A 'Bonanza' For Tourists

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The Early Show's Best Of America Series takes a trip to Lake Tahoe, Nev., where Hollywood's vision of the Old West became America's vision in the long-running hit, "Bonanza."

It was 1959 when the Cartwrights first rode across a meadow in "Bonanza" on Lake Tahoe, and into the hearts of television audiences.

The show's producers had decided that this alpine lake would be the perfect location for the fictitious Ponderosa Ranch.

Royce Anderson was 5 when the cast and crew of "Bonanza" began shooting location shots on his parent's property in Lake Tahoe.

"'Bonanza' was the first color TV show to really go into major production. So they were after beautiful scenery, green trees, blue lakes, and all those things that Tahoe had to offer. My father had a riding stable here. The 'Bonanza' production people came to this property looking for somewhere both to film and to keep their horses. They started filming. We started building more and more sets," remembers Anderson.

Though much of the show was shot on sound stages in Los Angeles, exteriors were filmed in Tahoe. And in 1967, a ranch house was built in Tahoe that replicated the sets used in Hollywood.

"Its a twofold thing. It was created for the filming of 'Bonanza' but it was also built with in mind that tourists would come to see it and would want to see more than just a false-fronted building on a Hollywood set," says Anderson.

Today, more than 200,000 people visit the Ponderosa each year.

Sherri Jillett of Glendale, Ariz., who is there on her honeymoon says, "I love 'Bonanza.'" I grew up in a 'Bonanza' home, with a Mom and a Dad and we all watched 'Bonanza' as a family. It's more fun to be here and see it from when I was a kid and now I'm old and I can say. 'Wow. I was here and it looks fabulous and it look just like it did way back when I used to like little Joe.'"

In addition to the nostalgia of the place, The Ponderosa has a complete western town with activities for children like panning for gold. You can take a hayride around the 600-acre ranch and enjoy some of the scenery that first attracted Hollywood.

Anderson says, "Lake Tahoe is one of the biggest alpine lakes in the country and its crystal blue waters are what made it famous. You know, the scenery here at Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains are unparalleled."

Of course, when Ben and the boys wanted to go to town, they rode to Virginia City. Today, the real Virginia City looks different than it did on TV, but it's well worth a visit.

Ron James, a historic preservation officer says, "Virginia City was profoundly affected by the 'Bonanza' television show, 'cause it brought so many tourists here. One of the ironies is that a lot of tourists come here expecting to see a movie set, and they see something very real."

James goes on to say, "Well, Virginia City dates back to 1859. Today there are about 500 historic structures dating back to the 1860s and '70s. It's acres and acres of historic district."

In town, you can tour a silver mine or take a ride on the V & T railroad.

"The railroad today takes you from Virginia City to its sister city to the south, Gold Hill, and it follows the exact right of way that you would have traveled in 1875 and you get a good view of the surroundings. It is a beautiful trip," says James.

So whether you're interested in discovering the real Old West or just seeing Hollywood's version of it, Nevada's Virginia City and Lake Tahoe offer plenty of both.

"It's beautiful and when you saw them riding in on their horses and you saw the background, this is just what it looks like when you get here," says honeymooner Jillett.