William B. Berry: Legendary Tahoe Sierra Ski Journalist, Part I

Dedication of Western SkiSport Museum at Boreal Ridge, circa 1972. | Mark McLaughlin

In June 2022, Tahoe Weekly magazine won the Far West Ski Association’s Bill Berry Award for Hard News, bestowed for outstanding service to skiing by writers for the printed media in a hard article. The association recognized the work of Sean McAlindin, Priya Hutner, Katherine E. Hill and me.

The coveted Bill Berry Award is named for William Banks Berry, who reigned as the godfather of Tahoe Sierra ski journalism for almost five decades. He was a long-time Reno, Nev., resident who died in 1999 at age 96. I was friends with him for the last eight years of his life.

In 1972, Berry was honored for his many achievements with a testimonial dinner at Boreal Ridge (now Boreal Mountain) on Interstate 80 where he had established the William B. Berry Historical Museum of Western America Skisport. The inscription on his award plaque read: “No one ever, or will ever, see more, write more or do more for skiing.” That could be his epitaph.

Journalism in his blood
Berry had language and journalism in his blood. He was born April 7, 1903, in Potsdam, N.Y, to Elizabeth and Watson B. Berry. His mother was a native of Switzerland; as a child Berry attended boarding school and first skied at age 7. A noted linguist, his mother taught languages internationally. Watson Banks Berry was a lawyer and early correspondent for New York newspapers. He retired as the Assistant Attorney General for the state of New York.

Life was good until October 1916, when family troubles forced Berry to run away from home, which left the 13-year-old alone in Ottawa, Canada, with just a few dollars in his pocket and no financial support. He wandered the cold streets looking for work until he saw a “Boy Wanted” sign. Fortunately, his polished and cosmopolitan lifestyle in Europe had instilled confidence in the teenager. He grabbed the sign, walked into the office and talked his way into a job delivering office products.

The real excitement [at Hilltop Lodge in Truckee] centered around an amazing contraption that locals called a pullback … the only mechanical ski tow in America.

A few weeks later the managing editor of the Ottawa Evening Journal, Jack Crate asked Berry, “Can you run a bulletin service?” A newspaper bulletin service was a fast-paced job that kept the public informed about current world affairs. These were the days before radio and television. Important news events were pulled off the telegraph wire and presented during intermission in movie houses or printed on large posters, which were placed in the street. In a lie of confidence, Berry told the editor, “Yes, I can do it.”

Journalism career takes off
These character traits of determination and moxie would help Berry set new standards of excellence in his ski journalism career and his efforts to revitalize the lost history of early California skiing. In a few years he was reporting for the Evening Journal. Among his first accounts as a newspaper correspondent, Berry covered the 1922 Ottawa ski jumping championships.

In September 1923, the 20-year-old left Ottawa and returned to the United States where he worked as a typesetter for the Syracuse Telegram (New York) of the Hearst newspaper chain. By 1927 Berry was writing articles for New York City newspapers including The World, New York Times and Herald Tribune.

Berry had a nose for news. One of his favorite stories occurred on May 20, 1927; Berry was there while American aviator Charles Lindbergh was preparing for takeoff from Long Island. It would be the first attempt at a nonstop, transatlantic flight from the United States to Europe. Berry was among the few newspapermen around Lindbergh and he helped push the small monoplane onto the tarmac for the historic flight.

Berry moves to Reno
In 1928, Berry moved to Reno with his wife Frances to raise a family. He got a job at the Nevada State Journal and simultaneously established a potentially lucrative freelance news service. This included media agencies such as the United Press, Associated Press, San Francisco Examiner, Wide World Service of the New York Times and other newspapers.

Berry’s career exploded in 1931 when Nevada’s residence divorce requirement was reduced from three months to six weeks and unhappy spouses flocked in from around the U.S. He worked the divorce circuit as a staff correspondent for New York Daily News from 1941 to 1963. As Nevada’s first paparazzi journalist, Berry developed close contacts with divorce ranch staff in the Silver State, reporting on celebrities, movie stars and noted wives of national leaders when they took up residence in the Reno area. He once told me: “I would stake out dude ranches and interview women waiting for divorces. I preferred ski writing but made a lot more money reporting on the celebrities in Nevada.”

Berry was 25 years old when he joined the staff of the Nevada State Journal, starting as a Linotype operator and field journalist. Publisher James G. Scrugham, a former governor of Nevada, informed Berry about Hilltop Lodge ski area in Truckee.

“When I heard about Hilltop I headed there as soon as I could,” Berry said. “I had been an enthusiastic winter sportsman ever since my boyhood in Canada.”

America’s first ski tow at Hilltop
In early December 1928, Berry and Scrugham drove to Hilltop Lodge built on the top of the ridge just south of town (where Cottonwood Restaurant is now). Hilltop offered rental skis and poles (but not boots) and hot lunch inside. The real excitement centered around an amazing contraption that locals called a pullback. At the time it was the only mechanical ski tow in America. It utilized a continuous wire rope that hung on sheaves at both the top and bottom of the hill. It was propelled by a small gasoline engine.

“To ride it,” Berry said, “you looped your ski pole baskets over one of the steel hooks set in the moving cable as it slid upward over the snow. You hung onto the pole handles and let yourself be towed slowly to the upper end. I realized this was rather a special occasion, since I had never skied down a slope that I had not climbed up.”

According to Berry’s research, it’s indisputable that Hilltop is the pioneer site of American uphill tow skiing. At Hilltop, he ski jumped 50 feet and was immediately accepted by impressed local skiers. Jumping is an exhilarating sport that he enjoyed until 1945. And like other early Reno skiers, he hiked for turns on Mount Rose and Slide Mountain, long before there were chairlifts or rope tows.

Read Part II in the next edition of Tahoe Weekly, also available at TheTahoeWeekly.com/history.