Today is the 75th Anniversary of the worst marine tragedy in the Lake Tahoe’s long boating history.
In the late afternoon of May 17, 1941 the mailboat Marian B, on her inaugural run of the season, failed to return home and was determined to be missing somewhere between Glenbrook and Brockway. A mighty storm had been brewing as the boat left Tahoe City, and continued to worsen as she made her appointed stops on her counter-clockwise route around the Lake. Aboard were Captain Arthur Brodehl of Tahoe City, his stepson Donald Brodehl and Mail Clerk Everett Dolan.
The Marian B was a 42-foot gasoline cruiser that had come to Lake Tahoe from Seattle, where Daniel Martin Brodehl (father of the pilot on that fateful trip), had used her in the fulfillment of a mail contract he held there. In 1934, Brodehl won the contract to deliver Lake Tahoe’s mail, and soon thereafter the cruiser and the Brodehl family changed their home port to Tahoe City.
Despite a few detractors who were reluctant to accept the retirement of the Steamers Tahoe and Nevada, the Marian B proved to be a seaworthy craft, and Captain Brodehl an able pilot whose dedication to his duty went far beyond the call. Brodehl’s commitment to delivering the mail is clear in this item by Eleanor “Swanee” Swanson in the January 24, 1935 issue of the Sierra Sun & Truckee Republican:
“Friday the steamer Nevada did not make her regular trip as a blizzard was raging all day. The mail boat Marian B, however, pointed her nose into the storm and set bravely out. It was almost impossible to buck the elements and to determine bearings on that rough, snow-swept water. At Glenbrook much valuable time was lost as the landing was attempted just at the peak of the storm and it was only sighted and negotiated after much effort. The remainder of the trip was equally difficult and the boat finally pulled into the home harbor about 7 p.m. some four hours late. Even then searchlights had to be utilized before a safe docking could be made.”
A few years later, on a run made in similarly forbidding weather:
Even in her slip she was not always safe:
But no matter what, Brodehl covered his route, winning a four-year contract renewal in 1938 and constantly striving to see that the citizens of Tahoe got their mail on time.
As mentioned earlier, this dependable routine came to its mysterious conclusion on May 17, 1941. The unfolding of events over the next several days, thanks to local wordsmiths Eleanor “Swanee” Swanson and Ethel Joslin Vernon, was faithfully reported in the media, and since these accounts are our best sources of information on the subject, we will rely chiefly on them for the details of our story:
And then came the news nobody wanted to hear:
As a community, Tahoe City had never experienced such a horrible event. No incident involving multiple fatalities had occurred in the vicinity in memory. The tragedy was keenly felt by all, for during the Brodehl family’s seven years in Tahoe City, they had become valued members of the little community. In 1937, older daughter Violet had married Robert Pomin, son of pioneers Ernie and Northie Pomin of Tahoe City, and in November 1942, 18 months after the tragedy, Vi’s younger sister Beccy married Woodland boy Milton J. “Jay” Shontz, future proprietor of Jay’s Drugs in Tahoe City.
The demise of the Marian B ended mail service by boat to the Post Offices around Lake Tahoe. During the 1930s, a paved road had been completed around the Lake, and the picturesque marine postal tradition that had served the Basin’s residents for three-quarters of a Century no longer made sense in terms of speed, safety or economy. It was determined that the mail boat would be replaced by conventional delivery methods.
Beccy Brodehl Shontz later recalled her father’s determination to implement this new mode of delivery, which included pedestrian travel when the roads were not plowed:
“After there was no longer a boat contract, somehow the mail (still) had to go through. For my father, it was a sacred obligation. He’d leave in the morning on his snowshoes, and people would call Mother as they’d see him go by. He always thought that when people were snowed in, they really needed their mail. He’d just take the first class mail in the pouch and lock it up and sling it over his back and off he’d go, off to Meeks Bay. He was in his sixties. He just thought people ought to have their mail. It was important.”
Today, descendants of Daniel Martin Brodehl still live in the Tahoe area, and are understandably proud of the courage and fortitude of their family members who once dedicated themselves to making sure Tahoe residents got their mail on time. In an age when any communication other than instantaneous is considered hopelessly slow, it is easy to dismiss the harrowing aspects of delivering the mail 75 years ago. But for the Brodehls and their faithful Marian B, the sacrifice was extreme, exemplifying the unofficial creed of the U.S. Postal Service:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night
stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
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