The Lost Sierra | From Longboards to the Olympics to SnowFest!
Ski racing in the northern Sierra harkens back to the 1850s, when grizzled miners rode rusty ore buckets up the mountain and then skied down on short wooden barrel staves mounted with leather bindings. Within a decade, racing had morphed into a popular sport where speed-crazed locals barreled down the mountain on skis up to 15 feet long, at speeds approaching 90 mph. These people were the fastest humans on the planet and the speed records set on those long, heavy boards weren’t broken until nearly 80 years later.
Considered the first ski racers in North America, it took a lot of whiskey and serious betting for these miners to push the boundaries of physics and good sense. But the boards got longer and the racers went faster until the thrill of speed overcame the fear of death.
In the beginning
California skiing got its start not as a sport per se, but as a form of transportation over deep snow. Norwegians who arrived during the Gold Rush introduced the concept of skiing on planks of wood. Soon miners were traveling over the snowbound Sierra, pushing themselves along with one long pole. Doctors were soon skiing miles to treat injuries or deliver babies. Residents in snow country skied to work, hauled supplies on skis, even funerals were held with mourners and pallbearers gliding smoothly along.
It wasn’t long before communities throughout the “Lost Sierra” region of Plumas and Sierra counties had skiers competing for bragging rights. Mining towns sponsored longboard ski teams that would race for cash prizes up to $1,000. America’s first ski club was formed when Creed Raymond founded the Alturas Snowshoe Club at La Porte in 1867. (The world’s first ski clubs were organized in 1861 in Norway and Australia.)
Fast skis and hard liquor
The Alturas Snowshoe Club was founded for the physical and mental well being of the miners, even though alcohol-fueled, high-speed crashes took their toll. The first downhill racecourse in the western hemisphere was laid out at Johnsville. The course was 1,230 feet long and ran straight down the mountain. There were no chairlifts or rope tows, so the winner of each heat had to hike back up the mountain in order to race again. The boards were long, heavy and no side cut to aid turning. It was all about speed.
A great tribute to early California ski racing was women were included in the competitions. In the mid-19th century when women couldn’t vote and were generally disenfranchised socially, politically and economically, women in the primitive Sierra mining camps were encouraged to grab their longboards and hit the hill. On Feb. 7, 1861, the Sacramento Daily Union reported: “Great big men, extremely small children and delicate looking females ascend La Porte’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, and how they come down!”
The women’s races often drew the largest crowds and loudest cheers. The lonely miners were always on the lookout for “a woman on the marry” and were usually on their best behavior when the fairer sex were present. Miners defended the honor of local women with an intensity borne of the fact that in the 1860 census, only 312 females were counted in the mining camps, compared to 1,773 men.
In 1867, Lotti Joy shot down La Porte’s race course at 49 miles per hour to set the earliest women’s speed record. In 1874, Tommy Todd rocketed down at 88 mph on skis that didn’t turn and straddling a wooden pole as a rudder and brake was the only way to stop.
By the late 1880s the mines of the Lost Sierra were tapped out and the longboard racing era was over. The town of Truckee became the gateway to the Sierra’s winter wonderland with the transcontinental railroad. Truckee’s business community capitalized on winter sports. Quebec, Canada and St. Paul, Minnesota had done it ” Truckee could too.
Local businessman Charles F. McGlashan was an intelligent and energetic jack-of-all trades. In the 1890s, McGlashan shared his prescient vision ” Truckee could become a major attraction for winter sport excitement. The plan was ice carnivals and mid-winter festivals would spur thousands of people to take the train from the dreary flatlands to Truckee.
Southern Pacific Railroad capitalized on the newfound excitement by establishing “Snowball Specials,” express trains that conveyed hundreds of tourists to Truckee every weekend. Hilltop, the small hill with an open slope across the river from downtown Truckee, provided an excellent place to sled and toboggan. In 1910, an old steam engine from an abandoned lumber mill on the Little Truckee River was hauled in by oxen-drawn wagon and converted into a pullback lift. Some ski historians believe this was the first mechanical lift of its kind in the United States.
By 1928, ski jumps were constructed at Hilltop and on Olympic Hill, located near Tahoe City. That year, California applied to host the 1932 Winter Games in the Truckee-Tahoe region, but the European-dominated International Olympic Committee felt the state lacked organization and a sufficient sporting background. The decision was also partly influenced by the misperception that California basks in a year-round Mediterranean climate.
Despite the rejection by the Olympic Committee the 1932 Winter Olympics (the Games were awarded to Lake Placid, New York), a victory was secured when Lake Tahoe was voted to hold the prestigious National Ski Tournament, the first one ever held west of the Rockies. The 65-meter ski jump at Olympic Hill (present-day Granlibakken) was the location for this pivotal event, where the beautiful scenery, mild weather, and incredibly deep snow impressed the competitors, journalists and spectators. The winning combination of heavy snowfall (nearly 300 inches of snow had buried Truckee by February 1932) and majestic mountains convinced a skeptical media that California really did offer world-class skiing.
The deal was sealed in 1960 when the International Winter Olympics were held at Squaw Valley. Hundreds of Truckee locals turned out for the arrival of the Olympic Torch, including a relay of 33 cross-country skiers recruited from students at the Tahoe-Truckee High School. As each person passed the torch on, the community’s pride at hosting the VIII Winter Olympic Games soared. Speaker Dr. Robert Affeldt said, “Truckee proudly kindles her own Olympic torch from the flame flown from Norway, secure in the knowledge of the great part she has played in the development of winter sports.” That legacy continues today with SnowFest, Truckee-North Tahoe’s contemporary manifestation of the early Winter Carnivals.
Visitors to the Sierra enjoy virtually unlimited choices in recreation, but when it comes to the social benefits of sport, the mission statement of the U.S. Olympic Committee is more important than ever: “Instill in the youth of America the qualities of courage, self-reliance, honesty, and tolerance; promote and encourage the physical, moral and cultural education, to the end that their health, patriotism, character and good citizenship may be fully developed.” Let SnowFest begin!
Were you at the 1960 Winter Olympics and have a story to share? I want to hear it! Please contact Mark McLaughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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