Milwaukee Ski Bowl, 1938-1950: Revolution in Local Skiing

  • By John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin
  • Posted 3/16/2012
  • Essay 10060

The opening of the Snoqualmie Ski Bowl on January 8, 1938, revolutionized skiing in the Pacific Northwest. Developed by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad (known as the Milwaukee Road), the ski area, located at the Hyak stop at the east end of the Snoqualmie Pass tunnel, was renamed the Milwaukee Ski Bowl after World War II to differentiate it from the nearby Snoqualmie Ski Area.  Accessible by train from Seattle, the Ski Bowl offered the Northwest's first ski lift and lighted slopes for night skiing.  This history of the Milwaukee Ski Bowl and Seattle-area skiing in the 1930s and 1940s was written by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin, based largely on their research in the digital archives of The Seattle Times, which sponsored ski lessons at the Ski Bowl and provided extensive coverage of the local ski scene. The authors' mother, Margaret Odell Lundin (1916-2001), played a role in the early days of the Ski Bowl. Margaret Odell was the adviser to the Queen Anne High School Ski Club and for three years took her charges to the bowl for lessons. She was young, single, and attractive and was often interviewed for skiing articles.

Excitement Grows  

Skiing on Snoqualmie Pass dates back to the first decades of the 1900s, when it was centered around ski lodges built by private clubs. In 1914, The Mountaineers built a lodge just west of the summit. Other lodges were built by ski clubs in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, the Seattle Park Board opened a ski area called Municipal Park at Snoqualmie Summit. In those days, there were no tows to take skiers up the hill -- they used skins on their skis to climb up before they could ski down. The trip to the pass by car on icy roads was always an adventure. The Ski Bowl changed all of this.

Excitement grew in the fall of 1937, as news of the Ski Bowl appeared in Seattle papers. The bowl had two hundred acres, "mostly wooded but with cleared ski runs from the Old Milwaukee grade crossing down out of the 'rim' section of the Bowl to the flat area in which the railroad company has erected a two story ... ski cabin." 

One of the Northwest's best ski instructors was hired to give lessons: Ken Syverson, an assistant to noted Austrian instructor Otto Lang. An "instruction course" was cleared close to the ski cabin where lessons would be held. 

The Milwaukee Road ran ads promoting the Ski Bowl: "All aboard for the newest of the winter playgrounds, Snoqualmie Ski Bowl (61 miles east of Seattle)." The Seattle Times said the ski trains should "come in first in the ski area's rating of excellence." Ski Trains had "warm, comfortable coaches, a specially equipped baggage car for storing your skis, and a recreation car for dancing."  There was a covered platform at the Ski Bowl offering protection to the passengers departing from the train.

The Ski Lodge was a two-story building "capable of unlimited expansion," with a waxing room and ski racks on the first floor, and a large recreation room with a fireplace and a 94 foot lunch counter on the second floor. Skiers had their choice of downhill runs, steep or casual. More than 300 tickets were sold for the first weekend. 

The Ski Bowl had the region's first ski lift, an 1,800 foot "Sun Valley type lift," later called  a Poma lift:

"Suspended from the cable are other cables, ending in a trapeze-like wooden handle to which the skier clings. He stays on his skis, keeps in a track, and is pulled up the course at about four miles an hour -- a moderate pace, but it takes no time to get to the top. Then when he leaves the grade crossing, he has his choice of five downhill runs, each named after a crack Milwaukee train ... Olympian, Hiawatha, Pioneer, Arrow and Chippewa."  

The Ski Bowl opened on January 8, 1938, hosting 1,200 skiers. Ceremonies included music by the Franklin High School band, and the crowning of a ski queen who was shown walking through a tunnel created by two lines of skiers holding their skis above her. The ski lift experienced some problems, as skiers' enthusiasm derailed the cable twice as the boys and girls swung back and forth on the "hangers." A total of 1,584 rides on the lift were taken despite the delays. The lift's capacity for the opening weekend was 300 skiers per hour, but it was expected to double by the following weekend.  

Seattle's stores promoted their ski ware. Cunningham's offered ski equipment: ridge top hickory skis, poles, and Almonte adjustable bindings for $13.95; maple ridge top skis, poles, and Almonte adjustable bindings for $10.95; complete children's outfits for $7.95; and flat top skis, bindings, and poles for $8.95. Harry B. Cunningham, who operated the store, was a pivotal force in promoting Seattle skiing. He was the boys' counselor at Garfield High School and served as the ski adviser for Garfield students, sharing chaperoning duties on trips to the Ski Bowl with Queen Anne High School Ski Club adviser Margaret Odell. Cunningham lived in Montlake, one house up from the Montlake business district. He opened one of the earliest ski shops in Seattle, with equipment and supplies available for sale and lease. Cunningham operated out of his basement and garage until 1948, when he moved the ski shop into a storefront in the Montlake business district, where Cunningham's Ski Lodge flourished for years. 

Ski Trains

The Ski Bowl and trains overcame opposition from parents and school officials who had worried about lack of control on the way to skiing and the dangers of traveling by car on snowy roads. "Today, however, with ski trains carrying these youthful ski aspirants, the opposition is melting to a great degree. ... It is expected that the Ski Bowl and ski trains will do much in the future to erase the official objection." 

Ski trains were an immediate success, and the Ski Bowl became the primary destination of Northwest skiers. The railroad built on the region's intense interest in outdoor sports, and the lack of adequate highway access to ski areas. Its catch phrase, "Let the Engineer do the Driving," highlighted the ski package's ease and convenience. High school ski clubs were formed to take advantage of the easy access to the ski area. The Seattle Times offered free ski lessons, and thousands of students enrolled to learn skiing.  

"The area is well lighted and later trains will permit skiing well into the evening."  Trains for night skiing featured "two big recreation coaches for dancing. Geo Smith's famous orchestra will provide music, but to have even more fun, bring your own instruments too."  Evening ski trains left Tacoma at 4:45 and Seattle at 6:00, arrived at the Bowl at 8:00, and began the return trip at 10:00 p.m. It was determined, after "profound research," that this was the first night ski train in America. That first night ski train carried 300 skiers to an "evening's sport at the bowl." In three hours, the participants got all the skiing they wanted and arrived back in Seattle at 1:00 a.m. The night's record was 12 runs for a total of 3,600 feet of skiing, and the average was six or seven runs.  

The Snoqualmie Ski Bowl closed for the season on March 17, 1938, after hosting 11,000 skiers over 11 weekends. 

Ski Lessons 

For 1939, the Milwaukee Road improved its resort, including scraping the hills and gullies "smooth as the skin you love to touch" so skiers could ski soon after the first snow. The lodge was doubled in size, and the covered concourse from the train platform to the lodge was lengthened from 100 to 400 feet. The ski lift had been speeded up and the bugs taken out of the mechanism. With the new addition, the top floor of the lodge was used for lounging, dancing, and viewing "the entire panorama of ski action on the five slopes fanning away from the lodge" through large windows. Railroad ads promoted skiing at the Bowl, saying "Double-Size Lodge, new ski runs, improved facilities."  The railroad had a three-year plan and promised to keep expanding the Bowl's facilities.  

Two 14-car trains brought skiers to the "big opening" on January 7, 1939. Activities included a girls' style show with a $50 prize for the girl who was "the most attractively and intelligently constumed for skiing," a yodeling contest, and a giant slalom race. The Night Ski Train left Milwaukee Station at 5:30 p.m., returning at 11:00 p.m. The business college band was on board, and there was a wiener roast in the snow. 

A Queen Anne-Garfield Ski Day was held the last weekend of January 1939,  a "very busy" day for Ken Syverson and his instructors. More than 225 registration cards had been distributed to Seattle schools for the ski classes, which "were snapped up by the skiers," according to Margaret Odell, ski adviser at Queen Anne High School, who added, "They're thoroughly sold on your school idea." 

In the first two weeks, 365 students took ski lessons. No more than 20 students per class were allowed, so each skier could obtain the maximum personal instruction. Classes were from one-and-a-half to two hours in length, depending on conditions. Syverson described the students' progress:

"It is in the fundamentals of skiing. NOT pell-mell, center of the road wing-dinging, but in how to turn, how to control, how to catch the joy of skiing, because you have the feeling of skiing. ... You saw rhythm take the place of jerk. You saw body swing replace a spill. You saw class after class of juvenile skiers catch on. They began to understand what controlled skiing, one of these days, will do for them." 

Ski school advisers Margaret Odell of Queen Anne and Harry Cunningham of Garfield were delighted with the instruction. Odell said:

"We're glad to see skiing taught to them so sanely and effectively. ... Another thing, the presence of the Milwaukee's special agents on the train as supervisors is an excellent idea. That is a remarkably well-controlled ski special."   

By March 1939, Syverson said, "we've developed some skiers."  At the Queen Anne, Broadway, and Garfield day at the Bowl, a queen was elected. Garfield skiers led the day's competition, including jumping events held on a "hastily constructed snow-hill."   After the morning's class, the skiers demanded more, so Max Sarchett took the "top-notchers on a hill-climbing tour."  All who went up came down, although they had to worry about sunburn from the blazing sun. There were "sunburned lads and lassies flitting from one end of the ski special to the other on the jaunt home."  Margaret Odell was shown with six trophy cups for the winners of the  races that celebrated the end of the ski season.

It was a light-hearted day at the Bowl, with the instructors who had been working with the nearly 500 Times School skiers helping show them how to run their first slalom race, and attempting to "prove" it, which means running it at high speed outside of the competition itself and frequently falling. 

Ski Jumping

The following season, on January 21, 1940, "Kuay day" honored Queen Anne High School students. Some 576 students had signed up for ski lessons, and each week a different school took charge of organizing the activities. 200 Queen Anne students were in charge "under the guidance of Miss Margaret Odell, Kuay Ski Club adviser." An electronic phonograph provided music on the train trip to and from the Pass, creating "infectious swing-time dancing and singing aboard the train that set the tempo for the day." The student in charge of the phonograph described the scene on the train: 

"I can't keep up with 'em, he declared. Too many requests, not enough 'hot' records. They love to ski and they love to dance in their ski clothes. I'll bet I've played 'Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny' fifty times. That's the best thing about this trip to the Bowl; you not only have the fun learning to ski, but you have fun on the train too." 

For the 1940 ski season, a giant ski-jump was built at the Ski Bowl for the jumping events of the National Four-Way Ski Championships in March. A new lift was built to hoist skiers to the top of the jump. The Class A hill had a greater-than-200-foot capacity, and Class B and C hills were constructed as well. The Milwaukee Road spent $15,000 on the big hill, designed by one of the most accomplished jumping hill designers.  

The National Four-Way Championship was held between March 13 and 17, with events split between three different areas. Downhill and slalom races were held on Mount Baker; the cross-country race was held on Snoqualmie Pass; and the jumping competition at the Ski Bowl. Skiers from all over the country came to compete. 

The biggest event was the jumping competition. Alf Engen (1909-1997), a ski instructor at Sun Valley, faced off against Torger Tokle (1920-1945) on the big jump. Both men were born in Norway, although some contemporary newspaper accounts described Engen as Austrian. Tokle was looking for revenge after Engen beat him in the National Jumping Championships at Berlin, N.H.  

Sigurd Hall of the Seattle Ski Club won the downhill race at Mount Baker. Engen was third in the downhill, but won the slalom, beating two dozen racers. The skiers left Mount Baker for Snoqualmie Pass where the cross-country and jumping events were held. 

Special trains took spectators to the Pass, leaving every half hour beginning at 8:30 a.m., and huge crowds were expected. Expectations were high that one of the jumpers would beat the national  record of 257 feet set that year at a meet in Wisconsin. Twenty competed on the Class A jump on the Bowl's Olympian Hill. Others competed on the Class B jump. The jumping event overshadowed the cross-country competition, a rough 11 mile course in which Engen finished fourth.  

The Seattle Times published a picture of Tokle jumping over the Ski Bowl, with a headline saying "Torger Tokle Rides out of the World." Tokle had longer jumps than did Engen, but Engen was the winner as Tokle "failed to display the form" shown by Engen. In ski jumping, points are awarded for form as well as distance. Engen, "the stocky skiman from Sun Valley went off with the works," winning the overall title in the Four-Way Competition. "The newsreel boys expressed disappointment that they only had one spill to film in the jumping event, as only the first jumper fell, and the rest rode out their leaps." 

The Ski Bowl ended the 1940 season on March 27, with only 18 inches of snow remaining. 

Fourth Season

The Bowl opened its fourth season on  January 4, 1941. Fare for the ski train was reduced to $1.25 for adults, and $1 for students. One train left Seattle at 8:30 a.m., returning at 5:00 p.m. "You can enjoy endless thrills and healthful fun at the beautiful snow fields at the Milwaukee Road's popular Milwaukee Ski Bowl. With its facilities improved every year, the Ski Bowl is better and more popular than ever." The Seattle Times ski lessons were offered again under the supervision of Ken Syverson. The Pacific Northwest Ski Association offered ski jumping lessons to juniors at the new ski jump at the Ski Bowl.

On January 12, the Ski Bowl hosted a giant slalom race for 75 of the best skiers in Washington and Oregon. The race was nearly a mile long, and was watched by 1,249 spectators who rode two "specials" to the Ski Bowl. Scott Osborn, "veteran Northwest ski racer," won the race by four seconds.  

Ski jumping was the passion in 1941. The first jumping competition was at Leavenworth in February, where Tokle had a "mighty leap of 273 feet," setting a new North American record.  

Excitement was great for the National Jumping Championships at the Ski Bowl on March 3. Tokle's new record  made him a favorite, but the competition was tough. Last year's winner, Alf Engen, had made a jump of 267 feet in Michigan, which would have set the record but for Torkle's jump at Leavenworth.  

On March 3, Tokle, "the human sky rocket from New York," jumped 288 feet, setting another North American record in front of an excited crowd of 5,500 fans. Engen was second, and Arthur Devlin of Lake Placid was third. Tokle said that he wanted to come back next year, and if the takeoff was moved back 30 feet, he could jump 325 feet.  

World War II and After 

The United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, changing everything in the country, although it took some time for the full effects of the war to be felt. 

The 1942 ski season started as planned at the Milwaukee Bowl. The Ski Bowl opened on January 3, and 800 boarded the trains on January 10, for Garfield day. Skiers who went to the Bowl found new improvements, including work done on the surface of the Bowl to smooth out its runs. Times ski lessons were given another year and Olav Ulland offered a junior jumping program. But some changes had to be made. Limits were placed on ski trains to comply with wartime demands, so there was only one train per day going to the Bowl, and it was limited to 70 skiers. A special "defense" ski evening ski event was held for Boeing and shipyard workers in late January.  

The Seattle Ski Club hosted a jumping competition at the Ski Bowl with the proceeds going to the Red Cross War Fund. Torger Tokle, "the human airplane," competed along with 20 other of the West Coast's best jumpers. Tokle won the event but did not set a new record. He thought a 300 foot jump was possible given the existing setup.  

March 27 was the final weekend  for the 1942 season.

Conditions had changed by the winter of 1942-1943. The Milwaukee Road decided not to operate the ski train, because the Office of Defense Transportation ordered that no sports specials could run for the duration of the war, and Times ski lessons were canceled. In December 1942, the Milwaukee Road shut down the Ski Bowl and committed its resources to the war effort. 

Skiing started again after World War II ended. In 1945, lights for night skiing were installed at the Snoqualmie Summit ski area. In 1946, the Milwaukee Road resumed operations of the Ski Bowl, changing the name from "Snoqualmie Ski Bowl" to "Milwaukee Ski Bowl" to eliminate confusion with the Snoqualmie Summit ski area. The first high-capacity ski lift on Snoqualmie Pass was installed at the Ski Bowl in 1946, a surface lift that could carry 1,440 skiers per hour.

In March 1947 the Milwaukee Ski Bowl hosted tryouts for the jumping events of the 1948 Olympic Games to be held at St. Moritz, Switzerland. The event was sponsored by the Seattle Ski Club. Jumpers from Norway and Sweden participated in exhibitions while the U.S. Olympic team was selected. The Milwaukee Road put on special snow trains to carry 6,000 spectators to the event.

Arnold Kongsgarrd, "the spring-legged Norwegian flyer who left a German concentration camp a short two winters ago, boomed 294 feet in an exhibition jump," exceeding by six feet the American record of the late Torger Tokle (who was killed in 1945 while serving in Italy with a U.S. Army ski patrol). This was the longest jump ever made on the giant Olympian Hill. The jump was not official, however, because it was not made during a competition.

Six jumpers were selected to the U.S. Olympic team after the event -- the first five finishers, plus Art Devlin who had injured his knee at the Leavenworth tournament but who earned his berth "with flossy jumping" at other events. The Olympic downhill, slalom, cross-country, and classic-combined teams were selected the prior week at Sun Valley. After the competition, the jumpers left for Sun Valley for two weeks of intensive training. Alf Engen, the co-coach of the jumping team, strapped on his jumping skis to try the hill for the first time since the war, and "the old master" flew 260 feet.

The year 1948 was a busy one for Snoqualmie Pass. The Milwaukee Ski Bowl hosted the National Jumping Championships in early March. The winner received the Torger Tokle Memorial Trophy, which was the "most coveted ski trophy in the nation."  The trophy was given by the Norway Ski Club of New York to the National Ski Association. It was 39 inches high, carved in sterling silver, and valued at $1,200. The event, which was postponed one day because of one of the worst snowstorms of the winter, was viewed by 5,000 spectators. Arne Ulland, a visiting Norwegian flyer, topped one of the best fields of American skiing to win the National Championship with a 280 foot jump.

Also in 1948, a new ski area, Ski Acres, opened one mile east of the Snoqualmie Summit, which had the first chairlift on the Pass. The Mountaineers built a lodge on land between the Ski Acres and Summit ski areas to replace their earlier building, which was lost to fire during World War II. 

On December 2, 1949, tragedy struck as the Milwaukee Ski Bowl Lodge caught fire and burned to the ground. The only thing left standing was the fireplace, where "thousands of young enthusiasts once warmed themselves."  The Milwaukee Road had spent as much as $30,000 the prior summer to prepare a new ski run and cut new trails, to make the bowl the "best all around ski center in the state."   

The railroad adopted a temporary solution for the 1950 season. A temporary building was built with rest rooms, first aid, and space for the ski patrol. A new spur line was constructed, on which several train cars were located for use as a kitchen and warming hut to accommodate the 200 skiers taking Times ski lessons.  

After the 1950 season, the Milwaukee Ski Bowl closed for good as the railroad decided not to rebuild the lodge and to get out of the ski resort business. The Ski Bowl remained closed until 1959, when the Hyak Ski Area opened in its location. Hyak never generated the same excitement as did the Ski Bowl, and it was overshadowed by the ski areas at the Snoqualmie Summit, Ski Acres, and Alpental.


The Seattle Times coverage of the Ski Bowl from 1937 through 1950, accessed via The Seattle Times Historical Archives (1900-1984) digital database.  All quotations are from The Seattle Times.

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