Winter Sports: A community affair
The Winter Sports business has come a long way since its founding in the Truckee-Tahoe region over a century ago. While changes in technology have improved the sports, bigger changes can be found in the ownership and management of the resorts.When recreational winter sports such as skiing, skating, sledding and coasting started in Truckee in the 1860s and 70s, local businessmen tried to find a way to make a profit, but were limited to selling equipment made locally or shipped in from the East.When the first organized skating carnival was held at Donner Lake in the 1880s, local businessman Jim Sherritt led a community effort to bring spectators and participants to the lake. Due to the fickle nature of Donner Lake ice, and the lack of profits, the carnivals were not continued in future years as a business, but Truckee had a taste of the future, and realized it would take an organized community effort to get Winter Sports on a firm footing.In 1895, Truckee community leaders such as Charles McGlashan, Stewart McKay, George Schaffer and Mary Burkhalter formed a private Winter Carnival company to build and operate an ice palace on Front Street. Due to warm winters, the venture was not a financial success, and the community gave up after three winters.As early as the 1870s various clubs and benevolent societies from all of Northern California began to make annual trips to play in the snow and on the ice. As the 1900s came along people had more leisure time and money, as well as a desire for winter sports, and the number of participants increased dramatically.Truckee was still the place to visit for snow play, due to the easy access from the Southern Pacific Railroad depot across the river from the Winter Sports Park, now known as Hilltop. Local businesses complained about a lack of organization for winter sports promotion and operation. But no one business stepped forward to carry the burden for some time.
In 1909 Truckee got its act together and with the help of the Southern Pacific Railroad, formed a citizens committee to organize and manage winter sports. The Truckee Republican newspaper had been rallying support for several years to get an organization in place to take advantage of the love of snow sports.Once again, Charles McGlashan led the committee, composed of Paul Doyle, Dr. Joe Bernard, Ed Campbell, Dr. George Kelly, Hugh Smith and Alexander Crosnan. After a few practice weekends in February, The Great Truckee Winter Carnival was held on two March weekends. Crowds filled the Southern Pacific excursion trains that brought snow lovers to Truckee.The Chlepp Brothers held jumping exhibitions that reached 102 feet, and taught novices to fly through the thin cold air to a graceful landing. Toboggans flew down the mountain on a carefully banked and groomed run, and sleighs took sightseeing parties to Donner Lake. The event was not a great financial success for the Committee, but it brought much needed income for the local merchants.Seeing the long-term potential, a new permanent committee, The Truckee Businessmens Association, was formed in 1910. Truckee Republican publisher W.H.M. Smith led the effort and raised enough local funding to lease the hill south of Truckee from the Truckee Lumber Company, build a new ski jump, clear ski runs on the hill, and create a new skating pond across the river.The main attraction was a steam-powered toboggan lift that hauled sleds and riders up the hill. This lift used locally available ice and lumber industry technology and was built by J. G. Kirchner. It was the first mechanical lift in the West. This helped boost attendance to more than 2,000 participants for the winter season a great accomplishment at the time.With the help of Southern Pacific excursion trains, the winter of 1911 showed the demand for Winter Sports was sustainable, but only if it could be run as a community-based organization, rather than a private business. Local businessmen contributed over $1,000 to run the event, and while the Committee did not make a profit, the local merchants made enough to support future investments.
In 1913, the Truckee Chamber of Commerce, formed the previous year with Winter Sports promotion in mind, took over the management. The Chamber went into debt to construct a new wooden ice palace on Southwest River Street at the bottom of the relocated toboggan lift. They also joined with the Railroad to promote and advertise Truckee Winter Sports all over the West.Under the guidance of Wally Gelatt, the Winter Carnival attendance jumped to over a thousand every weekend up to the 1930s. In addition to filling up every hotel room and vacant house in Truckee, Southern Pacific parked Pullman sleeper cars on sidings to house the fun seekers. Local businesses, desperate for winter patrons, financially supported the Winter Carnival, which in turn paid them back with increased business.The Ice Palace burned in 1916, but other ice ponds, such as the Henry ice pond on Trout Creek, just east of town were used by skaters. Dog sled rides and races were added, and Swiss ski runner instructor Emile De Choudens was hired to start teaching what would become modern downhill skiing. The Fiesta of The Snows attracted existing organizations such as the Shriners, Moose and Elks lodges, Native Sons of The Golden West, Masons and Odd Fellows. A wide variety of clubs brought thousands for a day in the snow. In 1914, The Truckee Ski Club was incorporated, the first of its kind on the West Coast. The club took over organization of race events for the next four decades. Other ski clubs quickly formed in California, and interest in skiing led to Truckee being widely known for the next two decades as the Winter Sports Capitol of the West.The depression years of the 1930s saw an upsurge in community participation in the Winter Sports organization. New leaders such as Southern Pacific agent Wilbur Maynard, Chamber of Commerce President Charles White, and Truckee Donner PUD manager Cecil Edmunds guided the sport and helped form the California Ski Association in 1930. The Chamber oversaw the construction of the Lars Haugen-designed ski jump scaffold at the Winter Sports Park. It was beside the Pavilion, built in 1928 by the Truckee Ski Club, which is now the Cottonwood.In 1935, the Chamber of Commerce formed the Truckee Outing Club in response to the need for a special events organization, and took over the Winter Sports operations. Competition from private ski resorts on Donner Summit and elsewhere in California spurred the club to install the first rope tow in 1940. When World War II took most of Truckees young men overseas, the Winter Sports Park was taken over by the Truckee PUD to keep it in operation. The end of public ownership of the pioneer ski area came in 1945 when the PUD sold it.
Tahoe Citys first winter sports activities were sponsored by the Tahoe Tavern, under the direction of Jack Matthews in 1929, but were organized and operated by the Tahoe Ski Club. A Lars Haugen-supervised ski jump was built at Olympic Hill, and ski trails and open runs cut through the forests of Ski Canyon, southeast of Tahoe City. The California Ski Association championships were held in February of 1931. They also served as tryouts for the 1932 Winter Olympics. This successful event was followed by a National Ski Tournament in February of 1932, and the California State Championship again in February of 1934.Even after the Tahoe Tavern withdrew its support for the ski operation in 1934, the Ski Club continued, expanding the hill and teaching programs, building bigger jumps, and a rope tow in 1939 on the Club hill behind the Community Center. After returning to Olympic Hill, the Club ran the winter sports operation for another two decades.In 1931 the Wendell Robie-led Auburn Ski Club, a member owned organization, built a ski hill and jump at Cisco, taking advantage of the first snow plowing of U.S. 40 over Donner Pass.As early as 1927 Gelatt andamp; Maynard were in discussion with the Reno Chamber of Commerce about building a ski hill. In 1931, the Reno Ski Club was formed, a quickly organized sanctioned jump meet held. The following year the ski hill and jump built, with the resort serving Reno residents until the opening of Mt. Rose in 1941.All of these community organized efforts did not go unnoticed by the private sector. Johnny Ellis opened one rope tow at Donner Pass in 1938 and soon had three running on the Summit. With the opening of Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch in 1939, a new ski industry was on the horizon. Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at http://truckeehistory.org. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at Sierrasun.com in the archives.
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