Fannette Island in Lake Tahoe, site of Knight's tea house
Vikingsholm Castle sits at the bottom of a steep, mile-long switchback driveway that drops 500 feet to the shore of Lake Tahoe. Once at the bottom, I purchased a ticket to participate in a guided tour of the 48-room summer home of Lora Josephine Knight.
Throughout my travels, I’ve come to learn about some fabulously interesting women. Knight is yet another surprising gem.
Born into money, she was extremely generous, putting the children of most of her staff through college. She dared to financially support the postgraduate education of several young women of her acquaintance. She also happened to fund Charles Lindbergh's 1927 nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic. And, at sixty, and without a husband, she built a castle in the sky. This was a woman who obviously believed in dreams, in pursuing and expanding upon the inspirations of the heart in spite of skepticism.
Vikingsholm is modeled after Scandinavian castles, manors and churches because Emerald Bay, where Knight purchased 239 acres in 1928 (including the island that sits in the middle of the bay), reminded her of the fjords she’d seen while visiting Norway and Sweden. Except for the imported stained glass windows, the castle was designed to preserve the old-growth trees on the site, some of which are over 1,000 years old.
It was also constructed within two years because she hired over 200 men to get the job done quickly. The castle consists of the three-story tower, two-story turret and two side wings with sod roofs. The hexagonal footprint encloses a courtyard with a reflecting pond.
A socialite and businesswoman, owning portions of many large companies (the least of which was the Union Pacific Railroad), Knight entertained a wide variety of guests at the castle throughout the summer months. Set on a private bay with a wide expanse of sandy beach just beneath Eagle Falls, a 140-foot double cascade waterfall in the Eldorado National Forest, there were ample outdoor activities to occupy her guests.
On special occasions, she’d arrange for a tea party out on her island. The granite tea house on Fannette Island was constructed during the same period as the castle, although she used it only a few times a year given the production involved in getting everything and everyone over to the island just for tea.
In the late 1800s, prior to housing Knight’s teahouse, Fannette Island, a protected nesting ground for Canadian geese and the only island on the lake, was home to an eclectic captain. The eccentric Englishman apparently built a chapel there in which, as fate would have it, he would never be interred as he perished at sea.
The remainder of the year, the estate was the home of a caretaker. Interestingly, former guest Helen Smith, who had spent her childhood summers at Vikingsholm visiting with her parents, returned forty years later when it was purchased by the state as caretaker and tour guide.