I’ll always remember that exciting day in May in the late 1980s.
It was Memorial Day, and I was aboard the press boat that was accompanying the Tahoe Queen and Dixie II paddlewheel tour boats speeding across Lake Tahoe on their annual Great Lake Tahoe Sternwheeler race.
I forget which vessel won that contest nearly 28 years ago. One year, the winner would be the Dixie. The Tahoe Queen would be victorious the next. It was great fun watching the two grand dames of the lake rush across the blue waters of Lake Tahoe as the more than 300 passengers aboard each boat, together with hundreds more lining the shore, cried out encouragements for their favorite entries.
When the race ended and our press boat docked at Zephyr Cove on the lake’s Nevada side, I drove back to Fallon to have my color film developed at Safeway. There were no digital cameras in those days. Two or three of my photos plus my story about the race appeared on the feature page of the Lahontan Valley News & Fallon Eagle-Standard the next day. We were a daily newspaper back then.
Alas, that yearly Tahoe Queen-Dixie Memorial Day race will be held no more.
Six months ago – on Aug. 16, 2016 – the 144-foot Tahoe Queen caught fire at about 8 a.m. while undergoing renovations at its berth at Zephyr Cove.
The boat, which had cruised Lake Tahoe for 33 years, was immediately consumed in flames. Eric Guevin, fire marshal of the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District, said the first responders, from his department and the U.S. Coast Guard Station on the lake’s west side, were faced with “a lot of heavy fire and smoke. The boat was like a steel oven.”
It took firefighters nearly an hour to control and extinguish the fire, which heavily damaged two of the boat’s three decks. A member of the team renovating the vessel suffered a sprained back when he jumped from the top deck to escape the flames. Another worker suffered smoke inhalation. Both were treated at the scene and refused further care, reported the Associated Press. Flames could be seen from U.S. Highway 50 along the forested shoreline and smoke was visible for miles away from the lake. “From the cabins and windows, there were flames shooting out,” said a trail guide at the nearby Zephyr Cove stables who was quoted in the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
The cause of the fire is believed to have come from workers using welding torches. The Coast Guard is expected to positively identify the cause later this year.
Both the Tahoe Queen and Dixie have had unique and somewhat similar histories.
The Tahoe Queen, built at a shipyard in La Crosse, Wisc., was hauled across the country in 16 truck loads to Lake Tahoe, where it was reassembled and launched from the Tahoe Keys Marina in 1983. It served continually as a tour boat on the lake until the devastating fire six months ago.
The Dixie, which was three feet shorter than the 144-foot Tahoe Queen, was built in 1927 at a Mississippi River shipyard and initially carried cargo on that river and the Red River in Texas. In the late 1940s, she was carved up into 15 sections which were sent by rail to Reno and then trucked to Lake Tahoe, where they were reassembled and the boat was placed into service as a cruise vessel. In late 1949, the Dixie mysteriously sank, but was raised and then spent five years as a floating office and warehouse for a real estate business. In the early 1950s, new owners overhauled the Dixie and once again it became a tour boat, which it remains today.
But what has happened to the Tahoe Queen since its disastrous fire in mid-August of 2016?
Last September, about a month after the fire, Ludie and I, while spending several days at South Lake Tahoe, drove over to Zephyr Cove to cruise the lake aboard the Dixie. Tied up at the pier next to the Dixie was the Tahoe Queen! What a sad, pathetic and terrible sight it was. The cabins and decks were blackened and damaged by the fire and a half-dozen workmen were attempting to clean up the ravaged boat. But they weren’t making much headway. When I asked one of the men what was going on, he replied, “All I know is that the owners want to fix up the boat and return it to the cruise run on the lake.”
But that was not to happen.
Early last month, the Tahoe Queen’s owners declared the boat was not salvageable and it soon would be broken up into scrap. “Unfortunately, the Tahoe Queen was damaged beyond repair, and we have decided to remove the vessel from the water so it can be safely dismantled,” said David Freireich of Aramark, the company that owned and operated the Tahoe Queen. He added that Aramark “intends to eventually replace the Tahoe Queen with another boat. A timetable has not yet been established for doing so,” he told the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister newspaper of the Lahontan Valley News.
Two other boats still remain in Aramark’s Lake Tahoe Cruises fleet... the Dixie and the 82-foot luxury yacht Tahoe Paradise, both of which are homeported at the Zephyr Cove Marina.
Before we embarked on our recent lake cruise aboard the Dixie, Ludie and I viewed the scarred Tahoe Queen when it was tied up to a pier adjacent to the Dixie.
I took photos of the burned-out boat, and they are undoubtedly some of the the last pictures taken of the vessel before its dismantling and scrapping.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.