TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series, find the first installment here.
There’s no doubt about it — the 19th century longboard ski racers of Plumas and Sierra counties in California were the fastest humans on the planet. Beginning in the 1850s, when snow conditions were right, these early speed demons rocketed down the mountainside at velocities approaching 90 miles per hour. With an intensity often fueled by alcohol, ego, and lucrative cash rewards, early longboard racers pushed speed and sanity to the limit.
The speeds were terrifying. In 1879, a group of Norwegians from Marysville in the Sacramento Valley challenged the La Porte snow-shoers to a series of squad races for a $500 first place prize. That was big money when a day’s wage ranged between $4 and $6.
JUST ONE LOOK
The La Porte team accepted the offer, but when the Norwegians arrived they took one look at the long skis and steep course and defaulted. As one old timer explained it: “The Norwegians took just one look at our speed-burners and went right back — they just weren’t fast enough.”
Considering how much money was up for grabs at the races, it’s no surprise that the dope men kept their best recipes secret. The difference between the right or wrong dope for the temperature and snow conditions meant the difference between a large purse or instant elimination. In addition to the large monetary awards for the winner, side bets ran rampant as each town wagered on its local champion.
An announcement from the 1868 Downieville Mountain Messenger confirms big money at play: “Premiums to the amount of several hundred dollars will be presented as stakes and the entrance fee will be one dollar. The Howland Flat snow-shoers intend to raise $800 or $1,000 as the stakes for their races. We hear that the Onion Valley and Sawpit Flat boys are trying on the dope, and that some mighty slick shoes have been made in view of the handsome premiums that will be offered during the tournaments.”
STRAIGHT FALL LINE
Race courses were about 100 feet wide, up to 1,800 feet long, and ran straight down the mountain. The start and finish lines were marked with American flags. Competitors lined up at the start in four-man groups, and at the report of a starting pistol or hammered metal saw blade they pulled themselves forward with their braking pole, and quickly assumed a crouch with their long pole tucked aerodynamically under one arm. Racers ran in heats with the winners advancing to the next round in a single elimination format. With no chairlifts or rope tows available, winners of each race hiked back up the mountain in order to run the next heat. The favorite ski length for most racers was about 11 to 13 feet long, most made of spruce.
Bindings consisted of two straps which laced tightly over the toes, while the rider’s high leather boots fitted securely over a wooden block beneath the instep.
A great tribute to early California ski racing was that women were included in the competitions. Female skiers really caught the eye of the miners. One man wrote, “Nothing on a bright sunshiny morning can be more graceful or beautiful than a fair young lassie gliding over hills upon her Norwegian snow-shoes.”
WILD WOMEN ROCK
During racing season, women in full-length skirts could be seen flying down the snow-covered mountainsides with reckless abandon. The women’s races often drew the largest crowds and loudest cheers. In 1867, Lotti Joy shot down a 1,230-foot-long race slope at 49 miles per hour to set the earliest women’s speed record. Not bad for a small woman on long skis that didn’t turn and the only way to stop was to straddle the wooden pole and try to use it as a rudder and brake. At another event, one 14-year-old girl schussed down 1,230 feet in just 21 seconds.
California’s “Snow-shoe Racing Era” ended at the beginning of the 20th century, but in the early 1990s a new generation of Plumas Ski Club members fired up a Longboard Revival Series at Plumas County’s historic Eureka Bowl, one of the world’s oldest recorded alpine racing sites. Today, the PSC’s annual winter races attract throngs of families who come to enjoy sledding, live music and tasty barbecue. The old rope tows haven’t operated for years, so skiers must climb for their runs, just like in the old days. Alcohol consumption is forbidden in the park, but on race day silver flasks are common. Park rangers are tolerant of all the festivities, keeping in mind the motto of the Plumas Ski Club: “Skiing and Whiskeying in the Sierra Nevada since 1874.”
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.