Skiing in the Washington Cascades, Part 2: 1938-1949

  • By John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin
  • Posted 2/07/2013
  • Essay 10314
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This is the second of a two-part essay on the early history of skiing in Washington's Cascade Mountains. This People's History was written by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin, who are both former members of the Sahalie Ski Club on Snoqualmie Pass. The authors' mother, Margaret Odell (1916-2001), was advisor to the Queen Anne Ski Club and from 1938 through 1941 took her students by train to the Ski Bowl every weekend. 

An Important Year 

The year 1938 was an important one for Northwest skiing. Rope tows were installed at Snoqualmie Summit, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier, providing an alternative to walking up the hills. The Municipal Ski Area installed a 1,000-foot rope tow to serve the pie-shaped wedge clearing west of the Seattle Ski Club, with rates of 50 cents, 75 cents, and $1. "Skiers could get downhill training without the long uphill climbs and sudden, weary-legged returns."

Most importantly in 1938, the Milwaukee Railroad opened the Snoqualmie Ski Bowl (later renamed Milwaukee Ski Bowl) at its Hyak stop at the east end of its tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass, offering access by train from downtown Seattle in two hours. The Ski Bowl, which had the first J-bar ski lift in the Northwest and lighted slopes for night skiing, dramatically changed Seattle's ski scene. The Ski Bowl had 200 mostly wooded acres, with cleared ski runs from the old Milwaukee grade crossing down to the flat area where a two-story, 24-by-94-foot ski cabin was built.

Two special trains left Seattle on the weekends with "reserved" coaches where every skier had a seat, a baggage car equipped with ski checking racks and waxing tables (with hot irons), and a recreation car where an orchestra played so there was dancing, going and coming. At the Ski Bowl, skiers went through a covered tunnel into the two-story ski hut. The Ski Bowl attracted young skiers, "since rail transportation took a burden off parents' hearts -- no skidding into ditches, and there will be a definite time for arrival home." Ski Bowl ads said, "Let the Engineer Do the Driving." The Seattle Times offered free ski lessons for students, led by Ken Syverson, in which thousands learned controlled skiing.

A Wide Array of Skiing 

Seattle newspapers regularly reported on a wide array of skiing activities, as seen in one day's edition of The Seattle Times in January 1938. The Yakima Winter Sports Club Tournament was held at its American River center, featuring jumping, and downhill and slalom racing. Tacoma Day at Paradise Valley was held a week later, "now an institution at Mount Rainier." Juniors were competing at the new hill behind the Seattle Ski Club cabin at the Summit, in jumping and cross-country. The Sahalie, Enumclaw, and Ellensburg ski clubs held a slalom competition at Cayuse Pass. A jumping tournament was held by the Wandermere Ski Club in Spokane.

The Leavenworth tournament was held on February 6, 1938, where the ski jump was the "greatest in the Pacific Northwest." More than 5,000 spectators watched Olav Ulland's brother Sigurd win the event, beating Birger Ruud, the world champion, as well as his "famed" brother. Three special Great Northern trains took 1,500 spectators from Seattle and Everett to the tournament. Record crowds skied over the Washington's Birthday weekend in 1938. At Paradise, 2,287 skiers showed up; 546 were on one ski train to the Snoqualmie Ski Bowl; 1,300 skied at Cayuse Pass and 1,200 at Mount Baker. Ski competitions were held at Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and the Ski Bowl. In March 1938, at the Seattle Ski Club Tournament on Snoqualmie Pass, Ruud (the 1937 world champion and Olympic title holder in 1932 and 1936) won the jumping championship, beating fellow Norwegian Olav Ulland. The same weekend, three Seattle skiers placed high in the National downhill and slalom championship at Stowe, Vermont: Don Amick and Don Fraser of the Washington Ski Club, finished eighth and tenth, and Peter Garrett of Yale, who learned to ski at the Seattle Ski Club, finished sixth in the combined.

The Sun Valley Open was one of the major events of 1938, since it would determine who were the best downhill and slalom skiers in the country. Fifty-four competitors came from all over the world for what amounted to the open downhill racing championship of the United States. The Pacific Northwest Ski Association (PNSA) sent five skiers: Don Fraser, Northwest combined champion; Don Amick, Northwest slalom champion; and representatives from the University of Washington, the Penguin Ski Club, and the Cascade Ski Club. Ken Syverson raced as an amateur. Women entrants included Grace Carter Lindley (a University of Washington skier who was on the 1936 U.S. Olympic squad), Gretchen Kunigk (who later married Don Fraser and won gold medals in the Olympics), Virginia Bowden from the University of Washington, and others. Ulrich Beutter from Germany won the Open, and American favorite Dick Durrance of Dartmouth was second. Don Fraser took ninth. Grace Lindley won the women's race, Virginia Bowden was second, and Gretchen Kunigk third. After the race, Beutter headed for Washington to ski in the Silver Skis competition on Mount Rainier.

On March 17, 1938, the Ski Bowl closed for the year, after being open for 11 weekends and hosting 11,000 skiers transported by the railroad. The next weekend saw downhill and slalom competition at Mount Hood; the Silver Skis downhill on Mount Rainier took place later in the month with competitors from Sun Valley, Australia, Yosemite, and Austria. Don Fraser won the 1938 Silver Skis race, beating Hannes Schroll, the Austrian winner of the 1935 National Championship race. Fraser's future wife, Gretchen Kunigk, won the women's trophy.

Wintertime Favorite 

The Seattle Times of July 24, 1938, said that skiing had become Seattle's favorite wintertime sport, featuring areas on two mountain ranges, with the manufacture and selling of ski equipment becoming a $3 million industry:

"Within a comfortable four hours distance of a half-dozen of the outstanding ski terrains in the entire nation, Seattle has become the hub of intense activity through the winter months. Every weekend finds 20,000 or more skiers turning to the glistening snowfields of the Cascades, Olympics, to Mountain Rainier and Mount Baker ... . In the Cascades east of Seattle, ski-fans find opportunity at Snoqualmie Pass, Naches Pass, and a half-dozen other points. Newest of the areas is the Snoqualmie Ski Bowl, accessible by ski trains from Seattle and Tacoma."

Seeing the success of Union Pacific's Sun Valley resort, the Northern Pacific Railroad planned on developing its own ski area at Martin, a train stop near Stampede Pass. Northern Pacific trains had dropped off skiers there for a number of years, and a large hotel was planned for the site for the 1939-1940 season, to accommodate 200 to 250 overnight guests. Unfortunately for Northwest skiers, the resort was never built.

Improvements were made at several areas for the 1939 season. At the Ski Bowl, a new wing was built on the ski lodge, doubling its size, and the hill was "swept clean of logs and bumps" to provide nearly a mile of skiing. The two-story addition converted the lounge into a dining room, contained a new larger lounge, and a verandah for viewing skiers in comfort. The Mountaineers widened the lane at the Meany Ski Hut at Martin, and installed a 330-foot rope tow up the big ski trail. Jim Parker and Chauncey Griggs, who had previously installed rope tows at Snoqualmie Summit, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier, created a portable rope tow with a 1,200-foot rope run by a 12-horsepower motor. Weighing 200 pounds, it could be transported by skis or toboggan nearly anywhere, and could be used to train ski racers, transporting them up the hills for no charge, so they could get in the 25,000 to 40,000 vertical feet of skiing per day needed to become international competitors. The National Park Service was concerned, saying it couldn't allow an elegant landscape to be cluttered up with long stretches of vibrating rope tugging skiers up to where they may ski down.

Mount Rainier planned a big season of events for 1939. High school ski clubs organized for the upcoming season at the Ski Bowl, led by the Bulldog Ski Club from Garfield, the perennial champions of the prep ski circuit. The Bulldog Ski Club was the oldest and largest prep club with more than 200 members, led by advisor H. B. Cunningham. Since ski teams were not sanctioned by the School Board, they had to use the names of their mascots and not the schools. The high school tournament would be held at the Snoqualmie Ski Bowl instead of at the Summit as in past years.

On January 16, 1939, The Seattle Times reported "Ski Army Active: 3,215 Pour into Paradise." Local skiers went to all established areas: There were 656 carloads of skiers at Cayuse Pass, containing around 2,500 skiers. The Sahalie Ski Club team beat the Renton Winter Sports Club in a downhill-slalom competition at the Summit.

1940 -- National Championships 

For 1940, the jumping hill at Leavenworth had been "made even better" over the summer of 1939 by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers, who raised the knoll and dropped the transition. That year the Leavenworth tournament pitted Sigurd Ulland, the 1938 national amateur jumping champion who set a new mark of 248 feet at Leavenworth in 1939, against Alf Engen (1909-1997), of Sun Valley, who jumped 251 feet the same day. Ulland moved to Leavenworth in 1940 and was in charge of maintenance of its "great jumping hill." Engen won the Leavenworth event on February 4, 1940, jumping 252 feet, with Tom Mobraaton of Kamloops, B.C. (former Northwest champion) second and Ulland third. The 1940 Pacific Northwest Ski Association championships in slalom and downhill were held at Yakima on February 10 and 11, 1940. Bill Redlin (skiing for the Washington Ski Club) won the men's combined championship, and Gretchen Kunigk Fraser (originally of the Washington Ski Club, Tacoma, but skiing for the Sun Valley Ski Club) won the combined women's championship after victories in both the downhill and slalom. Sigurd Ulland of the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club won the jumping event.

The National Four-Way Championships were held in the Northwest between March 13 and 17, 1940, and the events were split among three areas. Downhill and slalom races were held on Mount Baker, the cross-country race was held on Snoqualmie Pass, and the jumping competition was held at the Ski Bowl, where the Milwaukee Road built a giant ski jump in the fall of 1939, at a cost of $15,000, for use as the site of the jumping events. A lift was built to carry skiers to the top of Rocky Point, the big hill behind the Bowl, and 40 acres were cleared. The Class A hill was designed to have more than a 200-foot capacity, and Class B and C hills were constructed as well.

Skiers from all over the country came to the Northwest to compete in the championships. Dick Durrance, one of the favorites to win the competition, withdrew citing a conflict with his job at the Sun Valley Ski resort, disappointing the local crowds. Sigurd Hall of the Seattle Ski Club won the downhill race at Mount Baker. Alf Engen came in third in the downhill, but won the slalom by beating two dozen racers in the 2,000-vertical-foot race. In the jumping event, Torger Tokle (1920-1945), a Norwegian living in New York, had longer jumps than Engen, but Engen won as Tokle "failed to display the form" shown by Engen. Engen won the overall title in the Four-Way Competition. Engen's brother Sverre was second, Sig Hall of the Seattle Ski Club placed third, and Hjalmar Hvan of the Cascade Ski Club came in fourth.

In 1940, the Seattle Parks Department got out of the ski business after Seattle residents concluded that Snoqualmie Pass was too far away for a city park. The Municipal Hill was turned back to the forest service. The ski area was taken over by a private company, Ski Lifts, Inc., owned by Jim Parker and Chauncey Griggs, who had operated the concessions at the area since 1937, and renamed Snoqualmie Pass Summit Ski Area. In 1942, Ski Lifts, Inc. was sold for $3,500 to Webb Moffett, who had operated the facility since 1937, and Rance Morris.

On January 12, 1941, the Ski Bowl hosted a giant slalom race for 75 of the best skiers in Washington and Oregon, watched by 1,249 spectators who rode two Milwaukee Road "specials" to the area. The Mountaineers hosted the Washington Ski Club, with a dinner and dance party and ski competitions. Sahalie Ski Club hosted the PNSA cross country championship at the Pass. On January 26, the Snoqualmie Pass championship race was held at Paradise, a four-way competition between the Washington Ski Club, Seattle Ski Club, Sahalie Ski Club, and The Mountaineers.

Record Jumps 

The first jumping competition in 1941 was at Leavenworth in February, followed by the National Jumping Championship at the Ski Bowl in early March. At Leavenworth, Torger Tokle set a new North American record with a jump of 273 feet. Then at the Ski Bowl, Tokle jumped 288 feet, setting another North American record to the great pleasure of the excited crowd of 5,500 fans. Alf Engen was second, and Arthur Devlin of Lake Placid was third. Tokle said if the takeoff was moved back 30 feet, he could jump 325 feet.

At the 1941 National Four-Way Championship at Sun Valley, Freidl Pfeifer, "headman in Sun Valley skiing," won the slalom on Bald Mountain, making him the winner of the Harriman Cup. Alf Engen won the Four-Way competition, finishing with the jumping competition on the 50-meter jump on Ruud Mountain. Hugh Bauer and Don Amick, from the Washington Ski Club, "did themselves proud" by finishing 13th and 14th in the Harriman Cup. Gretchen Kunigk Fraser of Tacoma, skiing for the Sun Valley Ski Club, won the women's downhill.

The winter of 1941 attracted nearly one-half-million people to Washington's mountain resorts. Skiing was a $1 million industry and there were 65,000 local skiers in Western Washington alone. Mount Rainier attracted the most visiting skiers (125,000), followed by the Snoqualmie Ski Bowl, Cayuse Pass, Mount Baker, Stevens Pass, Stampede Pass, Martin, Deer Park, American River, Mount Spokane, Leavenworth, and others.

World War II changed everything. Skiing stopped as men went off to war, and women had to deal with war-time living conditions that included rationing of items such as gasoline and tires. The U.S. Army's Ski Troops trained at Snoqualmie Summit and Mount Rainier from 1940 to 1942, before moving to Camp Hale, Colorado, in 1943. In December 1942, the Milwaukee Railroad shut down the Ski Bowl and committed its resources to the war effort. Two ski lodges burned down during the war, the Sahalie Lodge on April 16th, 1943, and the Mountaineers lodge in 1944. Both were rebuilt after the war. In 1945 Torger Tokle, who set the North American jumping record at the Ski Bowl in 1941, was killed in Italy fighting with the 10th Mountain Division.

After the War 

Skiing resumed after World War II, bringing expansions and upgrading of the ski areas on Snoqualmie Pass. Webb Moffett installed lights for night skiing at Snoqualmie Summit. Webb's son Dave said the lights were put in so his employees could ski after work, not for general skiers.

For the 1947 ski season, the Milwaukee Road resumed operations of its Ski Bowl, changing the area's 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, the Talley-Ho SkiBoggan. It was a surface lift, described as a "massive sled that carries 32 snow riders a time up the steep slopes to Rocky Point," which could carry 1,440 skiers per hour.

On March 22 and 23, 1947, at the Milwaukee Ski Bowl, the Seattle Ski Club hosted the final tryouts for the jumping events of the 1948 Olympic Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Jumpers from Norway and Sweden participated in exhibitions and the U.S. Olympic team was selected. Milwaukee Road snow trains carried 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 the late Torger Tokle's American record by six feet with the longest jump ever made on the giant Olympian Hill, but it was not official since it was not made during competition. Six jumpers were selected to the U.S. Olympic team. The downhill, slalom, cross-country, and classic-combined Olympic teams were selected the prior week at Sun Valley, and the jumpers headed to Sun Valley for two weeks of intensive training. 

In 1948, Ski Acres opened, located one mile east of the Snoqualmie Summit with the first chair lift on the pass. The Mountaineers built a lodge on land between the Ski Acres and Summit ski areas, to replace the one lost by fire during World War II, with volunteer labor from 160 members.

For the 1948 season, Milwaukee Road improved the Ski Bowl with "an extensive summer clearing and grading program," where more than 50,000 skiers sped down the snow-covered slopes the past winter. A new rope tow was installed to carry skiers 200 feet beyond the top of Rocky Point at the 4,000-foot level. In March 1948, the Ski Bowl was the site of the National Jumping Championships. 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. The Torger Tokle trophy was given to the winner in honor of the past champion who was killed in the war.

On December 2, 1949, the Milwaukee Ski Bowl Lodge burned to the ground in a $180,000 fire. The Milwaukee Road said it could not justify the high cost of rebuilding the lodge and train shed, estimated to be $125,000, in spite of an offer of financial assistance from The Seattle Times. The Times was forced to cancel its ski school, which had operated from 1938 to 1942, and again from 1947 to 1949, teaching more than 20,000 students the fundamentals of controlled skiing. The area remained unused until 1959, when the Hyak Ski Area was opened.

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