The stars shined brighter up at the Sky Tavern | SierraSun.com

The stars shined brighter up at the Sky Tavern

Mark McLaughlin

Sugar Bowl is well-known as the first major ski area in the Sierra and the first to install an electric chairlift in 1939, but located northeast of Lake Tahoe on Route 431 is a small, historic ski area that was once one of the most popular resorts in the West. The Sky Tavern blossomed when Keston and Carlisle Ramsey opened the resort 60 years ago in December 1945. Their goal was to promote the many benefits of skiing that they enjoyed: Its physical exuberance, emotional release, and sense of pure freedom. Today the “Tavern” represents the best of what skiing, winter sports, and community are all about.Sky Tavern boasts a rich and colorful history, one that includes appearances by many Hollywood movie stars, prominent sports celebrities, and some of the most noted contributors to U.S. ski history. In the years after World War II and during the early 1950s, Sky Tavern basked in the spotlight as a chic, intimate resort patronized by some of the most famous personalities of the day. Organized skiing in Western Nevada got its start in 1931 when Washoe County built a ski jump and stone warming hut near Galena Creek on the Mt. Rose Highway. In 1939, University of Nevada ski jumper Wayne Poulsen and his friend Ed Heath installed a small rope tow on what was then called the Mount Rose Bowl, near the present-day Sky Tavern ski resort. Years later, Poulsen and Alex Cushing would go on to make ski history by establishing Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.Poulsen’s modest weekend operation was short-lived however, because Robinson Neeman bought the land in 1940. The following summer Neeman hired Reno contractor Keston Ramsey to improve the place. Ramsey installed a new rope tow, which took skiers about two-thirds of the distance up to the top of the hill. Ramsey didn’t know it at the time, but in a few short years he and his wife Carlisle would becomes owners of the fledgling resort. Neeman bought a custom T-bar for his budding business, but he couldn’t install it until 1944 due to war restrictions. Other ski areas suffered similar disruptions due to the war. Sugar Bowl opened in 1939, but remained closed throughout World War II. Because of government-restricted access to the nearby railroad tracks, the resort could not reopen until the 1946-47 season.Amazing memoriesKeston Ramsey is a spry 98-year-old still living in Reno with Carlisle, his wife and partner for 77 years. “Kes” remembers that in 1945 Neeman ran into trouble with the mob down in Las Vegas. He fled to Reno where he told Ramsey he wanted leave the area in a hurry, so Ramsey and a partner purchased the Mount Rose Bowl for $75,000. Ramsey converted the small on-site cabin into a rustic, four-story, 21-room hotel, with coffee shop and bar. When the newly christened Sky Tavern opened for business in December 1945, the Nevada State Journal proclaimed it a second Sun Valley, Idaho. Sky Tavern opened as World War II ended, when America’s rich and famous were ready to take up skiing as a sport and lifestyle. During the early 1930s, there were few rope tows and no chairlifts operating in the Tahoe region. At the time there were primitive rope tows near Donner and Spooner Summits, Granlibakken, Truckee, and Yosemite, but they had little in the way of amenities and were more difficult to reach. Sky Tavern had a new hotel and was less than 20 miles from Reno’s Hubbard Field airport, making it a short hop, skip and a jump for celebrities living in Southern California. Sky Tavern had it all – an elaborate T-bar lift, three rope tows, challenging downhill runs, and two full-time employees. The resort’s lodge offered hearty meals, chilled cocktails, dancing to a jukebox, and as an added Nevada-style attraction, a small gambling operation run by Bill Harrah. The ski area had no electricity (power was supplied by a gasoline generator) and all day tickets cost $2.50.Hollywood on the hill The history of the Tavern is replete with Hollywood legends and colorful tales of yesteryear. Movie stars, prominent San Francisco socialites, and famous personalities flocked to the slopes at Sky Tavern in the years after World War II. Contemporary celebrities like Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, and actors Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Robert Stack and others all found the Tavern experience exhilarating. The pioneer radio journalist, Lowell Thomas, was an ardent skier who performed one his famous live national news broadcasts from the Tavern. Hollywood movie star Gary Cooper enjoyed visiting but didn’t ski, claiming he had a bum hip. He preferred hunting jackrabbits with Keston in the flats below the mountain. The Tavern was one of those intimate ski areas where everyone knew everybody else. Once when Cooper and his wife were expected for one of their frequent visits, Carlisle Ramsey realized that the hotel was nearly out of toilet paper. She called her neighbor, Frank Leonard, down at the Galena Creek Ranger Station and asked him to send some up. Leonard took a few rolls out to the highway and he flagged down the first car coming by. He told the driver that the precious paper was needed for the Coopers’ room at the Sky Tavern. As Carlisle tells it, when “Coop” arrived, he leaned on the lodge’s registration desk, put down several rolls of bathroom tissue and drawled, “I hear y’all need this.” Severe winter storms tested the Ramseys’ resolve and endurance, as well as the patience of guests occasionally isolated at the resort. In December 1951 baseball great Joe DiMaggio rented a small cabin at the Tavern as a Christmas present for his ex-wife Dorothy and their son Joe Jr. Slugger DiMaggio had bad knees and didn’t ski, but he hoped that a peaceful weekend in the mountains might help reconcile his marital difficulties.Unfortunately, on Christmas Eve, a powerful Pacific cold front barreled into the Sierra dumping snow by the foot. Power lines snapped, roads were closed, and thousands of residents and tourists were trapped by the storm. At Sky Tavern, DiMaggio and 70 other guests and staff were marooned by 20-foot snowdrifts covering the road. The storm made national news. Food was plentiful, but it took four days for the rotary plow to churn through the massive drifts on the highway. When it did, “Joltin’ Joe” told the swarm of reporters, “After what I’ve seen the last few days, I’m convinced skiers are worse than baseball fans. Some of them were sleeping in their cars waiting for the road [to the ski area] to be opened. They just don’t quit.” An era endsOver time newer, larger, and more modern ski resorts opened around Lake Tahoe, upstart places like Squaw Valley in 1949 and Heavenly Valley in 1955. Only a mile up the road, but with much steeper and challenging terrain, the Reno Ski Bowl began running chairs in 1953 at the Slide Mountain, site of today’s Mount Rose Ski Area. They all siphoned off the Tavern’s elite clientele, as well as their bread-and-butter local adult skiers. In 1959 the Ramsey’s sold the resort and eventually the City of Reno purchased the 143-acre property in 1968 for the exclusive use of teaching school children how to ski, and now snowboard too. The nonprofit program is visionary and unique in the nation.The Sky Tavern’s on-going Junior Ski Program was first established in 1948 when local skier and schoolteacher, Marce Herz, approached the Ramseys and Hal Codding with the idea of reducing lift prices for schoolchildren and teaching them how to ski. Herz, who went on to win the Nevada state ski championship in combined slalom and downhill in 1950, fervently believed that sports were good for everyone, but especially for children. Herz wanted to offer school kids the thrill and excitement of sliding down a mountain. Starting with six students, the innovative ski program Herz initiated has taught thousands of children. In the 1990s, an Adaptive Skiers Program got underway with specially trained volunteers to serve children with various disabilities. These programs are about sharing the love of skiing and winter sports with others less fortunate, something that Keston and Carlisle Ramsey believe in. It is an honorable evolution for the venerable Sky Tavern, once a chic, destination resort and now home to a volunteer-based, nonprofit program that has enabled three generations of school children and teenagers the opportunity to be all they can be.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 mark@thestormking.com.