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Lake Tahoe’s Sunken Treasure: The SS Tahoe

Diving exploration team reveals the depths of famed ship’s history.

By RYAN HUGHES

The SS Tahoe. Photo: Nevada Historical Society

The SS Tahoe. Photo: Nevada Historical Society

It took only 50 years for the Lake Tahoe Basin to transform from an untouched oasis into a bustling asset of the logging industry. When John Fremont first set eyes on the breathtaking views Lake Tahoe had to offer, there was nothing but beauty and silence. As the land developed into a major resource of both logging, as well as tourism, there were many vessels to grace its clear blue waters—the most famous of which now rests approximately 400 feet under the lake’s surface: the SS Tahoe.

Long before there was a road around Lake Tahoe, it was up to a developed maritime industry—the SS Tahoe as its grandest vessel—to bring everything from supplies and mail to visitors around its shores. The Steamer Tahoe, at 170 feet long, was the largest ship to ever navigate Lake Tahoe.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

According to Martin McClellan of New Millennium Dive Expeditions (NMDE), Duane Leroy “DL” Bliss commissioned the steamboat from Union Iron Works in San Francisco in 1894. The future “Queen of Tahoe” was shipped by train in several pieces, then reassembled and launched in Glenbrook on June 24, 1896. The ship transported the mail, cargo and passengers in style, with brass and marble fixtures adorning its luxurious dining room.

The completion of a road around the lake in 1935 brought the SS Tahoe’s four decades of economic service to the basin to an end, and it was purposely scuttled by William Seth Bliss, son of DL Bliss, on Aug. 29, 1940. McClellan explains that William sunk the ship in honor of its historic contribution to not only his family, but to the lake itself and to the old ways of Lake Tahoe—the days of logging, desolation, and a lack of roads.

Photo: Jame Novaes.

Photo: Jame Novaes.

William had requested the steamer to rest around 100 feet deep where it could be observed by visitors and tourists through glass-bottomed boats; unfortunately, due to community controversy over her intended scuttling, Lloyd Saxon, captain of the Quic-Chakidn was instructed to tow the SS Tahoe from her berth late in the afternoon, putting him in Glenbrook Bay in the dark. Never having scuttled such a large vessel and without any depth-sounding equipment, the Tahoe began to weigh heavily upon Captain Saxons’ small ship. Thinking only of the safety of the persons aboard his ship, Saxon cut the towline in a panic, nowhere near 100 feet of depth. The SS Tahoe hit the bottom at 335 feet of depth and slid along the bottom to where it came to rest in in approximately 400 feet of water.

Research conducted between 2002 and 2010 by NDME accurately reveals the ship today is submerged with its bow at 365 feet and stern at 475 feet.

HOW DEEP CAN THEY GO?

Illustration: Curt Bowen.

Illustration: Curt Bowen.

In 1999—59 years after the Tahoe was scuttled—a nonprofit team of divers with a common goal to execute exploration objective dive projects was formed with the goal of exploring the steamship. New Millennium Dive Expeditions began as a ragtag bunch of average Joe’s, but what they would accomplish in the coming years pushed the limits of technical diving at altitude and astounded the diving world. Most of all, it helped the world explore the maritime history of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

When diving to depths as deep as the SS Tahoe, a diver must have years of advanced experience and training, plus thousands of dollars in gear and sophisticated equipment; they must breath a precise mixture of gasses, and have plenty of time to carefully execute such a demanding dive. During their journey to the Tahoe, the team from NMDE had to overcome all of these obstacles, and many others.

The divers had a couple of specific goals in mind for exploring the Tahoe: to test new decompression software, and, to be the first team to ever dive on this historical shipwreck.

StarTowRope

On Aug. 29, 1940, the Tahoe was towed into Glenbrook using this rope. Dive photos courtesy New Millennium Dive Expeditions.

The high-altitude dive had to be precisely coordinated and planned. A technical dive to such depths is extremely dangerous and requires more skill and preparation than the average dive. The team planned, trained, and gathered funding and equipment for approximately three and a half years, and in addition to preparing, the exact location of the shipwreck had to be discovered

Underwater archaeologist and explorer Mitch Marken assisted the team in marking the location of the Tahoe through the use of remote-operated submersible cameras piloted by Gary Trimble. On a fun note, the first time this was done was in 1963 by gaming pioneer Bill Harrah, who according to McClellan found the ship by placing a casino-monitoring camera into a homemade waterproof plastic housing. Bill had hoped to retrieve the ship, but the Bliss family asked him to leave it be.

In 2002, once the location was pinpointed Martin and his team were one step closer to uncovering the lost monument of Lake Tahoe’s fascinating history.

To Martin, the SS Tahoe was a goal he would have gone to almost any extent to reach. He and his team were extremely passionate about the ship and its history.

“Anytime you spend a couple thousand hours of your time going after a dream or a goal, when you finally accomplish that goal, it’s an awakening experience,” Martin explains.

DIVING TO NEW DEPTHS

PortForwardAirDam

The port side air funnel. The top of this is in 390 feet and the temperature is 39 degrees and the water conditions are quite still…thus the great preserved state that it is in.

The team made its first descent to the SS Tahoe on the morning of June 29, 2002. The NMDE divers were able to get approximately 30 feet from the ship but were not able to get as close as they hoped due to some confusion with the plan. They did, however, get to see the ship clearly and shoot video of the Tahoe. The second dive took place on July 20, 2002, and it was first time anyone had touched the ship since 1940.

“That made it real,” Martin says. “I don’t know how to describe it. Euphoria?”

During the initial dives on the SS Tahoe in 2002, Martin’s dive teammate was Brian Morris, a northern Nevada attorney. During the funded dives in 2009/2010 by the Nevada State Historical Preservation Office, Martin brought in his second teammate, James Novaes, a commercial diver for 15 years prior to the SS Tahoe expedition. His background in marine construction brought an invaluable amount of experience to the team. Another skill that proved to be crucial was James and Martin’s ability to communicate with each other during the dives with hand signals, physical gestures and wet-notes (paper and pencil designed specifically for underwater use), especially when things did not go as planned.

“I remember one time we lost a gas at 190 feet. It was totally unexpected but with the training and knowledge we possessed the team handled the situation with ease,” James recalls. “We maintain our gear meticulously for these dives, but problems still can happen. You do what you have do; change the decompression, change the gas, alter times, but whatever decision we make, we cannot ascend to the surface; that would surely result in decompression sickness possibly leading to permanent disability but more likely death. It takes tremendous decompression knowledge and diving ability to be able to conduct such problem solving tasks while you’re living it.”

These are the windows on the port side wall of the forward smoking room. This is the only wall section of the forward structure directly behind the pilot house that is still standing.

These are the windows on the port side wall of the forward smoking room. This is the only wall section of the forward structure directly behind the pilot house that is still standing.

The NMDE team has safely executed a total of 10 dives on the SS Tahoe to date. Ten successful technical dives to such depth is an amazing task, but considering the conditions present in Tahoe, 39 degree Fahrenheit water temperature at depth, altitude, and its remote location in terms of hyperbaric medical treatment, NMDE demonstrated its professionalism in representing technical diving above and beyond expectation during every dive.

In 2002, the wreck of the Tahoe became Nevada’s first submerged cultural resource listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Though the team faced many obstacles—including a lack of funding, a lack of community support, and the need for thousands of volunteer hours of pure commitment—the New Millennium divers pushed the limits of technical diving and made Tahoe history. The team continues to assist in conservation efforts with their current endeavor, Project Baseline; Lake Tahoe.

 

DIVE IN FOR MORE

The New Millennium Dive Expedition
nmde.org

Project Baseline
projectbaseline.org/projects/usa/lake-tahoe

For more information on the logistics of the dive:

advanceddivermagazine.com/articles/sstahoe/sstahoe.html

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