It’s a common saying in Truckee that those of us who moved here “came for the winter and stayed for the summer.” This adage is nothing new—tourists have been flocking to Truckee to play in the snow since the first Ice Palace was built here in the late 19th century. While we consider ourselves as living in a small mountain town, Truckee-Tahoe’s influence on California winter sports is huge. From Norwegian skate skis to the Winter Olympics, from Ice Carnivals to the epic ski resorts of today, California owes the origin of winter sports to Truckee.
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
It was the mid-1800s, and miner camps were scattered throughout the Sierra. Winters were brutal, with crude miner cabins sometimes buried in up to 30 feet of snow. Travel was virtually impossible. Supplies and letters from family might not reach the snowed-in miners until the springtime snowmelt, that is, until John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson answered the call for a Sierra mail person.
From 1856-1869, the so-called “father of California skiing” embraced his Norwegian past, delivering mail and supplies in the Sierra on his Norwegian ski-skates—oak planks that measured up to 15 feet long and could weigh up to 25 pounds. These beasts allowed “Snowshoe” Thompson to carry word to socked-in mining camps and others through 90 miles of sometimes white-out blizzard conditions.
The ski-skates were something to behold, and miners quickly picked up on this new—and fun—mode of winter transportation, eventually crafting their own Norwegian ski-skates to get to and from neighboring camps. It wasn’t long before they tested their skills on natural wintry slopes. Often fueled by alcohol, these first skiers pointed tips downhill; and they were fast, reaching speeds up to 90 miles an hour. Ski clubs and downhill races were soon formed in mining camps throughout the Sierra. Women were also racing, dressed in the garb of the time—full dresses with skirts that reached their ankles. The races were raucous and dangerous, and these early longboarding men and women were considered the fastest in the world at the time.
The longboard racing craze of the Sierra was over by the early 1900s; however, if you want to step back in time to experience its thrill, the Plumas Ski Club hosts reenactment races every winter. The Historic Longboard Race Revival Series takes place every third Sunday of January, February, and March at noon.
While the longboarding miners brought skiing to California, Truckee brought a different kind of snowsport culture to the Golden State.
A FIESTA OF THE SNOWS
When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, tourists from Sacramento took advantage of winter travel to Truckee to behold what they called “the great snow.” Local businessmen Charles F. McGlashan and Stewart McKay recognized an opportunity in the new influx of winter visitors.
With the lumber industry declining in 1894, they drummed up an idea to build an Ice Palace, hoping it would boost the local economy. It worked. The famed Ice Palace housed an ice skating course and a 150-foot-long toboggan run. The Truckee Chamber of Commerce saw potential in its success. To help small businesses in Truckee that suffered economically in the winter months, they led efforts to build a more permanent (and more extensive) ice palace and concocted ideas for a Great Truckee Winter Carnival.
The new Ice Palace was massive, with an ice-skating rink, a dance hall, and warm rooms for carnival revelers to rest and warm up. In 1914, the “Fiesta of the Snows,” as the winter carnival was to be known, was the largest winter festival ever held in Truckee. Thousands of people flocked to the small town every winter, boosting the economy and eventually attracting Hollywood filmmakers, who showed interest in filming the winter spectacle.
This early campaign to use snow play and sports to lift the economy marked the beginning of winter tourism in Truckee. But it wasn’t just the carnival that brought the masses. There was another portion of the festivities happening across the river on Hilltop.
THE HILLTOP JUMPERS
Step into the Cottonwood Restaurant and Bar and behold vintage photos of the Fiesta of the Snows and the early toboggan lifts that carried sledders uphill on Hilltop. Some researchers say that the steam-powered lift on Hilltop, built by J. Kirchner, was the first mechanical lift in winter sports in the west and possibly the United States. Eventually, two toboggan runs carried riders from the top of Hilltop down to the front of the Ice Palace.
Local winter sports and the carnival were a spectacle to behold. Lights set the town ablaze, adorning the Ice Palace, a Christmas tree above the Hilltop toboggan lift, the ice skating rink, dance halls, and more. Friends and families would meet at Hilltop for parties, play, and winter fun. It wasn’t long before the first Truckee Ski Club (later called the Truckee Outing Club) was founded in 1913.
Truckee was becoming so famous for winter tourism that the idea of hosting the 1932 winter and summer Olympic Games didn’t sound out of the question. Hilltop grew to meet the needs of an Olympic bid. Under the supervision of Lars Haugen (an Olympian ski jump champion), a new wooden ski jump was built on Hilltop, along with The Pavilion—a warming hut and meeting place for the Truckee Ski Club. The Pavilion warmed people up with its pot-bellied stove, and the ski club rented out skis, toboggans, and other snow gear. Cross-country skiers made tracks west of the hill, skiing through what is today known as Ponderosa Palisades.
While Truckee wasn’t selected to host the Winter Olympics in 1932, professional ski jumpers still flocked to Hilltop, demonstrating their big-air prowess to awestruck onlookers.
When the Crandall Brothers purchased the land in the 1940s, they constructed rope tows and a Poma lift powered by an old automobile chassis and motor. The Pavilion eventually became a restaurant and remains so today.
THE BIRTH OF THE CALIFORNIA SKI RESORT
Winter sports continued to gain popularity among Northern Californians. Toward the end of the 1930s, people traveling to Truckee from San Francisco on the Southern Pacific Railroad’s “Snowball Express” could take skiing lessons on Donner Summit at Clair Tappaan Lodge from two Austrians, Bill and Fred Klein.
Southern California, particularly Hollywood, continued to take an interest as well. In October 1938, the Sugar Bowl Corporation was formed, and with the help of investors, they made plans to build a ski resort in the likeness of those found in Austria.
Sugar Bowl opened the first California chairlift on December 15, 1939 to bring skiers up Mt. Disney, named after their famous Hollywood investor. Ten years later, a new ski resort opened—Squaw Valley Resort, LLC.
Resorts continued to pop up throughout the Tahoe region, including the Donner Ski Ranch tubing area in 1953, Heavenly Mountain Resort in 1955, Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in 1961, Homewood Mountain Resort in 1962, and many resorts opened shortly thereafter. Tahoe Truckee was becoming a winter mecca for skiers.
AN OLYMPIC DREAM REALIZED
Truckee didn’t get the Olympic bid in 1932, but the dream of hosting a Winter Olympics was finally realized in 1960. While Tahoe-Truckee was a popular ski destination in California, the area was relatively unknown worldwide, and convincing the Olympic panel that Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) was primed for the world games was going to be a difficult feat. But Squaw Valley Resort Manager Alex Cushing found success with his scale model of the proposed site. They won the bid and plans to build more lodging for visitors and athletes began.
Walt Disney directed the opening and closing ceremonies, and events were televised for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games. The result was massive growth among all area resorts. More lifts were installed, additional snow play areas were built, and homes and lodges sprung up over the landscape.
Today, resort expansions continue, as exemplified in Palisades Tahoe’s plans to open the new “Base to Base Gondola” this winter, connecting Palisades Tahoe – Alpine Meadows. However, the future of snow sports is uncertain and depends on many factors, including climate change, infrastructure plans, the economic climate, and more.
One thing remains true: Truckee locals love winter. Whether it’s kids sledding down neighborhood hills, families enjoying weekend ski days, or friends taking turns on lunch breaks, Truckee owes its lively winter scene to its festive and sportive people of the past.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2023 Issue of Truckee.com: An Insider’s Guide. Special thanks to the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, particularly Greg Zirbel and Heidi Sproat, for providing much of the information for this story and for the historical photos. Olympics and Walt Disney photos thanks to the SNOW Sports Museum.
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