SIERRA HERITAGE: History of California Skiing

My father built chairlifts for Sugar Bowl in the early 1950s and my mother grew up a skier and continued racing her whole life. I learned to ski from my father at the age of three, and now I coach my own children and other alpine ski racers for the Auburn Ski Club. Through a box of old ski photos dating from 1880-1968, a California skiing story unfolded.

Gold Miners
California gold miners were the first people in the world to competitively race on skis. Famous California skiers like Roy Mikkelson and Snowshoe Thompson made skiing popular. The Lake Tahoe and the Auburn ski clubs were early promoters of skiing and competition. Sugar Bowl, on Donner Summit, was one of the first destination ski resorts in America. California’s delightful climate also created a demand for warm-weather skiing.

Ski racing began during the Gold Rush in the early 1850s. According to the records of the Alturas Ski Club, La Porte, California was the site of the first organized ski race in America in February of 1867. Prior to that, there had been unorganized ski racing in La Porte since 1853. In the winter of 1852 there was 25 feet of snow in La Porte with 3,000 miners living in town, desperate for something to do.

Charles Nelson lived in La Porte and was an expert at the Norwegian sport of skiing. He taught his friends how to use the sport to get around and have fun in the deep snow. He showed his friend John Porter how to make the seven to 12-feet long, shaped wooden boards, and he sold them for $6 in gold. To keep the skis from sticking to the warm snow, the miners invented dope or ski wax. Now they were ready to race!

To make things more interesting the miners would often get together in a saloon and arrange a course, a purse, and a date. Then they would race each other down the course to see who came in first. The first formally organized ski race championship in the world occurred on February 15, 1867 in La Porte. There was $600 of prize money and hundreds of visitors.

Snowshoe Thompson
Snowshoe Thompson was California’s most famous early skier. He competed in the Alturas Ski Races. The 1869 files of the Sacramento Union credit Snowshoe with inventing “stakes to be stuck in a straight line every 100 feet through the track, and I will leave the first one to the right, the next one to the left, and so on until I get through.” Sounds a lot like modern slalom racing.

In addition to his racing achievements, for 15 years Snowshoe Thompson carried 50 pounds or more of mail from Placerville, California to Genoa, Nevada. His feat of covering the mountainous snowy distance in four or five days is hard to match even with today’s with modern equipment.

Tahoe Tavern Jump Hill
The next California first was the jump hill at the Tahoe Tavern at Lake Tahoe near Tahoe City. In 1928 the Tavern hired a man from Norway named Lars Haugen. He was one of the best ski jumpers, and he built an Olympic-caliber hill a mile from the Tavern. Tryouts for the 1932 Winter Olympics were held there. In 1935 the Lake Tahoe Ski Club took over the management of what was now known as Granlibakken. The ski club used the jump hill at Granlibakken to train and compete with other ski clubs in the area.

Sugar Bowl
In 1932 there was a media blitz in California promoting “Winter Sports.” The San Francisco Chronicle and the California Automobile Association Magazine both had articles on skiing. The Chronicle article is prefaced with a picture of Roy Mikkelson, ski jumping star, standing next to Merle Reeves, bathing beauty; both were standing in the snow. Roy is holding his skis and Merle is posing in her one-piece bathing suit. The caption reads, “Truth stranger than fiction. In warm California sunshine, the Auburn Ski Club, Wendell Robie, President, celebrated July 4th with a ski jumping tournament in the Sugar Bowl, Donner Pass, where there yet remained 10 feet of snow on field and slide.”

In 1933 both the Lake Tahoe and the Auburn ski clubs had huge ski meets. The Auburn Ski Club held their jump meet in February with 20 feet of snow at Cisco Grove. The winner was Roy Mikkelson with a jump of 12 feet. In March the Lake Tahoe Ski Club held their meet at Granlibakken, holding events besides ski jumping. Of their numerous innovations, one was of the first ski races for women with my grandmother as one of the competitors. The 1930s saw the demise of ski jumping as a mainstay for competitions, later contests were either downhill or cross country.

The Southern Pacific Railway was first to develop ski areas in the West. The first one in California was Sugar Bowl, where the Auburn Ski Club had held its July ski jump competition in 1939. Skiers rode the train to Norden; then in sleighs, to the gondola. They took the gondola to the lodge where they would stay for their ski vacation. Sugar Bowl had it all: a lodge, a restaurant, a bar, a ski school, ski rentals, and a chair lift.

Before World War II, not very many people had been exposed to skiing. During that war, 20,000 troops had to ski as part of their military training. Afterwards, these soldiers took up skiing as a dedicated pastime. For a ski vacation, they needed to go to a resort that provided food, lodging and other amenities. At this point Granlibakken fell into disuse, and Sugar Bowl and other destination resorts gained in popularity.

In 1951, the same year Granlibakken stopped being used by the Lake Tahoe Ski Club, my father rebuilt the Mt. Disney chair at Sugar Bowl. The winter of 1951-1952 was a record breaker. So much snow fell on Donner Summit the trains were stopped for three weeks. My father said for those weeks all the Sugar Bowl workers did was stay in their cabins, eat food from cans, and play cards.

Keeping Roads Open
In 1952 Caltrans started improving snow removal on highways. Before 1952, Hwy 40 over Donner Summit had either been closed, or plowed with traditional plows, moving snow from one place to another by sliding it. The railroads had a more efficient snow removal device called a rotary plow. Caltrans made some such plows for the road, and soon the mountains were open year-round.

Ski Areas Multiply
A lot of snow fell in the 1950s; it was a wonderful time to ski. With the mountains open year-round, ski resorts were popping up everywhere. In the Tahoe Basin, where there used to be one rope tow hill in Granlibakken, scores of new ski areas appeared. Squaw Valley and Heavenly were begun in 1954, with Homewood and Alpine Meadows following soon after in 1959. Mt. Rose and Heavenly were opened in the mid 60s. There were smaller resorts such as Tamarack on Mt. Rose, Powder Bowl in Alpine Meadows, and Papoose in Squaw Valley, that only exist today in photographs.

Today Lake Tahoe is a destination resort for skiers from all over the world, and I like to think it is the legacy of those early gold miners, ski jumpers, and organizers who made skiing popular and accessible for so many people.      --By Patricia Fox

Editor's Note: This article is from the December 2007 issue of Sierra Heritage Magazine. The story and pictures are by Patricia Fox. To subscribe to Sierra Heritage (founded in 1984), go to Sierra

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