Weather Window | Discover the Sierra’s first ski hotels |

Weather Window | Discover the Sierra’s first ski hotels

Mark McLaughlinSpecial to the Sun
Courtesy Norm SaylerThe House of Vanderford Ski Lodge offered skiing a short distance from the just-opened Sugar Bowl ski area.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. – Lake Tahoe is considered the epicenter for Northern California skiing and riding, but our regional ski history got its start in the high country west of Donner Pass. Five years before leaders of the Auburn Ski Club managed to persuade California’s state legislature to plow trans-Sierra Highway 40 during the winter months, two entrepreneurial brothers established the first resort hotel near the pass for winter sports enthusiasts. When Oscar and Herstle Jones completed the 20-room Soda Springs Hotel near Donner Pass in 1927, it was the only commercial business that offered meals and accommodations that could be easily accessed by skiers riding Southern Pacific trains. Among the amenities offered by the resort was the opportunity to ski down to Donner Lake and then enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride back to the hotel.Now that’s hotBy 1941, an improved Soda Springs Hotel was under new management by Herb and Ollie Bruck. Avid skiers themselves, the couple had revamped the lodge, installed a Swiss beer cellar in the basement, and built observation decks off the bar. The hotel could accommodate 75 guests in steam-heated rooms that contained a bath. Hotel rates in the Donner Summit area ranged from $1 to $4 per day, and meals cost 25 to $1 per day.The nearby Rainbow Tavern was also destined to become a favorite destination for skiers traveling Highway 40. Built along the south fork of the Yuba River, the structure was originally used as a stage stop in the late 1800s. Herstle Jones took it over in 1927, upgraded and enlarged the building, and renamed it “Herstle Jones’ Rainbow Tavern and Trout Farm.” Jones marketed it as a year-round resort, with access to both summer and winters sports. By 1939, Jones had installed a J-bar rope tow that pulled his skiing guests 500 feet up a hill near the lodge for 25 a ride. Riding the “Up-Ski”Oscar Jones’ son Dennis played a pivotal role in the Summit’s development as a commercial winter sports destination. Dennis, who had taken his first lessons from a friendly Pacific Gas & Electric Company lineman who used skis to make his rounds, had a real passion for skiing. When he later attended school in Switzerland, Jones learned the telemark turn (single bended knee) and the stem Christy (ski tips together and tails apart to turn and brake) from European instructors. He also learned the new Arlberg System, where skiers used two poles, not one, and linked dynamic parallel turns down the slope, the style made popular by the legendary teacher Hannes Schneider. In 1929, Dennis cleared trees and stumps for the first ski run on Beacon Hill (today’s Soda Springs Ski Hill). Dennis rented pine skis with basic toe strap bindings to customers from his ski shop across the street (first on the Summit), and he also offered dog sled and sleigh rides to the Soda Springs Hotel’s expanding winter clientele.Dennis Jones also built the first primitive ski lift on Donner Summit for the winter of 1936. The lift, called the “Up-Ski,” consisted of a couple of large sleds attached to a cable that passed though a pulley at the top of the hill. As one sled went up the other went down, the upward bound sled carrying several skiers. Jones’ “boat tow” was clunky and didn’t work very well, but soon rope tow operations were running at various places along Highway 40 including at the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappan Lodge. The Clair Tappan was built by volunteers and boasted an excellent ski school staffed by two young Austrian immigrants, brothers Bill and Fred Klein. Affable and technically skilled, Bill would later head the Sugar Bowl ski school By 1936, there were a handful of ski-oriented facilities operating between the Auburn Ski Club’s winter park at Cisco and Donner Lake. In the years leading up to World War II, many more were established with rope tow operations dotting the Highway 40 corridor. Because Southern Pacific’s tracks ran parallel the highway, skiers and winter sports enthusiasts could take the train to snow country if they did not want to drive. Around the same time, the House of Vanderford Ski Lodge was constructed near the Sierra crest just west of Donner Pass, one-and-a-half miles from Southern Pacific’s Norden Ski Hut. Mrs. Jessie A. Vanderford operated the lodge, while William Strickland, a popular and well-known local, provided ski school instruction. Word spread quickly that the Donner Pass/Norden area was a skier’s paradise, with reliable snow and a variety of rope tows in operation. Soon organizations like the Sierra Club, and ski clubs from Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland, among others, began providing inexpensive overnight accommodations. After more resorts popped up between Donner Pass and Yuba Gap, including Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch, and Soda Springs, the Highway 40 corridor was promoted as “America’s Finest Ski Area.” – Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach Mark at mark@thestormking. Check out Mark’s blog at

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