This winter the Auburn Ski Club, based in Auburn, is celebrating its 90th anniversary. While many may be unfamiliar with the club, its birth in 1928 opened the door for ski development in the Tahoe Sierra. One of its charter members was Bert Cassidy, a state senator and avid skier.
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After a request by the ASC leadership, in 1932, he authored a bill that provided government funding to plow snow on California’s major arterial mountain highways. After it was passed by the state legislature, motorists by the thousands flocked to newly opened ski resorts between Rainbow Lodge and Donner Pass on Highway 40 (pre-Interstate 80).
“The Auburn Ski Club was formed and this group of live-wire Californians soon gave the impetus to Winter Sports that has carried to every city in the state.”
Years later, Cassidy wrote proudly of the club’s influence: “The Auburn Ski Club was formed and this group of live-wire Californians soon gave the impetus to Winter Sports that has carried to every city in the state. They all now have their favorite ski grounds. Ready access to these snow areas, due to good highways and snowplow crews of the State Division of Highways, bring them within a few hours ride of the most distant city.”
The early years of the Great Depression proved to be fertile ground for the growth of winter sports in California. During the 1930s, the ASC led the way in California Skisport events and programs. The ASC agenda was spearheaded by its president, Wendell Robie, an Auburn businessman and outdoorsman. He was also a visionary proponent of promoting skiing and winter sports. In order to bolster enthusiasm for skiing during the decade before World War II, Robie and his club staged outlandish ski-jumping competitions in snow-free Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. The stunts showcased the country’s best jumpers — young men such as Reno’s Wayne Poulsen (founder of Squaw Valley) and Norwegians Roy Mikkelsen and Sig Vettestad. The unprecedented events attracted thousands of spectators and made front-page headlines.
In 1932, the ASC formed the first unit of the National Ski Patrol west of the Mississippi River. Their training and skill in handling sports-related trauma earned members of the patrol such a high reputation for competence that they were frequently requested to help with injuries related to collisions and wrecks on Highway 40. Taking advantage of the open highway, the club established a new Winter Park on 740 acres at Cisco. It was one of the most highly developed systems of competitive ski courses and instruction hills on the continent. One outstanding feature was its Class A championship ski jump; its vertical drop of 251 feet enabled world-class jumps exceeding 300 feet.
The Auburn Ski Club set another precedent in 1933 when it became the first in California to begin competition in Alpine (downhill) racing. The races were held on Tunnel Mountain and Red Mountain at the Cisco Winter Park. That year, Auburn sent its two best ski jumpers to the U.S. Championships. Mikkelsen and Vettestad qualified to compete and Mikkelsen took first place to become the country’s jumping champion. Mikkelsen’s national-level victory focused even more attention on the dynamic club from California. Mikkelsen was national champion twice in ski jumping, while Vettestad was California’s first state champion and a top-ranked competitor.
Twenty years later as mayor of Auburn in 1952, Mikkelsen was a prime mover in planning and securing the 1960 Winter Olympics held at Squaw Valley. Robie didn’t like to leave his club’s dominance in the sport to chance. Mikkelsen and other Norwegian skiers were hired by Robie to work at his Auburn Lumber Company so they could jump competitively for the Auburn Ski Club.
In 1934 and 1935, the ASC put on ski-jumping exhibitions on the Berkeley campus and in 1939 hosted an international jumping competition at San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. In 1940, World War II loomed on the horizon and ASC drew attention to the importance of skiing in the military, particularly of how Finland used troops on skis to fight the Russians. At Auburn’s California Ski Championships that year, the United States’ first Military Ski Patrol Race was held. With a U.S. general and his staff present, a team of skier riflemen of the ASC defeated a California National Guard team in an exciting combination of ski racing and high-power rifle marksmanship (biathlon).
With the end of World War II, California’s State Highway Department moved forward to modernize Highway 40. Construction of the new highway (Interstate 80) cut right through Auburn Ski Club’s half-mile-wide Winter Park along the Yuba River. After lengthy negotiations with the state, the club’s board of directors rejected the final price offered for the land by the highway department. The property was condemned, which triggered legal wrangling that lasted more than five years before the state was forced to pay ASC the price it had initially demanded for its land.
During the long period of legal negotiations, the ASC started looking for a new location to build its next winter park. ASC contacted James Sherritt, who owned 224 acres near the summit of Donner Pass. Sherritt’s land was next to the newly surveyed route of Interstate 80 and above 7,000 feet, a perfect location for a new winter play area. After a short negotiation, the ski club’s directors approved the purchase. This land included the Uhlen Valley where a parking lot would be built, and Boreal Ridge, which was perfectly suited for Alpine skiing. Auburn Ski Club paid for the Boreal acquisition out of the funds that the state paid for the property that it had condemned at Cisco.
With this purchase and the subsequent development of its new Donner Summit Winter Park, as well as the establishment of the Western America Skisport Museum at Boreal Mountain Resort, the ASC continued its legacy and dedication to supporting competitive and recreational skiing and sponsorship of educational institutions.
Today, the Auburn Ski Club looks ahead to a permanent future as host and supporter of national ski competitions and as the regional center for northern California families who love winter sports. In recognition of Robie’s leadership and many important accomplishments with the Auburn Ski Club, in 1964 he was inducted into the prestigious United States Ski Hall of Fame.