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The Ponderosa Ranch was a theme park based on the popular 1960s television western Bonanza which housed the affluent land, timber and livestock-rich Cartwright family. The amusement park operated in Incline Village, Nevada, near Lake Tahoe, from 1967 until 2004. Portions of the last five seasons of the TV series and three TV movies were also filmed at that location.
TV origins of the fictional Ponderosa Ranch
The Ponderosa was the fictional setting for Bonanza. According to the first episode ("Mr. Henry Comstock") filmed after the pilot, it was a thousand square mile (640,000 acre or 2,600 km2) ranch on the shores of Lake Tahoe, nestled high in the Sierra Nevada, with a large ranch house in the center of it. Ben Cartwright was said to have built the original, smaller homestead after moving from New Orleans with his pregnant third wife Marie and his two sons, Adam and Hoss. The grown Adam, an architect/engineer, designed the later sprawling ranch house as depicted on TV ("Bonanza, The Philip Diedesheimer Story", Oct. 31, 1959, NBC-TV; "Bonanza: The Return", April 1993, NBC-TV). The fictional ranch was roughly a two-hour horse ride from Virginia City, Nevada. (Note: There are slight variations as to the origin of the Ponderosa Ranch, from the original "Bonanza" series, Lorne Greene's 1964 song "Saga of the Ponderosa", the 1988-95 TV movies, and the 2001 PAX prequel series "Ponderosa"). The ranch house was a single level structure that had a facade second story. Inside a staircase seemingly led to the second-floor corridor, but it was a dead end. The bedroom scenes were filmed at Burbank Studios. The inspiration for the name may have been the large number of Ponderosa pines in the area or the original Latin meaning of large (root of the English word ponderous). The exteriors for the television show were occasionally shot in Nevada, usually out of sequence. Crews were sometimes able to complete an entire season's work in just a few days.
The first Virginia City set used on the show from 1959–1970 was located on a back lot at Paramount. It was also used in episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel, Mannix and The Brady Bunch. In the 1970 "Bonanza" episode "The Night Virginia City Died", Deputy Clem Foster's pyromaniac fiancee leveled the town in a series of fires. This allowed for a switch to the less-expensive Warner Studios from September 1970 through January 1973. Very few of the original Bonanza episodes were shot at the theme park's Virginia City site, although the town was prominently featured in three Bonanza television movies. Because the movies showcased the next generation of Cartwrights, they began circa 1905. The Ponderosa park expanded beyond the buggy era to include an exhibit featuring antique cars. It was a fledgling endeavor as tourists wanted to see horses flanked by Cartwright saddles.
Origins of the theme park
The idea for the theme park came about in 1965. Bill and Joyce Anderson owned a small horse ranch, which is located in about the same area as the fictional Ponderosa on the burning map. According to the Andersons, tourists would regularly show up at their gates asking where the Ponderosa was. Smelling opportunity, the Andersons contacted NBC and Bonanza creator-producer David Dortort. They proposed turning their small ranch into a theme park. NBC, Dortort, and the cast saw the tie-in as a "bonanza" for everyone. All parties being of one accord, the cast agreed to promos being shot at the ranch site and the Virginia City set - including the nearby Silver Dollar Saloon - for financial consideration. The ads greatly stimulated revenue for the park.
The park opened to the public in 1967, complete with a scale replica of the Cartwright ranch house and barn similar to the ones seen on television. A replica of Virginia City was later added. The original plan was to open the set to tourists once filming had wrapped. However, shuttling cast and crew up to Incline Village on a weekly basis became cost-prohibitive. Thus, only 15 episodes of Bonanza were shot there. A majority of ranch-specific scenes were shot on a sound stage at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Outdoor scenes were filmed on location at nearby Big Bear Lake, Red Rock Canyon, Mojave, or eastern Kern County, California. However, Michael Landon, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and David Canary often made appearances at the ranch in costume to mingle with fans and sign autographs. Blocker died in 1972, and NBC canceled the series the following year. Canary, dressed in character as Candy, made his last visit there in 2002 for a PAX-TV special. Mitch Vogel (Jamie Cartwright) appeared at the ranch for the Travel Channel's "TV Road Trip" in 2002, in which he pitched a behind-the-scenes look at the Ponderosa Ranch and Incline Village. Copies of the "Ponderosa Map", autographed by three of the Cartwrights, became souvenirs at the ranch for decades afterward, along with tin cups bearing their likenesses. Episodes that were filmed entirely or in part at the ranch bear a title plate at the end of the credits. These episodes are from the tenth season through the end of the series (1968–73).
The Ponderosa Experience
Parking for visitors was at the highway level; only official vehicles, such as the park's Conestoga wagons, were allowed at the top of the ridge, where the park was located. Depending on the time of day, a park visit could include breakfast. Lunch, including a "Hoss Burger", could also be purchased. Estimates are that more than three million of these were sold during the park's existence.
A visit to the park consisted of visitors riding up on the wagon, being "robbed" by "outlaws", and then disembarking at the main house. Adjacent to the house were the "graves" of Ben Cartwright's three wives, each of whom had given birth to one of the three (half) brothers. Graves of the Cartwrights and cook Hop Sing were later added, following the deaths of Dan Blocker (1972), Victor Sen Yung (1980), Lorne Greene (1987), and Michael Landon (1991). The house contained a less-than-realistic carved figure of Ben Cartwright sitting at his desk, and of Hop Sing working in the kitchen. The only parts of the house that actually existed were the living room, dining room, kitchen, and office. The stairs led nowhere, as the "bedrooms" were actually located on a sound stage in Hollywood. Thus, the tour of the house took very little time.
The main attraction was the ranch's version of Virginia City, which was miles from the real Virginia City but immediately adjacent to the rear of the house set (on the show, the ranch was about a two-hour ride on horseback from Virginia City). There were activities such as a haunted house, panning for gold, amusements based on old-time Wild West shows, as well as concessions and souvenirs.
Only the front of the ranch house was ever shown on television because a highway ran directly to the right of the house. In episodes shot in-studio, the home exterior has a backdrop of sky and trees. The ranch house was a single-story structure, although from the outside it appeared to have a second story. Little Joe's green corduroy jacket and Hoss' brown suede vest were displayed hanging on a rack.
When the ranch opened in 1967, Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright) had long since departed the series. Consequently, he was not featured in Ponderosa's promotional campaign until after the show's initial run. At that time most of the shows broadcast in syndication featured the Adam Cartwright character. His picture was in the group painting on the sign promoting the park at the entrance. When the park folded in Autumn 2004 Pernell Roberts was still alive, so no Adam grave marker was added. Pernell Roberts died on January 24, 2010.
Near the main house were sculptures of the horses ridden by Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon that visitors could have their pictures taken either on or alongside. The park also had a church that could be reserved for weddings near the church where the grave markers are located. In 1999, a VHS tour was made available to patrons. In 2002, David Canary appeared at the ranch in Candy's wardrobe for a special produced by PAX TV.
Closure of the theme park
The ranch and park remained a popular seasonal attraction for decades after the network run of Bonanza ended, having outlived most of the series' original cast. Business remained strong into the late 1990s. The land was purchased by billionaire software entrepreneur David Duffield in 2004. In September 2004 he closed the Ponderosa "indefinitely".
An article in the Reno Gazette-Journal on September 26, 2004 (Ponderosa rides into the sunset) quoted "co-owner Anderson [son of the original owner]" as saying: "This is the biggest year we’ve ever had", and conservatively estimated that 250,000 people visited the Ponderosa during its last April to September 2004 season.
Royce Anderson, son of ranch founder Bill Anderson, said he decided to sell the ranch because "land values are so high." Bill Anderson had retired to his personal ranch in Dayton some ten years earlier.
The Washoe County, Nevada Web site reveals a Ponderosa Ranch land use concept diagram  which alludes to a plan for a new theme park within the Ponderosa Ranch limits. No other information is available and owner David Duffield has not publicly announced a new theme park plan. Nothing new has been built. Google Map imaging indicates that as of January 14, 2011 all of the original structures were still standing.