Sierra history: Tahoe’s winter entertainment industry grew out of economic desperation
Special to the Sun
Click here to read more about the 2015 SnowFest!, which began Thursday, including a full calendar of events.
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — The popular North Lake Tahoe and Truckee winter carnival called SnowFest! is here again, celebrating the region’s deep roots in winter sports with 10 days of fun-filled events.
The development of our winter entertainment industry grew directly out of economic desperation. In the late 19th century, the demise of logging and commercial ice harvesting, and the collapse of the Comstock silver boom had devastated the region.
To promote Truckee’s unique position as a destination for winter sports with easy railroad access, visionary locals organized a winter carnival. A massive ice palace was built containing a large indoor skating rink with retail concessions.
Outdoor activities included dog-sled races, toboggan and horse-drawn sleigh rides, cross-country ski races, and moonlight ice skating parties on Donner Lake.
Southern Pacific Railroad supported the effort with excursion trains from Sacramento and Oakland that brought thousands of winter tourists up to Truckee.
Truckee’s original winter carnival opened with a bang in 1895 due to that winter’s extraordinary 685 inches of snow.
Residents decorated their town in red-, white-, and blue-colored bunting as the wooden ice palace was wrapped with metal wire netting that formed a veneer of ice when sprayed with water in subfreezing temperatures.
The first ice palace covered an acre of ground in downtown Truckee. It blocked traffic and spooked horses, but it was an immediate success at drawing winter visitors from the nearby train depot.
Weekend skaters promenaded around the 700-foot oval indoor rink, serenaded by musicians bundled up against the cold. The ceiling was lit by 20 arc lights, and tall cedar and pine trees decorated the palace roof.
Daring toboggan riders could climb a 75-foot high tower near Truckee’s Commercial Row and enjoy an exciting slide 150 feet to street level. The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed it the “most thrilling ride on the Pacific Coast.”
SLOWER START AT NORTH TAHOE
Winter sports had a slower start at North Lake Tahoe, but in 1926, the Linnard Steamship Company purchased the Tahoe Tavern Hotel near Tahoe City.
The new management decided to open the luxurious 223-room, summer-only resort during the winter months. Transportation to the lake was provided by Southern Pacific Railroad, which maintained a track from the transcontinental line in Truckee to the hotel.
Initially, the main attractions were ice skating and tobogganing, but soon a Winter Sports Grounds was developed on a slope about half a mile west of the hotel (current location of Granlibakken Resort).
A double toboggan slide was built, and then shortly after, a 65-meter trajectory jump was constructed.
Before long, the Tahoe Tavern’s winter sports program included downhill skiing and exhibition ski jumping.
To entertain guests, the hotel hosted nationally-ranked Norwegian ski jumpers to perform daring leaps.
While working at the Tahoe Tavern, Alf Engen and brother Sverre had a signature move, in which they hit the jump simultaneously, clasped hands in mid flight, and then broke away for the landing.
These professional performances drew hundreds of spectators to the Tavern and the future for winter sports looked bright as the crowds swelled.
TAHOE APPLIES TO HOST 1932 OLYMPICS
Across the Truckee River just south from downtown Truckee was Hilltop, a small knoll that provided an excellent place to sled and ski.
In 1910, an old steam engine from an abandoned lumber mill was hauled in by wagon and used to power an uphill lift for toboggans and skiers. Some ski historians believe that this was the first mechanical lift of its kind in the United States.
By 1928, professional ski jumps had been constructed at Hilltop and the Tahoe Tavern’s Winter Sports Grounds, now called Olympic Hill.
That year, Tahoe City applied to host the 1932 Winter Games, but the effort was rejected. The Olympic Committee’s decision was based on a lack of previous winter sports events, but also influenced by the erroneous perception that most of California enjoys a year-round Mediterranean climate.
That would change by 1960, when Squaw Valley successfully hosted the Winter Games.
People came to Truckee and Tahoe City for winter sports from throughout the West. Until winter plowing commenced on trans-Sierra Highway 40 in 1932, Southern Pacific provided all transportation into the mountains with their “Snowball Express” specials.
Soon, automobiles became the most popular way to reach ski resorts that sprouted along Highway 40 during the 1930s.
The opening of Sugar Bowl ski area in 1939, which boasted steep alpine slopes accessed by California’s first chairlift, signaled the debut of the region’s first upscale, European-style ski resort.
Truckee’s annual ice carnivals were the first in the West and a real boost to the town’s vitality.
The town’s citizens realized early on that tourism would be the main economic pillar for their small mountain community. The dream of the Truckee-Tahoe region as a Mecca for winter fun has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.