Winter carnival: A long-lived local tradition
Echoes From the Past
With the coming of the Central Pacific Railroad to the Sierra in 1868, people began to live in the snow belt year-round on a large scale. It didn’t take long for these hardy mountain people to figure out that snow was not just for water or work ” it was fast fun.
Ten-foot wooden snowshoes could only be mastered by a few before the 1870s, but with constant practice, Truckee skiers became proficient at going straight downhill.
All of the children and a few adults rode sleds and coasters, flying down the snow-covered slopes. Ice skating was another popular winter sport for the average Sierra resident and visitor well into the early 1900s.
Since Lake Tahoe was mostly snowbound, the winter sports focus was in the Truckee area. The hill just south of downtown Truckee, both below and above the Cottonwood Restaurant, was the favorite place for most adult skiers. After going by many different names over the years it became Hilltop in the 1950s. Ski jumping was the most popular spectator sport, while cross country skiing was the favorite sport for those wanting to skim over the hills in a winter wonderland.
Ice skating was done on a number of ponds around Truckee. When allowed between ice harvests, skaters carved turns on the Peoples Ice Company pond where the Truckee Regional Park is now. Ice ponds at Polaris, Prosser Creek, Donner Creek and Boca were also favorite skating places.
When the ice froze, and it seems to have done so most years of the late 1800s, Donner Lake was a great venue for skating. It did require plowing of snow off the ice, and those who wished to go had to wait until the sleigh road was broken and packed from Truckee, but it was well worth the effort.
The first Truckee-area organized winter sports event was held on Donner Lake in 1880 when Jake Teeter, Bill Irwin and others cleared a mile-wide circle of snow, sent out telegrams of invitation and skaters quickly came from Reno and California to enjoy a grand time on the ice. While their 1880 carnival was popular, it was not a financial success and was not repeated immediately.
In 1885 Truckee businessmen took advantage of an early hard freeze of Donner Lake by organizing a skating carnival during late January. Merchants, such as James Sherritt and Stewart McKay, sold sandwiches, tea, coffee and of course, hot alcohol-laced drinks were served from a well-stocked bar.
These early events attracted groups of visitors who praised the efforts of Truckee to provide winter play, but the crowds were not big enough yet to generate a viable business. But in 1892 that changed when Charles “Roddy” McLellan built a 450-foot diameter ice rink on the plaza in front of the downtown businesses. This brought in more skaters on the trains and Truckeeites began to see that winter could be a profitable season.
In 1894 Truckee’s most prominent citizen, Charles F. McGlashan, pushed the envelope further when he erected a 45-foot, chicken-wire and wood-framed cone, next to the Rocking Stone tower above Truckee. When winter came, “Mac” sprayed water each night onto the frame and within a few days a giant icicle had been created. Electric lights were set up to shine on the icicle so that passing train passengers would be awed by the sight of a brightly lit ice cone on the hill.
Not all went well with the icicle at first. Strong winds blew the top off the ice sculpture, forcing McGlashan to move the icicle down next to the railroad tracks where it would survive winter winds and be more visible to passing trains. With this, the promotion of the Sierra as a winter sports destination had started.
In November of 1895, McGlashan and Stewart McKay and other town merchants organized a private Truckee business to build a large Ice Palace on the plaza to attract even more winter sports enthusiasts. This palace was built from wood, covered in wire, and then had water sprayed or trickled onto it when sub-freezing temperatures arrived.
On the inside was a 700-foot long skating oval, that was brightly lit with electric lights for night fun. The top of the 75 foot high tower was the perfect starting point for the thrilling toboggan ride. Sleigh rides to all points around Truckee, including Donner Lake and Brockway Hot Springs on the shore of Lake Tahoe.
Southern Pacific ran special excursion trains from San Francisco to Truckee, and each weekend saw a different social or business group come to play in the Ice Palace. From December of 1895 through April of 1897, the massive structure dominated the Truckee Plaza. It was bad luck that these two winters were two of the warmest winters in several decades. This led to the palace being torn down and the Truckee investors a little poorer.
In the fall of 1897 a crude cable winch was set up on the hill south of town and a 1,500-foot-long toboggan run was built. It appears this early effort at moving winter sports enthusiasts uphill may have been one of the earliest ski tows ever built. Little information exists on this tow and it may have only lasted a season at best.
For the next decade city folk came to enjoy the snow but there was no organized carnival. Memories of the fun of the ice palace led to the trial-run of another small scale Winter Sports Carnival held in 1908. Then in 1909, Truckee merchants got together to form a new company and a winter-long carnival was held on a hill called Snow Peak, which today we know as Hilltop.
In 1910 a pull-back lift was installed to pull toboggans uphill, which opened the way for people to enjoy the excitement of sliding downhill without the long trudge back up. The yearly carnivals ” called Fiesta of The Snows during the teens ” continued to be sponsored for another two decades by the Truckee Chamber of Commerce, or alternately, a private company run by pioneer resort operator and winter sports organizer, Wally Gellat.
The Truckee Winter Carnivals of the 1920s added ski jumping contests, sled dog racing, cross country ski races, and skating held on the old Henry ice pond on Trout Creek. Evenings were filled with dancing to orchestras, banquets, plays or movies, and a host of social gatherings.
The S.P. Pullman trains continued to bring thousands of people to party in the powder. Thanks to Truckee’s Wilber Maynard, the S.P. agent, the railroad spent a lot of energy and money promoting the winter sports events.
In 1926 the S.P. converted the old Lake Tahoe Railway to standard gauge, and began plowing and blowing the tracks. “Snowball Specials” were run on weekends and Jack Matthews kept the Tahoe Tavern open for the winter. Snow sports were held up in Ski Canyon, the site of present-day Granlibakken, with jumping on the Lars Haugen-designed ski jump the primary highlight.
Hollywood fell in love with filming winter sports, along with using the fantastic mountain scenery in silent era films. From 1910 through the 20s, dozens of movies were all or partially shot around Tahoe and Truckee, and filming during winter carnivals was frequently done.
Olympic Hill, as Ski Canyon would come to be known, was the location of the 1931 National Jumping and Cross-Country Races, and the tryouts for the 1932 Winter Olympics. In 1932 the United States Championships were the great event of the season. The late 30s continued to see many ski events taking center stage at Olympic Hill.
A higher caliber of athletes from all over the country were attracted to the Tahoe Ski festivities and the stage was set for snow festivals of the future.
The greatest winter carnival that Tahoe-Truckee has ever seen was, of course, the 1960 Winter Olympics, a massive party that hasn’t been matched yet. However, the annual Snow Festival winter carnival offers diverse activities for locals and visitors alike, attracts visitors to the area for the event, and offers a sense of winter play similar to those carnivals of the past. In truth, Snow Festival has been around a long time, just using different names.
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