Ski journalist William Berry coins Lost Sierra

From left, Jacob Vaage and Bill Berry in great debate, circa 1954. | Mark McLaughlin

From the 1930s to the early 1960s, when Nevada marketed itself as a destination for quick and easy divorce, journalist William Banks Berry gained a national audience for his scoops on famous Hollywood celebrities, titans of industry, eastern socialites and other rich and famous bourgeois that arrived in the Silver State to move past their unsatisfactory matrimonial lives. Berry was a stringer for several New York City news services and his connections with the divorce ranches that sprouted up around Reno offered a glimpse into the lives of high-profile cultural luminaries American readers are infatuated with.

But despite the widespread professional recognition and lucrative paychecks that Berry earned from the divorce racket, his heart wasn’t into celebrity gossip. His lifelong mission was devoted to skiing, its history and its champions. For everyone who has a passion for winter sports and its talented heroes, Berry laid the groundwork for the mainstream status of the lifestyle today. Shortly after his move to Reno in 1928, he visited Truckee’s Hilltop Lodge winter sports park. Afterward Berry said, “I’ve been in love with skiing in the Sierra either as a competitor or reporter ever since.”

Berry was bitten by the ski bug and he became a dynamo in the sport’s early growth in the West. He was a charter member of many regional ski clubs, joining the pioneering Reno Ski Club in 1929. On Oct. 7, 1930, he attended the first meeting of today’s Far West Ski Association in San Francisco. In 1933 he became a member of the Auburn Ski Club (ASC), a highly influential association with political clout that initiated organized skiing in Northern California.

The dispute between the two future U.S. Ski Hall of Fame historians ended when the proud Norwegian grudgingly admitted that the Lost Sierra could be the cradle of organized downhill skiing after all.

When the ASC opened its massive competitive ski jump hill at Cisco along Highway 40, Berry was there to cover all the events. At that time, he began collecting the books, papers, equipment and biographies on skiing that would become cornerstone exhibits for the future Western SkiSport Museum at Boreal Ridge (now Boreal Mountain).

Career covering skiing
Berry began writing ski articles for the United Press in 1934, a time when most media ignored the sport. He was hired by the Sacramento Union the following year where he was promoted to winter sports editor. He traded that job for the same position at the Sacramento Bee, a spot he held until his retirement in 1970. Between divorces and ski reporting, Berry’s working day was on call and around the clock.

In his 70-year-long professional journalism career, Berry attended thousands of ski competitions, both Nordic and alpine. He covered the 1932 U.S. Olympic trials held at Granlibakken in Tahoe City, a runup for the 1936 Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where the disciplines of Alpine and Downhill ski racing were first introduced to the Winter Olympics. He reported on the 1950 International Ski Federation (F.I.S.) World Championships at Aspen, Colo., and in 1960 relayed the daily results from the Winter Games at Sq**w Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) for radio stations across Northern California.

In the 1930s, Berry submitted his stories extemporaneously by telephone, dictating to a typist in New York City or Sacramento in a tight narrative derived from scribbled notes and memory. In 1931, he informed the nation that ASC had convinced the California legislature to fund plowing of its mountain highways to give easy access to a winter wonderland that increased tourism to the Tahoe Sierra. His glowing reports of the Golden State’s rapidly growing winter sports industry spread across the country.

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Berry seemed to be everywhere at once, showing up for every race he could, sometimes reporting on up to eight events per weekend. In his last year before retirement, he covered more than 100 Far West high-school and intercollegiate ski races on the spot, a record that may never be equaled. Listing the score of all those competitions really added up.

Berry recounted: “I’d get all the results together – written out, they might be 10 feet long – and I’d paste them together and go down to the telegraph office. The girl there would look at it and she’d look at me like she was ready to kill, but those results always got through.”

Berry coins “Lost Sierra”
Born in 1903 in Potsdam, N.Y., by 1916 Berry was a teenage runaway working as a copy boy at the Ottawa Evening Journal in Ontario, Canada. The mechanical superintendent at the newspaper gave the 13-year-old a Linotype keyboard and Berry learned to set printing type, a skill that would ultimately lead him to the Lost Sierra and 19th-Century longboard racing.

In 1931, an editor in Portola called for help with his newspaper’s Linotype machine. On his way, Berry stopped at a general store where he noticed a pair of old, long wooden skis leaning against a wall. He asked around and old timers were soon sharing stories, artifacts and equipment from the region’s largely forgotten longboard era that began in the mid-1850s.

Berry wrote a two-page spread for the Sacramento Union that was picked up by National Geographic. Berry coined the name “Lost Sierra” and used it in the title of his 1991 book, “Lost Sierra; Gold, Ghosts & Skis: Legendary Days of Skiing in the California Mining Camps,” a project financially supported by ASC.

The birth of downhill skiing
Berry’s research into early California ski-racing history led him to write that the Alturas Snow-shoe Club, organized in 1867, was the world’s first association formed for the specific purpose of sponsoring competition and promoting skiing. The news caught the attention of renowned Norwegian ski historian Jakob Vaage, who considered it a spurious claim.

During the 1954 Sierra Nevada Ski Centennial celebration, Vaage and Berry debated which country could claim the world’s first organized ski-racing competitions. The dispute between the two future U.S. Ski Hall of Fame historians ended when the proud Norwegian grudgingly admitted that the Lost Sierra could be the cradle of organized downhill skiing after all.

Berry also told the world about John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson, a Norwegian immigrant who routinely delivered the mail on skis in the Tahoe Sierra for 20 winters. To honor this intrepid skier who traveled the mountains alone and never got lost, Berry and ASC raised money for the Snowshoe Thompson monument at Boreal Ridge.

In 1976, Norway’s king awarded Berry the St. Olaf Medal for his tireless work in documenting Gold Rush Norwegians who introduced downhill ski racing to the United States. 

Berry, who created the Ski Hall of Fame in 1954, was inducted himself in 1976. As the dean of U. S. ski journalism, Berry was called Keeper of America’s Skisport Heritage. He died in Reno on Jan. 23, 1999, shortly before his 96th birthday, working to the end.