Squaw Valley Celebrates 70 Years, Part II

Pilot Wayne Poulsen flew over Squaw Valley to get promotional photos, circa 1942. | Courtesy Mark McLaughlin

On Thanksgiving weekend 2019, Squaw Valley Ski Resort celebrated 70 years of epic skiing for winter sports enthusiasts. Since 1949, millions of people have been drawn to the picturesque valley surrounded by mountain peaks that offer unparalleled California skiing. Two men who loved to ski, Alex Cushing and Wayne Poulsen, had become business partners in 1948 when they agreed to organize the Squaw Valley Development Corp. Their goal was to build a world-class winter resort in this beautiful but isolated alpine valley tucked into the Sierra Nevada.

Read Part I.

Poulsen started exploring the Squaw Valley terrain as a teenager in the early 1930s more than a decade before Cushing would come West looking for a business opportunity in the fast-growing sport of alpine skiing. Cushing’s scary brush with physical paralysis during World War II had convinced him that a career as an office-bound Wall Street lawyer was not what he wanted.

Wayne Poulsen started exploring the Squaw Valley terrain as a teenager in the early 1930s more than a decade before Alex Cushing would come West looking for a business opportunity in the fast-growing sport of alpine skiing.

Poulsen’s good friend and fellow University of Nevada skier, Martin Jacques “Marti” Arrougé, knew everything about Squaw Valley since his father was a Basque herder who grazed sheep in the remote valley each summer. Arrougé had a brother and sister, but they both died young. When Arrougé was in his teens, his dad abruptly abandoned the family and sheep and departed for Wyoming.

Born in San Francisco, Arrougé spent a lot of time at Squaw Valley hunting, horseback riding, swimming and fishing; he learned much about its weather, climate and skiing terrain. Once he became a skier, he spotted downhill-friendly slopes and mentally installed lift systems where they would best open up the mountain. Arrougé shared that specialized knowledge with his buddy Poulsen, who was one year younger. Poulsen and Arrougé had a lot in common and a strong history together. Not only were they both talented skiers on the University of Nevada’s first alpine team, they each earned a pilot’s license and flew during World War II. Arrougé served as a Navy aviator and flight instructor and Poulsen as a military pilot flying Pan Am trans-Pacific Clipper cargo aircraft. While waiting for induction into the war effort, Arrougé got a job as an instructor at Otto Lang’s new ski school in the Sun Valley ski area in Idaho. Accessed exclusively by Union Pacific Railroad, whose management had purchased the land around the town of Ketchum and developed the vacation hot spot, Sun Valley was the world’s first dedicated, ski-destination resort and the first to install a chairlift in the United States.

Poulsen joined Arrougé teaching at Sun Valley and during that magical winter of 1941-42, they both met the love of their lives. In August 1942, shortly before he was assigned to the Twenty-Nine Palms airbase for duty as a military flight instructor, Poulsen married Gladys “Sandy” Kunau, from Manhattan, N.Y. The Poulsen-Kunau nuptials were followed one week later by Arrougé and his new beau, Norma Shearer, a famous movie starlet, ski junkie and wealthy widow 12 years older than Arrougé.

In 1943, the Poulsen’s purchased 640 acres of land at the head of Squaw Valley from Southern Pacific Railroad, where the modern resort now stands. Over the next few years the Poulsen’s acquired the option rights to an additional 1,200 acres from a private landholder. The couple hand-built their family home at the east end of the valley, where they would raise their eight children. Marti and Norma Arrougé were key financial supporters in these land acquisitions. After the war, the Arrougés moved to France to ski the Alps and enroll Norma’s two children from a prior marriage with film producer Irving Thalberg Sr. in private European schools The wildly successful Thalberg had died in 1936 at age 37 from pneumonia, leaving Norma $4.5 million in the midst of the Great Depression.

In the 1940s, the Poulsens were focused on developing a ski resort at Squaw Valley, but it was hard to raise sufficient capital. Wayne was flying for Pan Am out of San Francisco and Sandy was busy raising their children in the remote valley. Winter storms often left them snowbound, so the Poulsen’s purchased an army-surplus amphibious landing craft called a Weasel. The tractors, designed for landing military troops on sand beaches, worked fine in snow. The Poulsen’s employed their Clipper Reindeer as a mechanical horse to pull friends over the snow, as well as any possible investors. Wayne invited Olympic-caliber skiers such as Friedl Pfeifer and André Roch to help advise on the future ski area’s layout and design. At one point, Corty Hill, a principal shareholder at the nearby Sugar Bowl ski area, was interested in the project. Friends and avid local skiers chipped in by buying stock in Poulsen’s dream, but there was not enough money to get started.

During the winter of 1947-48, the Poulsen’s were skiing at Alta, Utah, where they met Cushing, a well-connected Wall Street attorney who was looking to buy land in California. Wayne and Sandy invited him to visit Squaw Valley. That spring, Cushing, his wife Justine, and other family members took the train from New York to Sugar Bowl, where Cushing promptly broke his leg skiing. Cushing still managed to get a tour of Squaw Valley by riding on the Clipper Reindeer; while Wayne drove and pitched his vision. Cushing and his wife Justine decided then and there that they would raise the money and join the Poulsen’s in building the resort. They returned to the East, called on their wealthy friends and over the summer raised $400,000. For his part, Wayne contributed a portion of his land in lieu of cash and he and Cushing formed a business partnership called Squaw Valley Development Corp.

Almost immediately, the new company was plagued by dissension and disagreements. Over the years of exploring, skiing and living in Squaw Valley, the Poulsen’s had developed a close bond with the natural environment and wanted it protected as much as possible despite the development of a ski area. Cushing, however, was under pressure from stockholders, nearly all of whom had invested in the project due to Cushing’s involvement and recommendation. Cushing and his backers wanted to get the resort up and running as soon as possible to produce revenue and dividends for the company and its investors. Both Poulsen and Cushing were strong-willed men and steadfast in their convictions; their disputes and confrontations escalated during the spring and summer of 1949. The situation was untenable and something would have to give.

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