Plane travel has long history at Lake Tahoe

TWA was one of several airlines that used to fly into Lake Tahoe Airport. Photo/Del Laine

TWA was one of several airlines that flew into Lake Tahoe Airport in South Lake Tahoe. Photo/Del Laine

By Kathryn Reed

STATELINE – Aviation on the South Shore is nearly 100 years old, with the first recording of planes landing in the 1920s on the water. It was a bi-wing floatplane near Camp Richardson.

Swaths of land have served as air strips, plans were drawn up that never came to fruition, and some airfields are talked about but historians are not exactly sure where they located.

Local historian Dave Borges gave a brief history of Lake Tahoe aviation during the June 19 Soroptimist International South Lake Tahoe lunch at Harrah’s. He is a past history instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College and is on the board of the Lake Tahoe Historical Society.

It was the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics that led the charge to develop what is now Lake Tahoe Airport. It was completed in 1959. The land was home to the Barton dairy before it was paved over for planes.

The runway was extended and the current terminal added as the years went by.

“It was paid for with a lot of casino money,” Borges said.

It was in 1983 that South Lake Tahoe bought it from El Dorado County for $1.

Several commercial airlines flew in and out of the airport. The highest passenger count was in 1978 at 294,188. The last commercial flight was in 2000.

Borges showed an ad for a flight from the Bay Area to South Lake Tahoe costing $11.95. A pamphlet claimed that a DC-3 could bring passengers from Oakland to Lake Tahoe Airport in 50 minutes.

The deadliest crash at the airport was on March 1, 1964, when 85 people died. The flight originated in Oakland, went to Salinas, and then San Jose before heading to Tahoe. While officials claim the weather was good when they took off, it was stormy in the Sierra, plus mechanical issues contributed to the crash.

Before Lake Tahoe Airport opened most of the planes flew in and out of Sky Harbor Airport in Stateline. This strip is essentially what the mobile home park on Kahle Drive now sits on. It operated from 1946-56.

“They would fly from the mountain side to the lake to alert the cattle. The planes made so much noise,” Borges said. Then they would go out to the lake and circle around to land. “From a pilot’s perspective it looked like they were going into the mountain because Kahle Drive goes uphill.”

A fence had to be erected so the cows would not eat the fabric on the wings.

In the area was also the Sky Harbor Casino.

Johnson Field existed in the 1930s and ’40s, but where exactly is not known because old maps don’t have it pinpointed. But the old drive-in is said to have moved to the Johnson Field. The Johnson family used to own much of the Bijou area.

The Dunlap Ranch-Tamarack Dairy near what is now the Tahoe Keys was going to be an airfield in the 1930s, but never came to fruition.

Borges showed plans from 1938 for the Meyers Lake Tahoe Airport.

“I’ve talked to a few people. A Meyers airport would be horrible,” Borges said, explaining that the current airport is already challenging for pilots.

In 1951 there was a proposal by the California Aeronautics Commission for a tarmac that could hold 400 aircraft near Pope Beach.

“It’s what the Tahoe Keys would have been if the Tahoe Keys didn’t happen,” Borges said.



For more information about Lake Tahoe Airport, revisit the three-part series Lake Tahoe News published in July 2012:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3.


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Comments (7)
  1. dumbfounded says - Posted: June 20, 2013

    I would like to hear more about how the airport was built with “casino money”. I have some inside information regarding the financing of the original airport but it had nothing to do with casinos, but did involve Tahoe Paradise. The bureaucracies are destroying Tahoe.

  2. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: June 20, 2013

    The plane that crashed in 1964 was Paradise Airlines. They ran into bad weather, got off course and flew into either Freel peak or the Jobs sister area.
    We had a family staying at our motel, The Echo, that were waiting for friends that were on that flight. All aboard died. It was a truly sad time for So. Shore and for all the friends and families who knew someone on that flight.
    There was , a long time ago, a small outfit that flew commerciall flights out of Lake Tahoe airport. I don’t remember the name of the airline but I do recall we were sitting on wooden benches that lined either side of the little twin engine plane, kinda like para troopers during WW2. Ah yes, the fun of flying! Take care, OLS

  3. Hmmmmmm says - Posted: June 20, 2013

    And as a result of that accident the FAA fully funded the building of the control tower, that is no longer funded by the City. Sooo sad.

  4. Av8rGal says - Posted: June 20, 2013

    Lake Tahoe Airport is one of the most under utilized assets we have in the region. Poor management and excessive regulation over the years by South Lake Tahoe itself has really hurt the place. It’s almost like a police state now compared with every other airport around.

    Take a look at any of the other airports in the area, and you’ll see a lot more activity than at Lake Tahoe Airport. So sad to see the airport in the state it is today.

  5. copper says - Posted: June 20, 2013

    OLS, I believe the name of the mountain where it crashed is Genoa Peak. I’ve been to the crash site several times, but not in a lot of years – it’s accessible from the trail system heading north from the top of Kingbury. Hike a mile or two in then take a trail uphill (probably originally cut by the recovery party) to the ridge.

    The first time I was there in the mid seventies there was still small debris items scattered everywhere. And a large item that looked like a landing gear strut. A cairn had been built and visitors to the site had been stacking personal items they’d found on it – glasses, shoes etc. Standing on the ridge, looking toward the Lake, it was easy to see the broken trees leading to the impact point, perhaps 30 feet or so below the ridge. The pilot had almost made it but the impact carried most of the debris over the top of the ridge and scattered it down the east slope.

    Probably 10 or 15 years later I hiked through the area – the cairn was still there (probably still is) and still some debris scattered around, but it was gradually becoming grown over and covered.

    Sorry I can’t give better directions – I could probably find the site again but I’m sure there are locals who could show you the exact spot on a map.

  6. Garry Bowen says - Posted: June 20, 2013

    Thanks for including all these ‘reprints’ along with the David Borges review. . .I’m still amazed that relatively nothing is ever mentioned of the Harrah’s ‘Starliner’ junkets that originated at our airport. . . (any comments, Mr. Borges ?). . . that effort, I believe, was represented by the bronze plaque that inhabits the space just next to the “City Hall” reception window, with about 50 or 60 names of people I knew then (including William Harrah & Harvey Gross, Chris Kuraisa, Dave & Deanna Gay, Wally Rothgeb [all of Heavenly Valley, except Deanna [a high school contemporary of mine] ) along with many others in town – who obviously had a lot to do with the airport planning at that time.

    By the mid-60’s, I was in Harrah’s Public Relations (Transportation) at a ripe young age (my mid-20’s) whose job it was was to plan bus routes around Northern California to account for what they now insist on calling “shoulder seasons” (not knowing what to do if it’s not summer or winter) . . . Bill Harrah was inspired & impressed with the global attraction that was the Olympic effort (noting that Squaw was the very first to be televised), also noting that both the Heavenly tramway (’62) and the South Shore Room (’59) were in process by that time (the late 50’s) – Bill, being the visionary that he was, embarked on a way to encourage more of the international visitor, in this case using our own airport.

    What was then Harrah’s “Starliner” – the familiar graphic “swoop” still under the name today was instead under a series of stars along the fusilage, hence the name Starliner. It departed from here direct to Mexico City to pick up folks who had converged upon the City from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, etc. as well as those from the City, and made flights back to the Lake Tahoe Airport.

    These were presumably “high rollers” (a term replaced decades later with “whales”) and coincided with the introduction here of Baccarat, thought at the time to be a more cosmopolitan game of attraction for those of European descent.

    Harrah’s had an area encased by sheer floor-to-ceiling glass walls with tables within that had dealers who spoke at least three languages (only one of which had to be English) – the area was immediately adjacent to & in front of the South Shore Room. Exciting times (!!), as baccarat is played with cash only, no chips – being very fast moving and very simple.

    As to all these various reports on the airport, that of the above was one of the few that was a true destination use for it . . . the airlines dabbled in their smaller plane uses, but were hampered in serving smaller venues by the notorious use of the major “hub” network, which channeled most their flights to and through mostly metropolitan areas.

    That network is of course to this day a hindrance, as smaller venues are left out all across the nation – (ours included)- only a few ventures have surfaced to counteract this problem, the last being the Paul Allen/New Mexico brand-new Eclipse jet that was to offer overall use of the nation’s (underutilized) 10,000 + municipal airports to better effect. . .good luck with that !!

    I’m just interested in why the “history” is always about what the agencies do or don’t do, rather than including at least one of the more colorful attempts over the years . . . perhaps inspiring another colorful use that may work.

    It’s still no accident that Harrah’s name is on the side of the building. . .

  7. David Borges, D.C. says - Posted: June 20, 2013

    Garry: I appreciate you sharing the casino junket information. I do have some information in my program regarding the junkets but your data is more through. Do I have your permission to use your information in my next presentation?