Lake Tahoe: Breeding ground of champions, Part I

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Most of us take it for granted that the Tahoe-Truckee region will be well represented by local star athletes at virtually every top tier international ski or snowboard competition. Tahoe has a long history at producing ski champions, and it continues to grow every decade. You can thank the Lake Tahoe Ski Club, formed in 1929, for establishing the roots of this great legacy.

In 1926, an opportunity to expand into winter sports appeared at North Lake Tahoe when the Linnard Steamship Company purchased the Tahoe Tavern Hotel, a 223-room, European-style luxury resort near Tahoe City. Unlike years past, when the Tahoe Tavern closed after Labor Day for the off-season, the new owners decided to reopen the facility from December to March.

Transportation to the lake was provided by Southern Pacific Railroad, which maintained a track from the main line in Truckee to the hotel. The train provided reliable winter access for tourists heading to Tahoe. Both Southern Pacific and the Linnard group recognized the economic potential for operating the hotel during the normally closed winter season and preparations were made for a variety of entertainment and sports activities. Southern Pacific promoted its new winter sports operation by scheduling overnight weekend excursion trains from San Francisco, a run they called “The Snowball Special.”

Initially, the main attractions were ice skating and tobogganing near the hotel, but soon a Winter Sports Grounds was developed at a pine-sheltered slope (today’s Granlibakken Resort) about half a mile west of the hotel. A double toboggan slide was built, and then shortly after a 65-meter trajectory jump was constructed and opened by December 1927. The jump was designed so that at the apex of their leap, skiers could see Lake Tahoe over the forest canopy. Like the Hilltop scaffold jump built at Truckee, this project was designed and its construction supervised by Lars Haugen, a Norwegian-born professional jumper who would eventually win seven Class A national jumping championships.

Before long, the Tavern’s winter sports program included ice skating, downhill skiing and exhibition ski jumping. To entertain their guests, the Tahoe Tavern hired Haugen and other nationally ranked ski jumpers like Sig Ulland, and brothers Alf and Sverre Engen, to perform daring leaps. While working at the Tahoe Tavern, Alf and 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.

In the 1920s there were few year-round residents at Lake Tahoe. A February 1934 circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe on skis by Tahoe City constable Harry Johanson revealed just how quiet the region was during winter. The only person he saw during his one and a half day tour was the caretaker at Glenbrook where he spent the night. During his journey, Johanson passed no occupied homes and observed no ski or snowshoe tracks. Winter sports would change all that.

Once Tahoe City residents got a chance to see Lars Haugen and the other pro jumpers show their stuff, enthusiasm for recreational winter sports grew rapidly among the young people in the snowbound community. In 1929, local skiers like Jack Starratt, Carl Bechdolt, Joe Henry and others formed the Lake Tahoe Ski Club to organize more activities and competitive events. The club would leave an indelible mark on the sport.

Ski writer Robert Frohlich wrote, “To the present day, the club has had more National Champions and Olympians than any other ski club in America, including Kristin Krone, Eric and Sandra Poulsen, and Bob Ormsby.”

In addition to placing more than 60 members onto the U.S. Alpine Ski Team, several of its members, such as Lars and Anders Haugen, Greg Jones and Jimmie Heuga, are in the prestigious U.S. Ski Hall of Fame.

The Lake Tahoe Ski Club’s enduring legacy was not apparent in the beginning. In late 1929, Tavern manager Jack Matthews called from San Francisco with disappointing news, saying that the Tahoe Tavern would not open for the upcoming winter. Yes, there had been plenty of tourists, but nearly all of them had slept and ate on the Southern Pacific’s Snowball Special passenger cars, which made the Tavern facilities unprofitable. Matthew’s news was a setback for the fledgling winter sports industry at North Lake Tahoe, but other larger wheels were turning that would soon propel the area into the national spotlight.

In 1929, the United States was chosen by the International Olympic Committee to host the 1932 Olympics. A wave of excitement spread over the nation’s snow country as ski advocates began speculating about which state would be selected for the coveted Winter Games. Competition to host the first Winter Olympics in the United States grew into an intense contest between three established winter snow play areas: Yosemite National Park, North Lake Tahoe and Lake Placid near Whiteface Mountain in New York.

Yosemite had opulent lodging at the Ahwahnee Hotel, Lake Placid promised to construct modern facilities, and Lake Tahoe promoters boasted of a $3 million bankroll that could build anything that the International Olympic Committee wanted. Optimistically, organizers started calling the Tahoe Tavern winter sports facility Olympic Hill. Ultimately, Lake Placid was picked because of its location in upstate New York’s snow country, and it had a long history of winter sports.

California failed to secure the 1932 Winter Games, but the state’s Chamber of Commerce switched gears and began to embrace winter sports as a viable, economic and popular commodity. Tahoe City was awarded the 1932 National Ski Association Championship Tournament, with events in jumping and cross-country skiing. The 1932 competition, along with the 1931 try-outs for the event, would showcase the skiing talent at Lake Tahoe to the nation.

Stay tuned for Part II.

 

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about the story of the region’s impact on winter sports, visit the Museum of Sierra Ski History and 1960 Winter Olympics at the Boatworks Mall in Tahoe City. North Shore local and Olympic historian David Antonucci, along with Sacramento area physician Stan Batiste and his wife, Maryann, have put together a comprehensive display of artifacts, memorabilia and photographs. The 1,800-square-foot exhibit is free to the public and includes a tribute to current and past Tahoe-area Winter Olympians and prominent skiers.

 

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at thestormking.com. Mark may be reached at [email protected] Check out Marks blog at tahoenuggets.com57.

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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.