History: Truckee’s Hilltop and its future
Above the Town of Truckee, across the railroad tracks and Truckee River is a lone building with the sign “Hilltop” on it.
Hilltop has a prominent place in Truckee history and has long been known as the start of the winter sports industry in the Western United States. The area of Hilltop includes the slope below, which had a toboggan run and ski jump, and the area above, which had another toboggan run and downhill ski run.
It is hard to imagine Hilltop as being a winter sports paradise with all the trees that are currently on it. This area was logged by George Schaffer in the late 1860s. Snowshoers have used this hill since 1880 and both the upper and lower portions have been a cross country skiing paradise since the founding of Truckee. Charles McGlashan and Stewart McKay, two of Truckee’s early leading citizens, held the first Truckee Ice Carnival in 1895 with cross country skiing and short distance ski jumping. This was in addition to the brightly lit Ice Palace, for ice skating fun, and an attached 150’ toboggan run. Both of these were located on the other side of the river opposite Commercial Row where the current train depot stands today. With the decline of the lumber industry and an economy in shambles in the 1890s, tourism was critical to the survival of Truckee.
The Great Truckee Winter Carnival ran from 1909 to 1919. Hilltop was then called “Snow Peak” where ski jump exhibitions occurred and local men were taught the sport of jumping. Southern Pacific Railroad ran many excursion trains from San Francisco and Sacramento during this period with up to 250 people attending the event. To make winter sports easier and more fun, in 1910 a steam donkey (from the lumber industry) was placed at the bottom of the spring to haul winter sports enthusiasts to the upper hill for a 1000-foot run. This lift is generally believed to be the first mechanical tow in the country.
Over 700 people attended the Winter Carnival each of two weekends in 1913. Ski lessons were given on the upper hill and a new 500-foot long toboggan lift was built from the lower to the upper hill. A 3/4 mile toboggan run was also built and a new wooden Ice Palace was constructed for ice skating at the bottom of the hill. Regretfully, the second Ice Palace burned down in 1915 and was not replaced. However, Southern Pacific started to fund much of the publicity for the Winter Carnival and ran regular Sunday excursions to Truckee.
By 1922, Truckee, being an old pioneer town, also became famous as a winter recreation resort centered around the Winter Sports Hill (as Hilltop was then called). While Prohibition dried up most of California (from 1920-1933), Truckee’s open sales of alcohol attracted a fun loving, party crowd to the hill.
1928 saw 1,000 visitors attending the snow event in town. Pullman railroad cars were parked in the Truckee railroad yards for visitor sleeping accommodations. That same year the present lodge building (that has “Hillside” on its roof) was built and named the “Pavilion.” The building was used as both a warming hut and a gathering place for ski jumpers and tobogganers.
Then in 1930, a 140-foot tall ski jump was built. Six years later the Truckee Donner PUD, using federal depression relief funding, built an ice skating pond at the bottom of the lower hill. Hilltop was now called Winter Sports Park.
The first rope tow to the top of the hill (where Cottonwood Restaurant is now) was installed in 1940 since downhill skiing had now become the biggest participant sport.
Winter Sports Park was sold in 1945 and a dormitory was built and the Pavilion was converted into a restaurant. One year later the property was sold again and renamed “Hilltop” where a ski shop and second rope tow on the lower portion of ski run were added.
The ski area operated next to the restaurant until closing in 1969. The ski jump was torn down in the late 1960s/early 1970s. It was with great sadness that the jump was torn down since it was such a part of ski history for the area.
Cottonwoods Restaurant, which opened in 1988, took over the old lodge and still preserves the ambiance and cozy atmosphere of the original Pavilion.
The Future of Hilltop
The area known as “Hilltop” is part of Truckee and many have eyed developing this open space.
The Town of Truckee 2040 General Plan follows the 2025 General Plan with regards to Hilltop’s fate. The plan calls for the area to incorporate open space, high density residential, single-family residential, and commercial development. It should be noted that when the Truckee Public Utility District sold Hilltop to Harry and Zella Herzog in 1959 the terms of the sale specifically stated that the land could only be used for recreational purposes.
Due to its historical significance, the old Pavilion (aka Cottonwoods Restaurant) will remain and continue to give fabulous views of Truckee. At the bottom of Hilltop at the west end of South River Street, the Truckee-Donner Historical Society was deeded the historic pond and 1.9 acres surrounding the pond. Seventy parking spaces will be available for hikers and bicyclists. This area is part of the Legacy Trail extension and as you walk towards Hwy 89, more land is being preserved as open space. Next summer construction will start on a pedestrian/bike bridge from West River Street, across the Truckee River, connecting to the Legacy Trail. The plan is to keep the area a historic and educational site.
Other plans include preserving the old “Ski Hill” as a public park. The park will include bicycle parking and a replica of the Valerie Building (historic building reminiscent of the era) which will be used as a warming hut with restroom and public parking. The future of the rope tow is uncertain.
Whatever happens to the hilltop site, we will always be reminded that Truckee’s winter recreation all started on the little hill across the river.
Judy DePuy is a full-time resident in Truckee and volunteers her time with the Truckee-Donner Historical Society and is on the board for the Museum of Truckee History and Truckee Donner Railroad Society. She lives with her husband, Dave, and their dog, Morticia.
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