50 Years of Flight
Ski Jumping in California 1900-1950
Ingrid Wicken 176 pages
Before the advent of modern skiing winter sports consisted of some cross country skiing and exhibitions of slalom skiing and ski jumping. It was about spectating and not participating. Winter sports took off with the development of improved techniques, improved teaching methods, improved equipment, and ski lifts.
50 Years of Flight is about, mostly, the time when winter sports was about spectating, when people came to the snow to watch ski jumping.
“Ski jumping in California is long forgotten now, but it was a key force in the awakening of winter sports possibilities throughout the state, “ says Ingrid Wicken in her introduction. So it’s a worthy subject of a book chronicling the ski jumpers whose feats made front page news and who were a popular public attraction. The book takes us back into another era.
Wicken starts with Northern California, which of course includes Donner Summit and Northern California takes up more than half of the book which seems suitable. Truckee, the Auburn Ski Club and Lake Tahoe along with small ski areas make up most of that.
Truckee is first up, blessed with 200” of snow each winter in and that encouraged the first winter carnival in 1896. That would have been an interesting event to visit with its ice palace built of water sprayed on a huge frame frozen into a building shape. Inside was a skating rink. Nearby was a tower that was the start, at fifty feet off the ground, of a toboggan run that was a quarter of a mile long. Ski exhibitions and jumping, later, also became part of the early Truckee winter carnivals.
As time went by there were more carnivals and locals met visitors’ needs with more skis, skates, and toboggans for rent. As popularity increased there was more development and toboggans runs got longer and higher. Truckee also developed a system to move people up the hill. It had a cable 2,000 feet long that pulled skiers and tobogganers up the hill. It was the first mechanical lift in the west.
Wicken has lot of good pictures to peruse and harvests quotes from timely periodicals. For example, the carnival was a complete success “flying feet, flying hats, flying snow, men’s and youth’s shouts and women’s screams combined here Sunday to make the real opening day of Truckee winter carnival a source of pleasure thrills and enjoyment for hundreds of people…..” That quote leads to, “Truckee is destined to be a second San Moritz—or Montreal. It’s location and altitude combined with the forest and hill, make it a place of rare winter beauty. It surely adds one more to California’s already long list of wonders….”
As carnivals increased in popularity more people were attracted and with more people there was more ski jumping and so in 1914 Truckee built a “ski jump platform.” By 1932 the jump was 68 feet high and 80 feet long and made of old railroad timbers.
The Truckee carnival history is chapter one and the Auburn Ski Club history is chapter two. Those two chapters are general history and makes one wonder about the title of the book because there is little about ski jumping. Both are the most interesting parts of the book, maybe because they are local. For example, the Auburn Ski Club chapter describes efforts to popularize winter sports with ski jumping exhibitions in Berkeley and Treasure Island during the 1939 World’s Fair. “By 1930, the Auburn Ski Club had established itself as the premiere club in the state and was probably the most aggressive in promoting and planning winter sports programs.” As part of the Auburn Ski Club history there is also a nice summary of how Highway 40 came to be cleared in winter which of course allowed access to more winter activities.
Following those two chapters though, the book focuses on ski jumping in northern and southern California. That occasions long lists of names, who won what, the dates of ski exhibitions, etc. It’s interesting in general but can get tedious.
Besides the focus on names, and there’s really no other way to do a history like that, there are some weaknesses. For example “The awakening of winter sports throughout California began in 1928 and it was this awakening that spurred renewed interest in winter carnivals.” That’s an interesting observation but there is nothing behind it. Then people just started holding competitions. Why? What drove the popularity? Where’s the context?
The pictures, good quotes, advertisements, and general history are good reasons to pick up this book. There are a couple of copies at the DSHS you can purchase.
The Clearing of Highway 40 in winter
The Auburn Ski Club was instrumental in popularizing winter sports. To do that they needed access to the higher elevations where more snow was. Their first club location was just above Baxter and Canyon Creek. Up higher there would be more snow but the highway was only cleared as far a Baxter. People had to walk or ski up to the club’s site and conditions were not the best. If only the road could be cleared. People could drive right up to a better site. The State realigned the Lincoln Highway right through the club’s ski area. The club enlisted the help of state legislators and on January 18, 1931 legislators and State officials were ferried in 56 cars to Canyon Creek. Hundreds of other automobiles followed bringing along spectators. “Many had no knowledge of of snow or winter sports. They were treated to exhibitions ski jumping food and refreshments.” State officials saw the increasing popularity of winter sports and its possibilities. “They saw thousands of people skiing on one packed hillside; they saw 2,461 automobiles jammed into the dad end of a highway blocks with snow. The lawmakers borrowed skis from ski club members and descended the slope in a manner unbefitting senatorial dignity. They put on the Auburn Ski Club sweater and posed for snapshots.” There was a huge traffic jam. Legislators voted to keep the highway open in winter. The next winter the road was only closed for thirty-five days.