The Olympic torch makes an emotional journey through Truckee |

The Olympic torch makes an emotional journey through Truckee

This month the world is celebrating the XX Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, a time when Tahoe-Truckee residents often reminisce back to February 1960 when Squaw Valley hosted this quadrennial, international sports competition. On Feb. 16, 1960, Norm Sayler, the longtime owner-operator of the Donner Ski Ranch, schussed from his resort at Norden on Donner Summit down to Donner Lake. Sayler had skied the area before, but this day was special. Held tight within his grasp was the fabled Olympic torch. It had taken cross-country skiers three days to carry the legendary icon up from Carpenter’s Flat located on the Sierra’s west slope. Sayler was one of the last links on the route to Squaw Valley. Noted Reno ski journalist Bill Berry was there to greet Sayler’s arrival at Donner Lake, but it wasn’t just reporters that were interested. Hundreds had turned out including a relay of 33 cross-country skiers recruited from students at the Tahoe-Truckee High School. So many people wished to participate in the Olympic pageantry along the route from Donner Lake to Truckee that the flame was hand relayed by local residents. As each person passed the torch on, the community’s pride at hosting the VIII Winter Olympic Games soared. A long historyThe Truckee-Tahoe region has a long legacy of promoting winter sports. Near the end of the 19th century, town patriarch Charles McGlashan helped Truckee’s business community organize a winter carnival. Modeled after similar events held previously in Montreal, Canada, and St. Paul, Minnesota, Truckee’s Winter Ice Carnival quickly became a huge success with California tourists. The major attraction was a large, elliptically-shaped ice palace built between the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the storefronts on Commercial Row. The palace was framed up with wood, wrapped with chicken wire and then sprayed with water when the temperature fell below freezing. Soon the building was encased in icicles as thick as stalactites.Inside was an ice rink where skaters glided under bright lights suspended from the ceiling. A band bundled in heavy coats played music for the guests promenading around the rink. Just west of the palace the community built a towering toboggan run for visitors with more of a dare-devil streak in them.Winter sports, ice skating parties and evening dances were promoted as fun and healthy entertainment. The money generated by the Ice Carnival saved the little lumber and railroad town from economic decline and social obscurity. The OlympicsMcGlashan led the way for developing winter sports in the region, but it took 75 more years and the work of many others to bring the Winter Olympics to Squaw Valley in 1960. Ski pioneer Wayne Poulsen set the stage. In the 1920s, Poulsen laid the groundwork for Squaw’s development into a premier ski resort by surveying the mountains in and about Reno and Lake Tahoe. An avid skier and nationally ranked jumper, Poulsen knew what he was looking for. He began exploring Squaw Valley in the 1930s and quickly realized the potential that the unique Sierra valley held for a future ski resort. Like McGlashan, Poulsen recognized the possibilities for the Tahoe-Truckee region as a world-class winter destination. Poulsen’s vision was acknowledged during the 1960 torch ceremony held at Truckee’s Rocking Stone tower. In the principal address it was said of Poulsen, “It was natural with his vision to see the possibilities in Squaw Valley for the presentation to the world of the greatest Olympics ever to be held. Even though some of the planning was placed beyond his control, we should be very thankful for his work and the desire he has shown to try and preserve the natural beauty of this area.” First time not the charmIn 1928 California had applied to host the 1932 Winter Games, but the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) felt Sierra ski clubs lacked organization and sufficient sporting background. Later, in 1947, the California Chamber of Commerce surveyed the various winter sports facilities established in the Sierra at that time to determine where the Olympic Games could be feasibly be held. The report stated, “Our final conclusion was that the only place with a downhill run having the required 2,500 feet drop would be Squaw Valley; the jumping and cross-country [skiing] would be at Olympic Hill (near present-day Granlibakken in Tahoe City), along with the slaloms; the skating and hockey in Truckee.” The proposal was again denied by the I.O.C., but persistent pressure by persuasive ski pioneers and U.S. politicians forced the European-dominated Olympic Committee to reluctantly award the 1960 Winter Games to California. The United States had hosted the Winter Olympics only once before, at Lake Placid, New York, in 1932. (The competition for western ski jumpers trying to place on the U.S. Olympic Team were held at Olympic Hill in February 1931.)Inspired teamworkThe Olympics inspire teamwork and excellence in sport; noble goals indeed for a world-community seemingly always rife with dissension. General Douglas MacArthur, President of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1928 to 1932, related the importance of the Games: “The athletic code has come down to us from even before the age of chivalry and knighthood. It embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the tests of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of man.”Upon Norm Sayler’s arrival with the Olympic flame at Donner Lake, a “blessing of the torch” rite was conducted by the Rev. Patrick J. O’Neill of Truckee’s Catholic church. When the flame finally arrived in downtown Truckee, Rev. George Sumones, pastor of the Methodist High Sierra parish, joined Father O’Neill in ringing local church bells. The Truckee-Donner Chamber of Commerce held a ceremony at the Rocking Stone Tower celebrating all those who had worked to bring the Winter Olympics to California for the first time. An enthusiastic crowd cheered during the ceremony when a community torch was lit from the Olympic flame. Speaker Dr. Robert Affeldt thrilled everyone with pride when he said, “And so 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.” Year-round visitors to the Sierra today 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 of the youth of the United States to the end that their health, patriotism, character and good citizenship may be fully developed.” Let the Games begin!Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2,” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at

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