Skiing in the Washington Cascades, Part 1: 1913-1937

  • By John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin
  • Posted 1/30/2013
  • Essay 10312
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This is the first of a two-part essay on the early history of skiing in Washington's Cascade Mountains, covering the period from the start of organized skiing in the region through 1937. It is based in large part on contemporary articles from The Seattle Times, which give a unique insight into skiing in the 1930s, and show how important the sport was to the local community. There were many articles about skiing, ski club events, college ski races, and ski competitions in the Northwest, California, Sun Valley, the eastern U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. National championship ski tournaments were held in the Northwest, and local skiers competed against the best international skiers. Every weekend, snow conditions were reported for local areas such as Mount Baker, Paradise Valley (Mount Rainier), Snoqualmie Ski Bowl, the Summit (Snoqualmie Pass), Chinook Pass, and Martin (a stop on the Northern Pacific line near Stampede Pass). This two-part People's History was written by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin. They are former members of the Sahalie Ski Club on Snoqualmie Pass, and their mother, Margaret Odell (1916-2001), was part of Seattle's early ski scene in the late 1930s.

The Beginnings 

Organized skiing in Washington's Cascade Mountains dates back to the first few decades of the 1900s, begun by The Mountaineers club and centered around private ski clubs. The Mountaineers (founded in 1906) began skiing at Paradise on Mount Rainier in the winter of 1913-1914, during the Winter Outing, for many years an annual event in Mount Rainier National Park. In 1914, The Mountaineers built a lodge just west of Snoqualmie Summit above Rockdale, the stop on the Milwaukee Railroad at the western end of its tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass, 500 feet above the road bed. The lodge operated year-round, devoted to climbing in summer and skiing in winter; accommodated 70 people; and had a cook and caretaker. Beginning in 1923, the club sponsored yearly cross-country skiing contests for men and women at the pass.

In 1921, the Cle Elum Ski Club (originally called the Summit Ski Club) was formed by local residents, led by John "Syke" Bresko (1895-1987). It opened the first organized ski area west of Denver, "a skiers paradise" that attracted between 100 and 400 locals every weekend. The Cle Elum club sponsored ski races, jumping competitions, and special contests. The club leased 40 acres of land on the ridge two miles north of town from the Northern Pacific Railroad at a nominal rate, and built ski jumps and a shelter in 1923, a two-story lodge in 1926, and a big ski jump in 1931 at the cost of $5,000. From 1924 to 1933, the Cle Elum Ski Club held annual jumping tournaments that attracted competitors from all over the Northwest, with Northern Pacific trains providing access. In 1931, more than 8,000 spectators attended. For the 1932 tournament, the Northern Pacific allowed spectators to ride in a tramway through a shaft in one of its coal mines to get near the ski jump. John Elvrum of Portland had the longest jump at the tournament, but fell, and Ole Tverdal of Seattle won the event. Hjalmar Hvam won the combined title for jumping and cross-country. 

The Cle Elum Ski Club's 1933 tournament was its last, although club members continued to compete against other clubs until 1936. Competition had increased as new ski clubs formed, and the difficulty in getting from Cle Elum to the jump turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle. Spectators could only be transported to within an arduous 30 to 40 minute uphill walk to the course. "The unwillingness of spectators to make the hard trek to the Summit was the reason the ski club abandoned the hill," according to the Cle Elum newspaper. In 1934, the Cle Elum Ski Club had plans to build a new ski area nearer to town so spectators could drive to the jump, which would be serviced by an aerial tram. The Northern Pacific expressed interest in installing the tram and developing the new ski area. However, the Depression interfered and the ski area was never built, in spite of a federal Depression stimulus grant that had been obtained. In 1944, a fire on the ridge between Cle Elum and the Teanaway destroyed the last remnants of the ski jump and club facilities. 

More Clubs 

The Leavenworth Winter Sports Club began in 1928 and became one of the premier sites for competitive jumping. The area could be reached from Seattle on Great Northern trains. In 1930, the club opened a hill for downhill skiing. Bakke Hill was built up in 1933, and its critical point of 73 meters made it one of the largest ski jumps in the country. It was later enlarged several times and became one of the best known ski jumps in the western United States. The area hosted U.S. jumping championships in 1941, 1959, 1967, 1974, and 1978.

In 1928, The Mountaineers built the Meany Ski Hut five minutes from Martin, a stop on the Northern Pacific Railroad near Stampede Pass, three miles by road from Sunset Highway just below Lake Keechelus. The hut accommodated 52 people and was used just for skiing. In 1929, the club began its first annual downhill and slalom races, which were the first on Snoqualmie Pass, and began giving ski instruction and tests based on British Ski Tests. The club marked many miles of cross-country ski trails throughout Snoqualmie Pass, including a 20-mile trail between its lodge and ski hut. In 1930 the club began an annual 20-mile Club Patrol Race along the crest of the Cascades from the lodge to the ski hut. Three-man patrols competed in the event, which was based on military patrol races common in Europe, but was the only one in the Northwest and probably the only one in the United States. The race was opened to other clubs in 1936.

In 1929, skiing increased on Snoqualmie Pass due to the efforts of Norwegian ski jumpers who founded the Seattle Ski Club. They used an abandoned construction camp as a base and built a ski jump at Beaver Lake Hill, now part of Snoqualmie Pass Ski Area. Skiers hiked up the hill using skins to go off the jump. Beginning in 1930, the club held annual jumping competitions organized by Olav Ulland that, along with tournaments at Leavenworth and Cle Elum, attracted national caliber competitors. Its 1931 tournament was a tryout for the 1932 Olympic Games at Lake Placid, New York, and the Milwaukee Road provided a special train to the event. The club built a four-story lodge at the Summit at the old Milwaukee Road Laconia rail stop in 1931.

In 1930, the Pacific Northwest Ski Association (PNSA) was organized by six ski clubs -- the Cle Elum Ski Club, the Seattle Ski Club, the Leavenworth Ski Club, the Bend (Oregon) Skyliners, the Hood River Ski Club and the Cascade Ski Club of Portland -- to promote skiing and ski competitions in the Northwest. The association established standards and testing for ski instructors and became the regional organization for the National Ski Association, promoting sanctioned ski competitions.

Competitions and Tournaments 

The winter of 1931 was an exciting one for area skiers as three major local jumping competitions were held that winter, at Leavenworth, Cle Elum, and on Snoqualmie Summit. The Second Annual Seattle Ski Club tournament at Snoqualmie Pass in 1931 doubled as the Northwest tryouts for the 1932 Olympic Games at Lake Placid, New York. Seventy skiers competed in cross-country skiing and jumping. A crowd of 10,000 watched John Elvrum of Portland win the event.

In 1931, the Sahalie Ski Club (originally called the Commonwealth Ski Club) built a lodge on what is now the Alpental Road. The Washington Alpine Club (founded in 1916) built a lodge near Sahalie's lodge in 1932. More ski clubs formed in the 1930s, all over the Northwest. They held ski competitions against each other on many weekends.

At the Leavenworth tournament in 1933, Tom Mobraaten of Vancouver, B.C., holder of the Pacific Northwest Class A combined jumping and racing ski championship, "defeated a magnificent crowd," jumping 183 and 192 feet, the longest in the U.S. that year. A winter storm interfered with the Cle Elum tournament. "The biggest ski hill in the United States drew only 2,500 spectators in near blizzard conditions." The big takeoff was judged too dangerous, so a makeshift takeoff was constructed on the hillside. This was the last tournament held at Cle Elum.

In 1933, the Seattle Parks Department obtained a permit from the Forest Service to establish a ski area at Snoqualmie Pass, and a crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cleared the hill. In 1934 at the old Milwaukee Railroad stop of Laconia at Snoqualmie Summit, the City opened the Municipal Park Ski Area, which attracted legions of local skiers in the 1930s. Also in 1934, Ray Anderson and Ben Thomson formed a partnership to make ski equipment in Seattle, producing A & T skis.

The University of Washington Ski Club was formed in 1934, and it joined the Pacific Northwest Ski Association in 1936 so it could enter ski competitions. The Washington Ski Club formed the same year to focus on competitive ski racing, attracting members from other ski clubs and in the spring of 1935 winning the rights to host the National Downhill and Slalom Championships and Olympic Trials at Paradise. The club sponsored ski races until World War II.

The Seattle Ski Club and Leavenworth Winter Sports Club continued to sponsor yearly jumping tournaments. The Seattle Ski Club's Fourth Annual Jumping Championships were held at Snoqualmie Summit in early February 1934. The event included cross-country races and the first slalom race sanctioned by the Pacific Northwest Ski Association, in addition to jumping, attracting more than 5,000 cars to the pass. The winner skied on laminated skis with steel edges, the latest technology. Leavenworth's Fourth Annual Pacific Northwest Championship was held on February 10 and 11, 1934, at "the world's most perfect hill," where one could "drive all the way." On the "long and steep and dangerous" jumping hill, John Elvrum of Portland (unofficial holder of the American distance jumping championship and runner up in the 1932 national jumping championship) won with jumps of 200 and 208 feet. Tom Mobraaten of Vancouver, B.C., who won the cross-country race in Wenatchee the day before in front of 5,000 spectators, won the combined title in the first Apple Box Tournament.

That weekend was a typically busy one for Northwest skiers. In addition to the Leavenworth event, there was the weekly slalom race at Paradise Valley on Mount Rainier, and the Seattle Ski Club's slalom race at Beaver Lake on Snoqualmie Pass. Seattle Park Department ski lessons were going on at the municipal Ski Park and the Fifth Annual Mountaineers' slalom and downhill race was held at Martin.

In April 1934, the first Silver Skis race on Mount Rainier was run. It became one of the classic races in the Northwest. The race began at Camp Muir at 10,000 feet with a mass start where all the competitors began at the same time, and the winner was the first racer down to the finish line at Paradise Lodge at 5,400 feet. Local skier Don Fraser won the first race in a time of 10 minutes and 49 seconds, finishing just inches ahead of Carleton Wiegel, with 64 racers starting and 43 finishing. The race, which was held from 1934 to 1942 and after the war from 1946 to 1948, attracted serious competitors from all over the country.

Olympic Trials 

In October 1934, Pacific Northwest Ski Association authorized the Washington Ski Club to bid for the 1935 National Championship Alpine Races and Olympic Trials to be held at Paradise Valley on Mount Rainier. This was a significant step for the PNSA, whose activities had been limited to jumping and cross-country racing, recognizing the "tremendous growth in the popularity of slalom and downhill racing ... Slalom and downhill racing are entitled to equal recognition with jumping and cross-country, and this organization cannot be caught napping." The association's bylaws and constitution were amended to recognize the alpine skiing events, which were added to the Pacific Northwest Championships with a four-way combination championship to be held the following year, with each sport weighted equally. Mount Rainier's 1.75-mile-long downhill course dropped 3,280 feet, with an average grade of 33 percent. Plans were made for a cable railway and a hotel at the start of the race course. The course was perfectly suited for the "high speed turn," the latest development in skiing perfected by Dick Durrance, Dartmouth College's outstanding downhill and slalom skier. According to The Seattle Times of December 23, 1934:

"It is especially adapted for downhill and slalom racing, because with it there is less sidewise sliding or braking effect than in other turns, and less tiring to the legs. The 'high speed turn' is not a new or separate technique, but is a further development of the technique which New England skiers have been learning the last six years. It may be spoken of as the next development after the mastery of the stem-christiana. It is recommended that the skier does not try to learn the high-speed turn before mastering the stem-christiana. A skier should first acquire control, then comes confidence, and with confidence comes speed. And it is for speed that this turn surpasses all others. One must learn the other turns including the various forms of christiana as a basis on which to develop the high-speed turn."

On April 13 and 14, 1935, the U.S. National Championships and Olympic Trials in downhill and slalom racing were held at Paradise, hosted by the Washington Ski Club, a major event in Northwest skiing history. Roscoe "Torchy" Torrence was the Executive Chairman of the event, with a $10,000 budget contributed by local sponsors. There were 59 entrants, eight from the East, one from the Middle West, 13 from the Rocky Mountains, 12 from California, 14 from the Pacific Northwest; 10 from Canada, and one from Austria. PNSA-sponsored racers from the Northwest included Hjalmar Hvam of the Cascade Ski Club of Portland; Washington Ski Club members Don Fraser, Carleton Wiegel, Ken Syverson, Hans Grage, and Darroch Crookes; John Woodward of the U.W. Ski Team; and Emil Cahen of the Seattle Ski Club. Because the event was in a national park, admission could not be charged but a 50-cent donation from spectators was requested, and 7,000 attended the event.

The event's three best U.S. skiers were Dick Durrance of Dartmouth, who was first of all U.S. competitors; E. D. "Ed" Hunter Jr. of Dartmouth, third in the combined competition; and Robert Livermore Jr. from the Ski Club Hochgebirge of Boston, who placed second in the combined competition. Hannes Schroll, an Austrian teaching at Yosemite, won the event's slalom, downhill, and combined championships, using the European skiing technique that "beats American methods all to pieces." Schroll had longer poles and skis, with bindings set in the middle, compared to short poles and skis with bindings set back of the center of the skis that Durrance used. Where Durrance "clipped close to flags in the slalom race with only a hip wiggle or a tempo turn to miss them, Scholl swung wide," and skied in a "vorlage" position, with legs fairly straight, arms flung back and up, and ski poles held high. He constantly shifted weight, "pumping rapidly -- getting air under his skis, eliminating friction, picking up speed." The Washington Olympic Committee was complimented on the tournament, which was a financial success.

New Facilities 

Several new facilities were constructed in 1935. The Seattle Ski Club built a new lodge close to the highway near Snoqualmie Summit, with $25,000 of contributed labor. The Forest Service built a "warming hut" close to Leavenworth's big jump, with restrooms, showers, a lunch stand, a large lounge with a nine-foot fireplace, and caretaker's facilities. At Mount Baker, the Forest Service built a large stone shelter on the course, where competitors could warm up and eat. Another shelter was built at McClure's Rock in Paradise Valley on Mount Rainier to provide protection for high-altitude skiers.

The 1936 Winter Olympics held at Garmisch, Germany, featured Alpine skiing for the first time with a combined event (downhill and slalom), along with Nordic events (cross-country, Nordic combined, and jumping). Men and women competed in the Alpine events, although only men were allowed in the Nordic events. Northwest skiers Don Fraser and Darroch Crookes of the Washington Ski Club were on the U.S. team. Dick Durrance, who learned to ski in Garmisch in the early 1930s, was the highest placing U.S. skier, coming in 10th. There were 14 women on the U.S. team. Germans took gold in the men's and women's events. The U.S. team placed eight overall, winning four medals.

In December 1936, the Union Pacific Railroad opened its $1,250,000 Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. The country's first destination ski resort, where the chair lift was invented, Sun Valley changed U.S. skiing forever. The resort attracted skiers from all over the world, including Hollywood movie stars and Seattle-area residents, giving the resort a high profile. The Seattle Times of November 18, 1936, announced: "Sun Valley was born -- a fashionable ski resort ... offering a luxurious, ultra-modern hotel with accommodations for some 200 guests; sun-bathing in roofless ice igloos; mid-winter swimming in outdoor swimming pools fed by natural hot springs; ski-tows to raise skiers 1,470 feet in elevation on a 6,500-foot-long hoist; the other which gives the skier 650 feet of elevation above the valley level." Sun Valley hired a number of Austrian ski team members who learned to ski under Hannes Schneider, who developed the "Arlberg Method" in the early 1930s. Seattle newspapers regularly reported on races at Sun Valley and on the large number of local skiers traveling there by train to ski.

In 1937, Sun Valley ski instructor Otto Lang started the first official Hannes Schneider Ski School on Mount Rainier, bringing the latest ski techniques to the Northwest. The Seattle Times reported that on January 1937, Lang, "the young assistant to Hannes Schneider of St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria," came down from Mount Rainier to meet with his ski instruction class in Seattle.

Impressive Statistics 

Events held on January 16 and 17, 1937, were typical of those held virtually every weekend. The Yakima Winter Sports Club (formed in 1936) celebrated the opening of the Yakima Ski Bowl, 40 miles from Yakima on the American River near Chinook Pass. Opening-day races attracted 33 skiers from Seattle and Tacoma: 14 from Seattle Ski Club, 10 from the Washington Ski Club, five from the University of Washington, and four from The Mountaineers, competing in jumping, downhill, and slalom, including Don Fraser and Darroch Crookes of Seattle, members of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. More than 5,000 spectators attended. The Penguin Ski Club (formed in 1935 on Chinook Pass) met the Sahalie Ski Club at Tipsoo Lake on Chinook Pass the following weekend.

In March 1937, there was a major competition at Sun Valley, Idaho, open to ski instructors and amateurs, which attracted "the greatest concentration of brilliant skiers the nation has ever seen." The Seattle Times had a picture of seven competitors in Seattle waiting to catch the train to Sun Valley, captioned "National Meet Attracts Fine Field of Stars." Sun Valley was 26 hours from Seattle by train, and 20 hours by car, but according to the paper, "it might as well be in Seattle's back yard yesterday as skiing greats of Europe and North America poured into town and out again, en route to the luxurious winter resort and the Saturday-Sunday national championships in downhill and slalom racing so suddenly awarded to the Sun Valley Ski Club."

In October 1937, the Pacific Northwest Ski Association submitted a bid to host the National Championships and Olympic Trials in four events -- jumping, cross-country, downhill, and slalom racing -- in the spring of 1939 or sometime in 1940. The Seattle Ski Club and Leavenworth Winter Sports Club wanted to bid for the National Jumping Championships. Thirty CCC members built a new $10,000 ski hut at Stevens Pass owned by the Forest Service.

The Seattle Times of November 11, 1937, gave impressive statistics about the number of skiers who skied at local areas. More than 186,000 people visited national forests in Washington and Oregon during the 1936-1937 season, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Mount Hood had the highest number of winter visitors, attracting 58,888. Snoqualmie National Forest was second with 46,070 visitors. Mount Baker Forest was third with 34,850, and Wenatchee National Forest had 18,535 winter visitors. Ski developments at Snoqualmie Pass, Heather Meadows, and Leavenworth attracted much of the attendance in Washington's national forests. Mount Baker, with three years of ski development, reported that nearly 40,000 people visited the past year. The lodge there had burned in 1931, and if there were overnight accommodations, Mount Baker "would be one of the world's greatest ski areas."

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