Squaw Valley Celebrates 70 Years

Wayne Poulsen, circa 1940s. | Courtesy Poulsen Family

Squaw Valley, along with its recently acquired sister, Alpine Meadows, is a renowned, world-class resort, flush with 6,000 acres of beginner to expert terrain, networked by a state-of-the-art-lift system. It’s an impressive display of modern technology and ski-mountain swagger. Today’s version of Squaw Valley is the culmination of decades of focused vision and cutting-edge infrastructural upgrades, a lifetime achievement that didn’t come without growing pains. This pinnacle of a resort draws guests from around the globe, but when it first opened on Thanksgiving Day 1949, its success was far from guaranteed.

Former Wall Street attorney Alex Cushing was president of the Squaw Valley Development Corporation in November 1949, but he had no time to gloat on that inaugural weekend 70 years ago. Several hundred skiers showed up for opening day, anxious to explore the terrain of the highly publicized resort about 7 miles from Lake Tahoe. The exuberant alpine skiers drooled in anticipation as they gazed toward the lofty snow-covered peaks, but there was trouble brewing in paradise. Road and building construction, along with lift-installment costs and overruns, had pushed Cushing’s fledgling ski company to the brink of bankruptcy.

On that stressful opening day, only one toilet worked in the new lodge and the celebratory turkey dinner wasn’t served until after 10 p.m. More seriously, Cushing’s daughter tripped and broke her leg and the family dog was run over.

Due to a late-summer labor stoppage by disgruntled union workmen, Cushing was forced to hire strikebreakers to finish construction on the partially completed Squaw Valley Lodge. At the last minute, Alex had to hook up the plumbing himself. On that stressful opening day, only one toilet worked in the new lodge and the celebratory turkey dinner wasn’t served until after 10 p.m. More seriously, Cushing’s daughter tripped and broke her leg that weekend and the family dog was run over. To top it off, his founding partner and veteran Nevada-California ski champion, Wayne Poulsen, had been bluntly ejected from his nominal role as president of the brand-new corporation just weeks before. Cushing was in over his head, but his determination to develop an innovative Tahoe Sierra ski resort never wavered.

Alex Cushing, circa 1950s. | Courtesy Nevada Historical Society

Squaw Valley’s original founders, Poulsen and Cushing, were strange bedfellows. Both wanted to develop a ski resort, but these two strong-minded men each had his own vision on how to do it. Born in Richmond in 1915 but raised in Reno, Nev., Poulsen took advantage of the nearby Sierra during his formative years. He started skiing as an 11-year-old Boy Scout who learned to make his own skis from cut lumber. During his teens, he explored much of the local alpine terrain. Poulsen developed into an unpretentious Western ski-jumping champion who earned bragging rights as a talented competitor in all four skiing disciplines: Nordic, jumping and alpine (slalom and downhill). As a junior in college, he started and captained the first ski team at the University of Nevada, Reno, eventually coaching his skiers to an undefeated season in 1939. An ardent environmentalist and experienced in back-country mountaineering and wilderness survival, Poulsen was a skier’s skier.

In contrast, Cushing was born in New York City in 1913, the son of a well-known fine-art painter, Howard Gardiner Cushing, and his wife, Ethel Cochrane from Boston. Cushing’s privileged urban upbringing stemmed from his wealthy, blue-blood family lineage from southern New England. Educated at the elite college-prep boarding school Groton, he graduated Harvard University in 1936. Three years later, Cushing passed the bar exam at prestigious Harvard Law School. In 1939, he took a job with a New York law firm. Cushing also worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and argued a case before the Supreme Court. This tall, lanky, urbane socialite was still learning to ski proficiently when he headed West in the 1940s looking for a business opportunity. He met Squaw Valley resident Poulsen. It was an unlikely coupling, but each of these men needed the other to accomplish their dreams — at least initially.

It wasn’t all oil and vinegar between the two ski-resort visionaries. Both served the country in the military. After college, Poulsen earned a pilot’s license and when the United States entered World War II, he joined the U.S. Air Force as a flight instructor. Due to a previous ski injury, Poulsen could not be trained as a combat fighter pilot, but his exceptional flying ability earned him a position as a lead pilot for Pan American World Airways, a military contractor during the war. Pan Am pilots were pioneering risky trans-Pacific Ocean flight routes to deliver troops and materiel to the Asian theater. It was those pilots who discovered the atmospheric jet stream: high-altitude, high-velocity concentrated rivers of air that drive global storm patterns. Lt. Colonel Poulsen’s long career with Pan Am — he served during the Korean conflict and Vietnam war as well — kept him based in San Francisco, as opposed to being deployed to Europe or the South Pacific. He used his time off to reconnoiter Squaw Valley and its surrounding slopes as he schemed his dream of creating a ski area there.

Cushing’s military experience affected his life and led him to eventually leave Wall Street. After the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was bombed by Japanese aircraft in December 1941, Cushing accepted a Navy commission rather than wait to be drafted. During the war, Cushing worked in Naval intelligence. Cushing’s duties were based primarily in South America. At one point, he was dispatched to an American naval station in Brazil to solve an equipment logistics issue. The solution was obvious, but Cushing needed to change a U.S. law to commandeer the needed supplies. He flew to Washington, D.C., and for two days with no sleep, he helped write the necessary legislation. After the bill passed, he collapsed from exhaustion and later woke up in Bethesda Naval Hospital, his face paralyzed. Doctors did what they could, but when Lt. Commander Cushing was discharged from the hospital he suffered from partial paralysis of the left side of his face. The condition gave him a permanent scowl for the rest of his life no matter his mood. To some, it served as a metaphor for Cushing’s brusque management style.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com; click on Explore Tahoe: History.