launched on the lake in 1896 amid much fanfare.
Although two Bliss family steamships, the Meteor and Nevada, preceded the Tahoe, the Tahoe "was the ship most people recognized, and the Tahoe was the queen of the lake," he said.
The Bliss family made money during the heyday of the Comstock Lode by supplying timber to the Virginia City mines from their Tahoe land holdings, Bedeau said. When the mining boom ended in the late 19th century, the family was one of the first to promote Lake Tahoe as a resort destination for San Francisco-area residents.
The steamships were part of the tourism effort, taking passengers to resort hotels the family had built on the lake.
But by the 1930s, with the depression under way and road construction around the lake reducing the need for steamships, the Meteor, Nevada and Tahoe found themselves docked and deserted at Tahoe City.
Bedeau said the story, which comes as second-hand information, is that the Japanese wanted to buy the boats for scrap. The Bliss family did not support the Japanese war efforts in China at the time, and so decided to scuttle the ships rather than sell.
The Meteor and the Nevada were scuttled in very deep water in the lake, in April 1939 and October 1940, respectively, and they will likely never be found, Bedeau said.
But the plan for the Tahoe was to sink it in about 100 feet of water of Glenbrook, where it could be an attraction for glass-bottom boats.
In the application for placement on the register, it says: "Despite proposals to make her a museum and pleas from school children to save her, Tahoe was towed to a spot approximately one-half mile from Glenbrook on the evening of August 29, 1940. A few minutes before midnight her sea cocks were opened and at 3 a.m. on August 30 she slipped beneath the surface of the lake."
Unaware of the topography of the lake bottom however, the ship slid down the steep incline off Glenbrook, ending up at a 30 degree angle in much deeper water. Its bow rests to the east at a depth of about 385 feet, while its stern is to the west at a depth of about 460 feet.
James said it was McClellan's interest in diving the wreck, an extremely risky proposition, that helped make the listing a possibility. Determining the condition of the Tahoe is crucial to the application, he said. Although there is some damage and decay, the ship is in excellent condition, McClellan said.
He said the Tahoe sparked his interest in 1998 when he was looking for a site for technical diving. Diving at Lake Tahoe, because of its 6,229-foot altitude, makes deep water efforts even more challenging than at sea level.
After years of planning and fund raising, McClellan and his diver partner, Brian Morris, reached the wreck at a depth of about 400 feet in the summer of 2002.
Because of the depth, the two divers could only spend a few minutes at the site, which is pitch dark without artificial lights, McClellan said. The dive also requires three hours of decompression, meaning wait times at various depths on the way back up to the surface.
On the first of what would become five dives on June 29, 2002, McClellan said they did not touch the Tahoe.
"The second dive, I had to put my hand on the rail to feel it was real," he said. "Never in my life have I had another dive that rewarding, that exciting.
"I swear it would float if you could lift it," he said.
McClellan said his next project is to use an ROV, or remote operated vehicle, to take high-quality video footage of the Tahoe for a documentary. The state Historic Preservation Office has awarded him $7,500 for the effort, and he is trying to raise an equal amount from private sources.
There is the potential of federal funding from the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, but the Tahoe must be on the national register first, McClellan said.
"We don't want to do anything but take video," he said. "We want to protect it so we can continue to dive, research and explore her. We want it to be here for our kids."