Squaw Valley Celebrates 70 Years, Part III

Squaw Valley’s double chairlift was the longest in the world, circa 1950. | Mark McLaughlin

In the months leading up to the grand opening of Squaw Valley in 1949, tensions were high between acting president Wayne Poulsen, acting secretary-treasurer Alex Cushing and several key stockholders in The Squaw Valley Development Corp. As Cushing correctly iterated in company correspondence, since a board of directors had not yet been appointed to manage the company, officer positions were temporary and not official until the board voted on the positions — a procedure slated to be held on Oct. 15, 1949.

Alex Cushing played a role, but he was far from acting alone or without significant support in taking the presidency away from Poulsen. This harsh schism is one of the most notorious in the ski world and still resonates somewhat unfairly on Cushing’s Squaw Valley legacy.

Cushing’s statement was made in a written response to Marti Arrougé, Poulsen’s boyhood friend, who had complained to Cushing that as a stockholder in the company he was never given an opportunity to vote for candidates running for board positions. Arrougé, who had invested cash and his valley land, also declared that he found Cushing’s management style imperious, one that silenced investors — a trait that others often acknowledged.

Tahoe ski history talk
Feb. 27 | 6:30-8 p.m.
Word After Word Books | Truckee

History has blamed Cushing for the breakup between himself and Poulsen. The narrative showcases a slick, New York attorney (Cushing) who fleeced a naïve and good-natured country boy (Poulsen) out of his dream to build a ski resort. However, as in most real-life dramas, the reality is more complicated than that. Over the past two years, I have reviewed many unpublished telegrams, letters and cables between some of the principle investors who ultimately forced Poulsen out of the company. Cushing played a role, but he was far from acting alone or without significant support in taking the presidency away from Poulsen. This harsh schism is one of the most notorious in the ski world and still resonates somewhat unfairly on Cushing’s Squaw Valley legacy.

Read Parts I & II 

When the corporation was first organized, the Poulsens didn’t have money to buy stock so they traded land for 12,000 shares in the company. Poulsen’s wife, Sandy, later admitted that it was a mistake because they should have leased the land to the enterprise, even for a nominal amount and retained title ownership in case of a falling out. When the breakup occurred, the Poulsen’s lost the land; they owned a substantial amount of stock, but certainly not enough to influence the new board of directors with Cushing as president.

To be fair, whether he realized it or not, Poulson had been in a tough spot all along. He was designated chief executive of a new company, but he was already obligated to his time-consuming job flying for Pan American World Airways, as well as trying to complete construction on his home in the valley. When Cushing encouraged him to quit the Pan Am job to spend more time getting the resort up to speed, Poulsen declined, responding that he had a family to support and that the ski resort was not guaranteed to produce much in the way of shared profits, at least not initially.

Space precludes me from sharing here all the details, but a few statements about Poulson’s perceived lack of management involvement indicate the frustration level of important Squaw investors in 1949. On Oct. 8, one week before the scheduled vote for board directors, Robert Heron wrote a public letter to all stockholders encouraging them to vote Poulsen off the board, claiming that “his influence has been negligible.”

Heron Engineering, highly respected in the ski industry for extensive lift construction at Rocky Mountain resorts, was installing Squaw’s double chairlift, which was billed as the longest in the world. Despite previous opportunities, Squaw Valley was Heron’s first investment in any ski enterprise, indicative of the engineer’s belief that the corporation — with good management — had a strong chance of success.

In a separate October missive to shareholders, David Fritschi, the major western U.S. investor who spent the summer of 1949 at Squaw Valley observing the project, stated that “despite Poulsen being given ample opportunity to do so, he has not participated in the construction activities of management of this Corporation in any capacity whatsoever since approximately May 1949.”

Comments like these made Cushing’s decision to marginalize Poulsen’s position and take over as president an acceptable resolution for many investors in the company. It’s possible that Cushing never took Poulsen’s role in the partnership seriously. In one flippant comment to Arrougé about Poulson’s executive title, Cushing wrote: “ ‘President’ in this case means Head Lift Engineer.”

The Poulsens were out, but Squaw Valley opened weeks later to great fanfare. At the time, all renowned resorts hosted a famous instructor to head the ski school to attract wealthy, influential students of any age. As post-war, moneyed skiers, Marti and Norma Arrougé were close friends with acclaimed French racing champion Emile Allais and his wife Georgette. Allais had developed a new downhill-turning technique that was rocking the ski world. French racers swept both the slalom and downhill events in the 1948 Winter Olympics using Allais’ system.

Allais had recently taken a job as an instructor in Sun Valley, Idaho, but he and his wife were unhappy with their situation there. Working with Arrougé, the couple switched to Squaw Valley in time for the 1949-50 opening season where Allais became a star attraction. His ski school was staffed by top skiers Dodie Post, Warren Miller, Charlie Cole and Alfred Hauser. Reno-native Post was captain of the 1948 U.S. Olympic ski team and a multi-winner of Sugar Bowl’s Silver Belt races. Miller became famous for producing dynamic ski films. Allais skied until he was 100 years old; he died in 2012.