“Fortune smiled the day we filed the Ponderosa claim” was one of the coolest introductions to a TV show ever.
Backed by the galloping theme song, a map came on the screen, showing the 600,000-square-acre Ponderosa Ranch at the north end of Lake Tahoe, south of Virginia City, Nevada. “Bonanza” appeared in front of the map. Suddenly, the document burst into flame, revealing three (originally four) horsemen galloping in a pasture framed by mountains. As they approached, you could make them out—Ben, Hoss and Little Joe: the Cartwrights.
By the end of the 35-second presentation, you wanted to grab a hat and a horse, and ride with those guys.
Of course, Bonanza was just a TV program (albeit a long-running one, from 1959 to 1973). But there was a real Ponderosa—one that became a hugely popular tourist attraction, even years after the series had become just a memory.
The story goes like this.
Californian Bill Anderson, who made his living renting out machinery, was working with a Lake Tahoe development in the late 1950s. Bill had some cowboy in him, and he envisioned the possibilities of a ranch.
At 570 acres, the property Bill bought wasn’t as big as the TV ranch, but it was good sized and in a prime area. The Andersons built a home there and ran a small horse operation. It was a paradise.
In 1961, Bonanza creator David Dortort saw the land and thought it offered some perfect scenery shots for the series, which was mostly filmed at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. He was thrilled to discover Bill could also provide horses. Bill’s son Royce remembers a childhood peopled by actors Michael Landon (Little Joe), Dan Blocker (Hoss) and Lorne Greene (Ben); he sometimes played with their kids.
Over the years, viewers of the series began showing up, wanting to see the Ponderosa that came into their living rooms each week. The real ranch wasn’t quite the same, of course, but it seemed to satisfy.
The fan interest gave Bill an idea. If people wanted to see Bonanza’s ranch, why not give it to them? He could build a replica of the Cartwright homestead and barn, and a version of the Virginia City set. The show’s producers loved Bill’s idea. They provided the cast to appear in ads for the ranch.
You know that line, “If you build it, they will come?” That was just what happened at the Ponderosa in 1967. Thousands of people flocked to the place.
This theme ranch became the Anderson family business. Everybody worked at the park, even Royce, who took charge of the horses at the tender age of 10 in 1971. They made big money—even after the TV show went off the air in 1973, roughly half a year after actor Dan Blocker had died. Overall, an estimated eight million people came to the Ponderosa over a 37-year span.
The family sold the ranch in 2004, but not because folks had lost interest in it; about 250,000 people came to the Ponderosa between April and September 2004. “It was time to move on,” Royce says, so the Andersons sold the ranch to a software billionaire.
Supposedly, the new owner plans to reopen the Ponderosa theme park, but he hasn’t publicly talked about it. For now, we’ll just have to live with Bonanza re-runs—with the coolest intro ever on TV.