Tahoe’s big jump: Before resorts, a single snow play area birthed basin’s ski culture
Special to the Sierra Sun
Before the endless lift lines of eager skiers and riders, before the bumper-to-bumper winter traffic, before snowsports became etched into Lake Tahoe’s identity, skiing was simply a novel form of entertainment.
Tourists traveled to Tahoe in the late 1920s for an otherwise-unavailable chance to play in some snow and to watch in wonderment as men — and a few women — competed at the Lake’s lone ski area, the Tahoe Tavern Winter Sports Grounds.
Today the grounds are known as Granlibakken, a year-round resort with a humble hill that in the winter caters predominantly to young families seeking to take their first turns in a relaxed setting. In the beginning though, the hill that started it all wasn’t hosting what most people today identify as skiing. These athletes were airborne, launching off a jump that nearly served as the runway for landing the Olympics at Lake Tahoe years before Squaw Valley welcomed its first skiers.
But there was little certainty Tahoe Tavern Winter Sports Grounds would survive in those early years. With an eye toward the booming winter sports culture in nearby Truckee, business interests seeking to capitalize on Lake Tahoe’s beauty met harsh head winds — including volatile snowpack and the most devastating economic collapse in U.S. history. The Winter Sports Grounds survived thanks to some luck and a rapacious drive to make the lake a preeminent ski area.
‘THE ALPS OF CALIFORNIA’
In the opening years of the 20th century, Lake Tahoe was exclusively a summer getaway populated with a handful of resorts. Newspapers, such as the San Francisco Call in 1902, carried advertisements for modern vacation spots. One getaway near Tahoe City, Tahoe Tavern, proclaimed: “Not better than the best, but better than the rest.” Most resorts touted having a resident physician in their advertisements.
Summer was the season. Winter, on the other hand, brought a lull to the lake, which was largely inaccessible and populated by off-season caretakers.
The seasonal dichotomy started to shift in the 1920s, when business interests began to see opportunity in the harsh, isolating winter months. Lake Tahoe could be “the Alps of California,” as a story in the Oakland Tribune noted.
In May 1925, Placer County supervisors granted the Lake Tahoe Railroad access for broad-gauge railroad tracks to replace the railroad’s narrow-gauge tracks. The broad-gauge tracks would run during all seasons from Truckee to the Tahoe Tavern, which was in the process of being purchased by hotelier D.M. Linnard.
Linnard planned hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements with the intent of opening the Tavern in the winter, according to an Oakland Tribune story. The broad-gauge railroad would stay open year round, making the Tahoe Tavern the first resort at the Lake to open in the winter.
Tavern chef Jack Matthews was tapped to manage the resort.
HELP FROM HOLLYWOOD
While the Tavern would mark the dawn of a new era at Lake Tahoe, there was reason to believe in winter’s potential. Decades before Linnard’s purchase of the Tahoe Tavern, Truckee was cementing its identity as a winter destination. By 1913, nearly 1,000 people were traveling to Truckee on the weekends for its winter carnivals, historian Mark McLaughlin noted in his book “Longboards to Olympics — A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports.”
Tahoe Tavern opened for its first winter period in 1926-27, and it had some certainty regarding the guest list. A Hollywood film crew was set to stay at the Tavern to film winter scenes for a movie, according to Tahoe Historian Carol Van Etten.
“That was the other justification for getting the hotel open — they had some guests for a period of time guaranteed,” she said.
In time for its opening winter season, the Tavern created a recreation area in a forested canyon southwest of the hotel. The area — where Granlibakken Resort now sits — was dubbed the Tahoe Tavern Winter Sports Grounds.
When it opened in December 1926, the Grounds offered varying forms of winter recreation and entertainment previously absent during the largely abandoned Lake Tahoe winters. A Southern Pacific advertisement in the Oakland Tribune highlighted “old-time snow games, skiing, skating, tobogganing, curling, ‘mushing’ with dog teams, hockey, saddle horses wearing snow shoes, sleighing behind real reindeer.” The cost for a roundtrip train ride totaled $13. (The ticket would cost approximately $191 in today’s dollars.)
Despite the enthralling amenities, the Tavern struggled.
“I think they only kept from losing their shirts for the fact this film crew was there filming a movie, because they were committed to staying for a certain period of time so that took care of the overhead, but then it seems like it must have been pretty miserable,” Van Etten said.
“There was a lot of discussion about whether it would be worth it to open the following winter.”
SKI JUMPING TAKES FLIGHT
The Tahoe Tavern did reopen the following year in time for the Christmas season. Historians credit Matthews for being the driving force behind the Tavern’s winter operations.
“I just have to conclude that Jack Matthews was trying everything he could to make a success of the resort,” Van Etten said.
Aside from being described as “genial” in newspaper write-ups, Matthews was regarded by some early “Tahoe locals” as a capable manager. He promoted the resort and welcomed an array of clubs and parties from the Bay Area. For winter entertainment, he hired professional ski jumpers to put on exhibitions at the Winter Sports Grounds.
One of those athletes was Lars Haugen, a Norwegian born ski jumper and eventual seven-time National Class A Champion. Haugen played such a pivotal role in the region’s snow sports that his biography in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame describes him as “a leader in developing skiing in the Lake Tahoe area of Northern California.” At the Winter Sports Grounds, Haugen was hired to oversee construction of the ski jump that would launch Lake Tahoe onto the national stage.
Alpine skiing was essentially nonexistent at the time. The common form of the sport involved skiers launching off a jump and into the air. It proved to be an exhilarating spectator sport.
The jump at the Tavern Winter Sports Grounds had a trajectory of 260 feet, according to the Granlibakken website. As photos documented, the jump provided a view of Lake Tahoe over the tree tops below.
The shows Haugen and others put on at the Winter Sports Grounds gained a following.
“These professional performances drew hundreds of spectators to the Tavern and the future for winter sports looked bright as the crowds swelled,” McLaughlin wrote.
Those good times, however, were tempered by Mother Nature and “feast or famine” winters, Van Etten said. The four winters starting with 1927-28 all saw snowpacks that failed to exceed 60% of normal.
“They managed to have a few successful weekends, but for the most part they were just fighting the weather most of the time,” she said.
“It still probably was not a big financial success … they were lucky if they were in the black at all.”
Still, the momentum established at the Winter Sports Grounds continued to build. Younger spectators enthralled with the acrobatics on display at the ski jump were drawn to the sport, which led to the formation of the Lake Tahoe Ski Club in 1928.
Then in 1929, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1932 Summer and Winter Olympics to the U.S. Three sites in the states started jockeying for the games: Lake Tahoe and Yosemite in California and Lake Placid in upstate New York. In an effort to sway the decision makers, the Tahoe boosters “boasted of a $3 million bankroll that could build anything the International Olympic Committee wanted,” McLaughlin wrote.
The bid also led to a name change for the Tahoe Tavern Winter Sports Grounds, which was rebranded “Olympic Hill.”
Ultimately the IOC awarded the 1932 games to Lake Placid.
In the wake of that defeat, the situation grew dimmer when Matthews announced he would not open the Tahoe Tavern for the 1929-30 winter, according to McLaughlin. Though Olympic Hill was becoming an attraction, most of the tourists stayed on the Southern Pacific passenger cars.
However, the Tavern did not remain closed that winter.
TROUBLE IN TAHOE
The winter of 1929-30 brought the first national ski jumping tournament to Tahoe. The American Ski Association-sanctioned event brought 15 internationally known athletes to the lake in what was described in an Oakland Tribune article as “California’s initial bid for fame …” Participating athletes included Anders Haugen (Lars Haugen’s brother), Ted Rex, the “dare-devil” Halvor Walstad, and Carl and Henry Hall.
Lars Haugen put on a show in an exhibition, jumping “195 feet at dizzy speeds over the heads of awe-struck throngs that lined the base of the mountain below,” the Oakland Tribune wrote. An image of a Haugen jump, with Tahoe in the distance and trees below, ran on the front page of the Feb. 8 Oxnard Daily Courier.
As the newspapers presciently speculated, the event was just the beginning of Tahoe’s time in the spotlight.
An organizing effort by ski leaders across California led to the creation of the California Ski Association, which successfully lobbied to host the 1932 National Ski Association Championship Tournament at Lake Tahoe. As a test run, the California Association held an Olympic qualifying event at the Lake in 1931, lending a bit of credence to the Olympic Hill name.
Landing the 1932 National Ski Championships was a major victory for California ski interests, but up at the Lake the situation was grim.
The Tahoe Tavern’s struggles finally became insurmountable, and in September 1931 its owner failed to make a payment on the outstanding debt, which totaled $532,000. Eventually a committee of the creditors purchased the Tahoe Tavern and adjacent properties at auction in December 1931 for $226,000.
The sad state of the Tavern — viewed as essential for accommodating the slew of visitors — was not fully known by those pushing to host the 1932 National Ski Championship in Tahoe, McLaughlin wrote. When officials arrived, they threatened to move the event if the Tahoe Tavern failed to reopen.
A deal with the Tavern’s owners, represented by the American Trust Company, had to be reached.
Wendell T. Robbie, the first president of the California Ski Association, and Camp Richardson owner Al Richardson, who was recruited to run the Tahoe Tavern in the event of a deal, traveled to San Francisco with the goal of securing a lease, according to McLaughlin. Eventually an American Trust official agreed.
CHAMPIONSHIPS A DEFINING EVENT
The Tavern, which had been closed since the previous summer, reopened with Richardson as manager for the 1932 winter season on Jan. 23, a month before the National Ski Championships.
Mother Nature dumped a healthy amount of snow just in time for the arrival of the sport’s greatest athletes, who had just finished competing in the 1932 Olympics at a snow-starved Lake Placid. With thousands of spectators in attendance, the 1932 National Ski Championships was a tremendous success.
Regarding the lease of the property, McLaughlin recounted that Gerald Kennedy of American Trust Company told Robie: “It turned out to be a mighty fine deal for the Bank, because the success in that operation not only increased our opinion of the value of Tahoe Tavern; but it opened our eyes that resorts in California could be as profitable for winter as for summer.”
Despite the observation, Tahoe Tavern ceased winter operations after 1932. Club events and competitions continued at Olympic Hill and the Winter Sports Grounds through the ’30s and up until World War II.
It wasn’t until after the war and the arrival of Kjel “Rusty” Rustad that the Winter Sports Grounds experienced a rebirth. Rustad named the operation Granlibakken, a name it carries to this day.
While it did not save winters at Tahoe Tavern, the 1932 National Ski Championships “propelled the region into its development as one of America’s top-rated ski destinations,” McLaughlin wrote.
And it all started on a modest hill near the Tahoe Tavern.
Said Van Etten, “It was just the ground floor of what would come later.”
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the 2020-21 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun.
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