The First Ascent from the SS Tahoe:  A Documentary Film

More information on our monumental descent into the depths of Lake Tahoe

Description written in February 2001

Since her sinking on August 30, 1940, there has been much interest in the SS Tahoe. This interest began in 1963, over 20 years after her scuttling, from a well-known casino owner, William H. Harrah. Harrah wanted to lift the SS Tahoe, maybe for his museum, and in order to do this, he enlisted the services of an aquatic contractor and engineer at Lake Tahoe, Glen Amundson. The trick in 1963 was just finding the wrecksite. There was not sonar. There were no remote vehicles (that they could afford). So what they did was take a closed circuit camera from Harrah’s casino, enclose it in a water tight box and lowered it over the side of a boat and began to make sweeps and passes along the Glenbrook canyon. Believe it or not, they actually found it but it is not clear how long it took. One must remember that it was supposed to be sunk in about 100’ of water but that did not happen so their success truly was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Once they found it, plans began to form for her salvage. However, these plans never came to fruition. Bill Bliss, the great grandson of D.L. Bliss, asked Harrah to honor the wishes of his grandfather, William Seth Bliss (son of D.L. Bliss) that the SS Tahoe be left alone and respected as a gravesite and memorial to the maritime history the Bliss family was so instrumental in developing. Apparently Harrah obliged.

Once she was found, unfortunately she became the target of much destruction. Just as she had experienced over 20 years earlier docked in Tahoe City the vandalism began again. One very prominent South Lake Tahoe citizen wanted "stuff" off the SS Tahoe, so he utilized a grappling hook and buoy system to drag the bottom until he hooked something and then brought it up. All he managed to do was get railing and boards and damage the wrecksite further. He even kept some of his findings in his garage until laws were passed protecting publicly owned shipwrecks and for fear of being fined or imprisoned, he took the railings and boards back out to the site and dropped them back in the water. Today, that wreckage lies very close to the actual wrecksite of the SS Tahoe. Over 60 years later, during one of New Millennium Dive Expedtion’s training dives, our dive team actually snagged and thus recovered one of the home-made grappling hooks and buoy systems made to grapple the SS Tahoe. This is now a prized possession of New Millennium and hopefully it will end up in a museum along with the entire New Millennium expedition story.

In following years, as the wreck, abandoned for over 7 years, became the official property of the State of Nevada, it became the responsibility of the State Lands Division and the State Historic Preservation Office. Permits and plans of various types were submitted requesting permission to salvage the SS Tahoe but no organization ever followed through with its plans for such an endeavor.

It was even rumored that divers in hard hats walked the decks of the SS Tahoe but this turned out to be false as well. The true story was that Glen Amundson of South Lake Tahoe, the same gentleman that worked closely with William H.  Harrah, tried to get some Navy divers to dive to her depths. Because there were no procedures for Navy diving at altitude, and to this day there still are no procedures, he could not convince the Navy to deploy divers. [This information was provided by Glen Amundson’s widow, Pat during a phone conversation in 1999] Thus, the SS Tahoe has remained untouched by the human hand for over 60 years.

Between the early expeditions to the SS Tahoe and New Millenniums present expedition activity, she has been visited by a couple of "remote operated vehicle" (ROV) expeditions. With the use of multi-million dollar ROV’s in tandem, meaning two were used, one to watch the other in case of entanglement, a couple of organizations produced some great footage of the SS Tahoe in commercially available videos. But to date, aside from these mentioned expeditions and New Millenniums, not much else has happened.

New Millennium’s expedition was officially brought to the public’s attention in November of 1999 some 12 months after the conception of the expedition. Now almost 3 years after the project conception the New Millennium Team is thoroughly educated on the procedures critical to safely, responsibly and professionally dive this wrecksite. What has brought the team to this point is the intense training, practice and rehearsal it has undergone. Information which we post on our website, thus keeping our supporters up to date with our activities. With over 25 in water, Lake Tahoe altitude specific training operations completed to date and with personal funds in excess of $35,000 contributed to the costs of these operations, New Millennium now possesses the technical competencies to manage the massive logistical complexities and to actually dive the SS Tahoe.

The team has conducted dives in the 325 – 350 depth range on the slope directly above the SS Tahoe in Glenbrook Bay. It is an immense slope of 32 degrees and the area is huge. We have spent over 20 hours with an ROV simply looking and surveying the actual wrecksite. Nobody, that is not "lottery winning lucky", is going to motor out into Glenbrook in an inflatable boat, toss a line over the side and dive the SS Tahoe. It takes over an hour, again with an ROV, to simply place a temporary marker line on the site providing the reliable reference necessary to set-up a professional dive station that would direct the divers descent and ascent directly upon the wreck. And…even if a diver were lucky enough to see it, without all the logistical aspects in place, it is marginal that they would make it back safely. This dive requires 5 different breathing gas mixtures during decompression (the slow ascent back to the surface). No-one can carry that many gasses in the amounts necessary and no one person can set-up that kind of dive by themselves. It takes a team. A team professionally dedicated to the safety of all involved, to the implementation of a dive that will represent diving safely, professionally and responsibly and archaeologically speaking, the team must have the integrity to preserve the historical importance this wrecksite imposes by procedures and a mission that minimize the impact of such a visit.

The teams biggest hurdle has been funding. We have contacted many organizations but we still have not struck the button that would compel sponsorship money to come forth. On a national level (from the corporate standpoint), our fundraising has hit walls because Lake Tahoe and the SS Tahoe are not of "national interest". This is as far from the case as possible as the U.S. Congress and Bush Administration has allocated millions of dollars towards the preservation of Lake Tahoe. A corporation becoming involved with New Millennium would receive incredibly beneficial exposure as we are receiving national exposure with our project in all forms of the media.

Even on the state level (governmental), we have not been offered the support they may be able to offer and this is a publicly owned shipwreck of significant historical importance to Nevada. This does not discourage us to continue but it does make us feel quite lonely in an endeavor that will ultimately benefit the state and all the communities . Especially when such organizations as the Nevada Historical Society, The State Lands Office and the State Historic Preservation Office are very familiar with our project and have given us their good graces to proceed. Some reasons are that there is not the budget for exploration such as this but according to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines , there is Federal money available to the states for the research and study of shipwrecks located in their state waters. Research studies, funded by the "Act" that have shown a benefit and increase tourism. We just have to find the right governmental organization to become involved and help us secure these funds.

Other hurdles have been weather, Tahoes climate, logistical concerns, access to equipment and time; personal time from each individual member to come together on numerous specific dates. New Millennium is a group of divers from all walks of life that work together on volunteered time. New Millennium does not employ anyone and no one that is a member of this team makes a living doing research diving. In fact, it is estimated that each member of the team has put in well over 500 hours of his or her personal time working toward the culmination of this project to date.

An interesting comparison here is that the Andria Doria, located in the North Atlantic just south of Montauk, Long Island, has been billed as the "Everest" of technical diving. A wreck whereby a boat staff diver can swim down 165 feet and tie off a boat anchor line directly to the port side of the ship (the starboard side of the ship lies in 250’ of water). This line is now the descent/ascent line for the paying divers on the boat to safely visit and enjoy the wreck of the Andria Doria. A visit that over a 3-day period allows each diver 3-4 dives on the wreck. The SS Tahoe, sits on its keel as if she were floating 400‘ above on the surface. No-one can swim down and affix a line for the others to enjoy. The SS Tahoe is at an elevation of 6230’ making its dive depth equivalent to a dive of over 500’ in the ocean. Twice that of the depth of the Andria Doria. The water temperatures in the North Atlantic are about 45 degrees. The SS Tahoe is surrounded by 39 degree water. And in a 3 day period, a diver diving the SS Tahoe can only visit it one time. A diver visiting the Andria Doria pays about $1200 for the experience or about $300 per dive. The SS Tahoe? Each expedition dive cost the team about $3000 for one dive. About $1500 per diver that gets to visit the SS Tahoe – there are only 3 divers of the 15 member team that will actually visit the SS Tahoe. So if the Andria Doria is the "Everest" of technical diving, the SS Tahoe is a "Shuttle Launch"!