Birth of winter sports in Tahoe

A ski jumper uncorks one at Tahoe City’s Olympic Hill, circa 1932 | Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society

Winter sports have deep roots in Truckee and Lake Tahoe, with Northern Californians enjoying railroad excursions to Sierra snow as early as the late 1860s. The birth of Truckee’s original Winter Carnival in 1895 opened with a bang due to that winter’s extraordinary 685 inches of snowfall near Donner Pass. The mid-winter event grew out of economic desperation among the town’s business community as the demise of logging, commercial ice harvesting, and the collapse of the Comstock silver boom was devastating to the region.

To promote Truckee’s unique position as a destination for winter sports with easy railroad access, in late 1894, civic leader Charles McGlashan and other businessmen approved construction of a massive ice palace containing a large, indoor skating rink, retail concessions and more. Outdoor activities included dog sled races, toboggan and horse-drawn sleigh rides, cross-country ski races, and moonlight ice skating parties on Donner Lake. McGlashan pitched Southern Pacific Railroad on the concept of using excursion trains from Sacramento and Oakland to bring thousands of winter tourists to Truckee.

Despite early skepticism about the project, Truckee residents decorated their town in red, white and blue bunting as they framed a wooden ice palace. The building was wrapped with wire netting that formed a veneer of ice when sprayed with water in subfreezing temperatures.

Female skiers using cloth sails to tap wind energy for an easy cruise, circa 1927 | Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society 

The first ice palace covered an acre of ground in downtown Truckee. It blocked traffic and spooked horses, but it was an immediate success at drawing winter visitors from the nearby train depot. Smiling skaters promenaded around the 700-foot oval, indoor rink serenaded by musicians. The ceiling was lit by 20 arc lights and tall cedar and pine trees decorated the palace roof. Daring toboggan riders could climb a 75-foot high tower near Truckee’s Commercial Row and enjoy an exciting slide 150 feet to street level. The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed it the “most thrilling ride on the Pacific Coast.”

Winter sports had a slower start at North Lake Tahoe, but in 1926, the Linnard Steamship Company purchased the Tahoe Tavern Hotel near Tahoe City. The new management decided to open the luxurious 223-room, summer resort during the winter months. Transportation to the lake was provided by Southern Pacific Railroad, which maintained a track from the transcontinental line in Truckee to the hotel.

Truckee’s toboggan ride was considered the “most thrilling on Pacific Coast,” circa 1895. Note the ice palace in the background | Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

Initially, the main attractions were ice skating and tobogganing, but soon a Winter Sports Grounds was developed on a slope about half a mile west of the hotel (current location of Granlibakken Resort). A double toboggan slide was built, and then shortly after a 65-meter trajectory jump was constructed. Before long, the Tahoe Tavern’s winter sports program included downhill skiing and exhibition ski jumping.

To entertain guests, the hotel hired Lars Haugen and other nationally ranked Norwegian ski jumpers to perform daring leaps. While working at the Tahoe Tavern, Alf Engen and brother Sverre had a signature move where they hit the jump simultaneously, clasped hands in mid flight, and then broke away for the landing. These professional performances drew hundreds of spectators to the Tavern and the future for winter sports looked bright as the crowds swelled.

Across the Truckee River, just south from downtown was Hilltop, a small hill that provided an excellent place to sled and ski. In 1910, an old steam engine from an abandoned lumber mill was hauled in by wagon and used to power an uphill lift for toboggans and skiers. Some ski historians believe that this was the first mechanical lift of its kind in the United States.

By 1928, professional ski jumps had been constructed at Hilltop and the Tahoe Tavern’s Winter Sports Grounds, now called Olympic Hill. That year, Tahoe City applied to host the 1932 Winter Games, but the effort was rejected. The Olympic Committee decision was based on a lack of previous winter sports events, but also influenced by the erroneous perception that most of California enjoys a year-round Mediterranean climate. That would change by 1960 when Squaw Valley successfully hosted the Winter Games.

Southern Pacific trains brought thousands of winter sports enthusiasts to the mountains | Courtesy Mark McLaughlin

People came to Truckee and Tahoe City for winter sports from throughout the West. Until winter plowing commenced on trans-Sierra Highway 40 in 1932, Southern Pacific Railroad provided all transportation into the mountains with “Snowball Express” specials. Soon automobiles became the most popular way to reach ski resorts, which sprouted along Highway 40 like weeds during the 1930s. The opening of Sugar Bowl ski area 75 years ago in 1939, which boasted steep, alpine slopes accessed by California’s first chairlift, signaled the debut of the region’s first upscale, European-style ski resort.

Truckee’s annual ice carnivals were the first in the West and a real boost to the town’s vitality. Charles McGlashan realized early on that tourism would be the main economic pillar for the small mountain community that he loved. The dream of the Truckee-Tahoe region as a Mecca for winter fun has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. The legacy continues with the North Lake Tahoe and Truckee Winter Carnival, a 10-day mountain Mardi Gras known as SnowFest! It’s scheduled this winter from Feb. 27 to March 8. Make sure you get out there and enjoy the timeless fun of winter sports.


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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.