Carving Western Identity: Recreational Skiing's Impact on Western Culture

Hillary Dobson
History 400
Fall 2004

Shivering at the top of the Olympic slalom course, Gretchen Fraser waited for the necessary timing equipment repairs to be completed. After posting the competition’s fastest time her first time down the mountain, all that stood between the twenty-eight year old Tacoma native and the first American Olympic medal in skiing was one final run. Frasier waited for seventeen minutes before she was finally able to launch. Demonstrating her characteristic focus and competitiveness, Fraser finished the course with a fast enough time to win the United State’s first Olympic gold medal in skiing.[1] Although her Olympic victory was an unusual experience among people who skied in the West, her lifelong involvement with the sport closely parallels skiing’s development in the western United States.

Skiing had always been a large part of Fraser’s life. She learned to ski at the family-run Paradise Valley on Mount Rainier, and later moved to the new resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho after marrying ski racer Don Fraser. Although Fraser first qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1940, the Games were cancelled due to World War II. So, Fraser turned her attention to helping soldiers who had lost limbs in combat learn how to ski. After the war, Fraser again qualified for the 1948 Olympic team and proved skeptics wrong after winning both the gold medal in the slalom and the silver in the nordic combined event.[2] After her Olympic victories, Fraser returned to Sun Valley, where she acted as an ambassador for the stylish young ski resort and coached women racers.[3] Fraser’s lifelong involvement with the sport of skiing spanned an important time in the sport’s evolution.

Both the West and the sport of skiing developed during the twentieth century. As recreational tourism, specifically skiing, grew in popularity, westerners recognized the sport’s economic potential. The region molded its identity to create an ambience that attracted recreational skiers and the money that they spent. Western ski towns have become icons of western identity because skiing’s regional economic significance has made the sport intertwined with western identity. The western ski industry’s evolution provides an explanation for the development of recreational tourism in western culture and regional inhabitants’ changing attitude toward nature. The ski industry, along with recreational tourism, became another important aspect of the West’s resource economy.

The changing purpose of skiing in the West demonstrates the ski industry’s evolution and entanglement with western culture. Skiing in the West took place long before the sport developed into an industry. Early settlers relied on skis for transportation, but during the twentieth century, skiing developed along with the rest of the West and grew into a popular form of recreation.[4] As the life in the West became less of a daily physical struggle and recreation came to be a greater part of national culture, westerners began to ski for recreation and eventually Americans from across the country traveled to the West to enjoy the region’s skiing.

The rising popularity of outdoor recreation during the 1910s resulted in local and regional clubs emerging throughout the West. These clubs served as a way to bring people together to celebrate and enjoy nature. As the West’s skiing constituency grew, skiers sought new places to ski. Mountain towns quickly recognized the demand and responded by creating ski areas and the ambience that ski towns were expected to have. While the rest of the country was struggling through severe economic depression, the sport of skiing thrived. On the ever of WWII, the West’s emerging ski industry was ready to take off. Although the war interrupted the industry’s development, the end of World War II signaled the birth of the modern ski industry.

During the early years of the twentieth century, before any evidence of a ski industry existed in the West, skiing was an often life-saving mode of transportation that also allowed snowbound inhabitants freedom.[5] Western mountain communities still depended on very basic transportation methods. During the lengthy winters, mountain residents often faced unavoidable isolation from urban areas and even from their neighbors. Skis (called Norwegian snowshoes before 1900) allowed mountain residents to escape from their snowed-in shelter to work and communicate with one another. Skiing was a necessity, and the snowy mountains acted as an effective barricade between the mountain communities and the outside world.[6] Early ski equipment represented skiing’s functional use and its crudeness. Early skis were wooden boards ranging from eight to twelve feet long with leather straps for bindings and a six foot-long pole for balance. Skiers’ heels were unattached and relied on animal skins for climbing up hills.[7]

Historian Jack Benson argues that “skis provided the margin between life and death…” for many early mountain residents.[8] One example that supports Benson’s claim by demonstrating the harsh role nature played in many early western lives. A February blizzard blocked the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad lines to the small mountain mining community of Silverton. Despite drifts ranging from twenty-five to forty feet deep, “a small quantity of provisions reached Silverton transported by men on snowshoes.” The same storm interrupted the Uintah Railroad in western Colorado. A local newspaper described, “[Grand Junction] is the scene of the bitterest fight against a monster snow blockade that the Uintah has been called upon to wage in fourteen years.”[9] The early western settlers treated nature, in this case a monster snow blockade, as a foe to be overcome.

Mailmen who delivered to these isolated areas epitomized skiing’s functional purpose and the western attitude toward nature’s challenges. The mailmen were legendary figures in these mountain communities due to the prized cargo they delivered, the hazardous routes they traveled, and their refusal to be deterred by nature. Until the 1880s, most mountain towns in the Rockies were inaccessible by railroad during the winter months, leaving skis as the only possible alternative.[10] Before the turn of the century, there were over fifty mailmen in Colorado alone who traveled their routes with the assistance of skis.[11] The route between Hot Sulphur Springs and Georgetown, Colorado was a ninety-six mile journey that included the 11,000-foot Berthoud Pass. The mailman assigned to the route received an annual salary of $1,680 for his trouble.[12] Not all were able to survive their assignments. Mailman Swan Nilson decided to continue on his mail route on Christmas Eve 1883 despite a raging blizzard. Nilson wanted to deliver the town’s Christmas presents, but perished during his journey. Two years later, Nilson’s brother found his body, still wearing the mail sack. Stories similar to Nilson’s, transformed these ski-traveling mailmen into cultural legends. Idaho folklore honored a mailman with the verse:

The Barmer mail carrier
(Moses Kemper is his name,
And he ‘snowshoes’ for scads and fame)
Stops for no barrier
Great or small
Skims over’em all
And is known[13]

Mailmen were perhaps the most mythical early western skiers, but all members of mountain communities depended on the form of transportation. Doctors and midwives and priests traveled on skis while prospectors and landowners used skis to check on their property.[14] Mine owner Jack Jebb’s widow recalled, “Of course the only way of getting about at all was on snow-shoes, as without them there was nothing to prevent the traveler sinking in up to his neck; and floundering through loose snow is a process that would quickly exhaust the strongest man in the world.”[15] Another early traveler whose purpose of skiing was purely functional was the infamous Rev. John L. Dyer.[16] Dyer skied throughout the Colorado Rockies in order to provide religious services for isolated communities. Skiing remained an important form of transportation in the Rockies until the 1920s.[17]

Despite the primarily functional purpose of skis at the turn of the century, skiing was becoming a more popular entertainment source within these mountain communities and beyond. The Denver Times editorialized that Aspen-area miners “must be a jolly sort of fellows, sliding, skating, leaping, shooting chutes, and jumping chasms.” Perhaps the newspaper had heard reports that skiing had replaced dancing as the most popular pastime in the small Colorado mountain communities.[18] While the role of skiing evolved within these western communities, skiing was changing outside of these communities as well. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, skiing became a widespread form of recreation.

Scandinavian immigrants had introduced the sport of cross country skiing, yet that form of skiing struggled to become popular in the United States. The first national championship took place in Wisconsin in 1907 where competitors raced over a nine mile course. Race distances became continually shorter until by 1912, the standard course was just three and one-half miles long. By the 1917 national championships, there were no competitors entered in the race. The explanation was that “boys would rather jump than participate in long distance contests.”[19] Although Americans did not seem to enjoy cross country skiing, ski-jumping was incredibly popular.

Carl Howelsen was the man responsible for promoting ski jumping and garnering enthusiasm for the sport. The Norwegian immigrated to the United States in 1905, and upon settling in Chicago, founded the Norge Ski Club. The club built a ski jump (using water) outside of the city.[20] On an average Sunday, 80,000 spectators would turn out to watch an international jumping competition held at the Cary, Illinois ski jump.[21] The Chicago Daily News photographed the impressive crowds that gathered to watch the “Flying Norseman” and his companions compete. The mostly male, white audience easily filled the stands set up on each side of the landing and some of the men climbed up a nearby tree in order to get a better view.[22] When Barnum & Bailey circus noticed the huge crowds that the ski jump attracted, the Circus offered to pay Howelsen 200 dollars per week if he would tour the country. Howelsen agreed, and one million Americans watched him ski jump during his yearlong tour. In 1907, Barnum & Bailey constructed a temporary jump for Howelsen in Madison Square Garden. The ski jumper wore military garb and the crowd quickly nicknamed him the “Captain.”[23] Ski jumping was an emerging sport that people throughout the country were enthusiastic about.

Howelsen’s tour transformed him into a national celebrity and raised awareness and enthusiasm for the sport of skiing.[24] When the Colorado town of Durango built its ski jump in 1911, “devotees of winter sports from many points in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan gathered here today for the formal opening of the great steel ski platform.”[25] The tremendous national interest in ski jumping and the newly emerging sport of Alpine skiing indicates Americans’ changing ideals of recreation and nature at the beginning of the twentieth century that made winter sports a fashionable pastime in urban areas. Americans were interested in winter recreation, and skiing benefited from the country’s growing attraction to winter recreation.[26]

Americans’ developing enthusiasm for nature as a place for recreation in the early twentieth century can be partially attributed to the “back-to-nature” ideals of the time which made winter sports “fashionable.” A Colorado newspaper gave an account of people playing in the snow on Denver’s Capitol Hill:

Skiing down ‘Capitol Hill’ was a pleasant diversion for many last Sunday, both ladies and gents. Our informant says that when the former turned somersaults at the foot of the hill onlookers discovered that the extremely modest ones had fortified themselves against the gaze of the curious by wearing overalls ‘neath their skirts.[27]

Although national enthusiasm for alpine skiing was increasing, it still remained an elite sport for those who lived outside of a mountain community. Denver elite would travel to the mountains on weekend excursions, and American Ambassadors were skiing at European resorts. However, for the majority of Americans, skiing remained too expensive and too distant.[28] One way that skiing became more accessible to Americans was through outdoors clubs. Skiing’s rising popularity led to the formation of numerous organizations at the local and regional levels that skied for recreational, social and even competitive purposes. Members enjoyed companionship, entertainment and nature.[29] By 1906, twenty-two clubs were affiliated with the National Ski Association which had been established by a group of Norwegian immigrants the previous year.[30]

The Mazama club of Portland Oregon is one of the West’s oldest outdoors clubs, and in 1897, it led a trip to Mount Rainer. The group took the train north to Tacoma and then rode in a stagecoach to Mount Rainier with four tons of supplies, then set up forty-five tents at Paradise. The club returned to Mount Rainier in 1905 with guests from the American Alpine Club, California’s Sierra Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club with the goal of summiting the mountain. These people came from a variety of backgrounds; there were scientists, professors, millionaire Stephen Mather who became the first director of the National Park Service and photographer Asahel Curtis.[31] The Mazama newsletter later reported on the 1905 outing:

“[I]t was ascertained that 200 people accepted the invitation of the Mazamas… So notable a representation of American brain, brawn, and pluck, intent upon storming a great snow-peak, was never before seen on a mountain-side… [A]ll the young women who left Camp Muir for the summit…displayed a calmness and self-poise in the face of peril, as well as rugged power of endurance, that spoke well for Western womanhood…”[32]

The Mazama Club was just one of many clubs to have adventures on Mount Rainier.

The Mazamas inspired two Seattleites, electrical supply baron W. Montelius Price and photographer Asahel Curtis, to form the Seattle-based Mountaineers Club in 1906. Originally, they planned to form an auxiliary chapter of the Mazamas, but after a stunning amount of interest, the organizers decided to create a separate club. Interest came from both men and women from varying professions. At one of the club’s initial meetings, members elected three men and two women as officers and 151 people joined as charter members. These first members included librarians, teachers, businessmen, college professors, physicians, attorneys, photographers, bankers, and Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha Landes. Another important charter member was “Will” Steel, the founder of the Mazamas, and the leader in lobbying for the creation of Crater Lake National Park. The club’s mission was, “to gather into permanent form the history and traditions of this region; to preserve, by protective legislation or otherwise, the natural beauty of the Northwest coast of America…Finally, and above all, to encourage and promote the spirit of good fellowship and comradery among the lovers of out-door life in the West” while exploring the Pacific Northwest.[33]

In 1912, fifty members of the Seattle-based Mountaineers Club snowshoed and skied from the end of the railroad line to Longmire on Mount Rainier. Three years later, the Mountaineers held their first cross country ski trip to Paradise on Rainier. When the Paradise Inn opened in 1916, the Mountaineers rented it out for their winter excursion. Club member L.A. Nelson described the 1917 trip in the Mountaineers newsletter:

No heat was in the bedrooms, candles were used, except in the dinging room, where oil lamps were a luxury. Our cooks prepared the meals but the men of the party sawed all the fireplace wood…[M]usic and laughter around the fireplaces; a daily newspaper was published, good fellowship, joy in the outdoor life and appreciation of its beauty abounded.[34]

The Mountaineers Club was a way for members to break from their daily, generally urban lives and enjoy the mountains for their beauty and recreation.

Another early club that traveled to Mount Rainier was the Tribe of S.O.Y.P. (Socks Outside Your Pants- in reference to the era’s typical outdoor dress). This group formed when President of Rainier National Park Company, David Whitcomb and the General Manager Thomas Martin came up with the idea to cache supplies at Paradise Inn before the snow arrived and then return to the Inn with friends to celebrate the New Year of 1920. These February expeditions continued through 1936 and more than sixty men participated through the years.[35] The club drew its members from the elite of the Puget Sound community: lumber giant Philip Weyerhaeuser, photographer Asahel Curtis, Park Superintendent Owen Tomlinson, Park Company Manager Thomas Martin, and future manager Paul Sceva were all “tribal members.”[36]

This “tribe” borrowed much of Native American culture for their club. Writer D.H. Lawrence argues that Native Americans represented “instinct and freedom” and were seen as the “spirit of the continent” to the American population.[37] Therefore, assuming Native American identities was a way for these men to experience some of these feelings. Each member was given a tribal name to be used on the trips to Rainier, which were called “Tribal Councils.” Whitcomb was Chief Soyp and Martin was called Tyee Paradise while on the trip. First year members added Cheechako to their Native American names, while second-years used Papoose, third-years added Tillicums and fourth-year leaders were referred to as Tyees. For all of the similar vocabulary, the Tribe of SOYP spent their time at Mount Rainer differently than did Native American tribes. During the early Tribal Councils, members enjoyed their natural surroundings by venturing on snowshoes to McClure Rock and Sluiskin Falls. They sang songs and spent much of their time socializing inside Paradise Inn. During their first visit to Rainier in 1920, Paradise was still a lonely place during the winter and skis were a rare sight at the lodge.[38]

The Tribe of SOYP witnessed the rise of winter recreation at Mount Rainier, a phenomenon that was taking place at many of the country’s national parks. During the third Tribal Council in 1923, the men discussed “the possibilities of The Mountain [Rainier] as a scene for winter sports.” By the winter of 1926, the Tribe of SOYP was not alone at Paradise and many members explored the area on skis. Other visitors had begun to stay at the lodge and many people from surrounding urban areas traveled to Paradise for the day to enjoy the winter recreation. Two years later, the tribe relocated its annual Tribal Council to Indian Henry’s on Rainier, where the group could be more isolated from weekend recreationalists. At the 1934 Council, O.A. Tomlinson (Tyee Lodi) presented the park’s development plans to tribal members. The following year the Tribe took a day-trip to Paradise to watch the slalom races and noted, “The valley was scattered over with people, thousands of them. What a change from the untrodden valley into which the Tribe of Soyp had ventured fifteen years before!”[39]

Skiers were traveling to national parks throughout the West, especially Mount Rainier, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Park, to enjoy the winter setting. A western newspaper reported:

Sport in the snow-it’s been the proper caper all winter and the American people are still at it all through the North-from New England to Rocky Mountain and from Yosemite to Mount Rainier. Students of the times are commenting on it as a new phase in the evolution of the nation. These winter sports have been growing in popular favor for several years. This winter [1923], however, their vogue is such as to make sociologists sit up and take notice.[40]

Horace M. Albright, Park Service Director, reported that an “innovation has been the Winter use of parks, which has shown a decided increase in recent years…Skiing, tobogganing, skating, snowshoeing and sleighing are among the popular modes of Winter recreation.”[41] The New York Times reported that by 1935, sixteen of the country’s twenty-four national parks were open year round “for those who glory in the exhilaration of exercise in crisp, freezing temperatures.”[42] At Rainier, visitors could ride in the sledge pulled by an Alaskan dog sled team that was brought from Nome. “Four or five people at a time may ride on the sledge, doing for pleasure what the traveler in the Far North does from necessity,” repeated the Times.[43] In the West, people were spending time outdoors for enjoyment in addition to necessity.

Westerners, representing the rest of the nation, were changing their conception of nature. Nature was not seen as a daily threat to existence and no longer was the outdoors a place enjoy only during warm, comfortable summer weather. It was also an inviting recreational playground during the winter. Winter recreation, specifically skiing, allowed people to interact with and enjoy nature while at the same time, being comfortable. In fact, people were attracted to winter recreation especially for the challenging conditions that the season offered. Westerners had tamed winter’s immediate threat and now could revel in its harshness.

Mount Rainier published a newsletter, Nature News Notes, throughout the 1920s and 1930s that included snow condition updates and reports of the weekend events. In 1927, the newsletter offered its own interpretation for the remarkable increase in skiers:

Two years ago only a few persons brought skis to the park and those obtaining them at Longmire were counted by the dozens. This winter half of the cars that come in carry from one to three pairs of skis while the number of persons enjoying this thrilling sport runs into hundreds… Winter sports now are as much a part of the program of the out-door lover in Mount Rainier National Park as the glaciers, wildflower fields or the magnificent virgin forests, and there’s more real fun in winter play.[44]

The popularity of winter sports that the News quote evidenced, also demonstrates that the winter natural environment had come to be appreciated in a fresh way since the previous century. Westerners were now able to enjoy the outdoors purely for its winter recreation.

The considerable interest in winter recreation was evident in the national park’s revenue. The increased number of visitors to national parks helped justify and pay for the national park system. By 1925, Congress approved a bill that transferred one hundred square miles of Forest Service land to Rocky Mountain National Park. The land given to the national park had a low resource value and the bill included a provision for making the Park more accommodating to the growing number of auto tourists.[45] These factors illustrate the economic phenomenon that was happening throughout the West. Traditionally, the West had struggled with boom and bust economies based on natural resources. However, the emerging recreational tourism industry seemed to offer an economic base that was much different from other western economies such as mining and timber. The skiing economy continued to grow, only stunted by WWI.

World War I interrupted plans for the first Winter Olympics that were planned for 1916. However, after the war, enthusiasm for skiing once again led to impressive numbers of participants. By 1921, the National Ski Association once more had twenty-three member clubs. The post World War I era has been referred to as the “decade of relaxation” due to the wave of anti-modernism that followed the war- a reactionary movement against the materialistic decades of the late nineteenth century. Enjoying the natural environment was an important part of this movement, and more people were able to enjoy the outdoors due to the increasing number of Americans who owned automobiles. Automobiles became an important way of transporting people to natural areas. The number of American car owners was spurred on by rising incomes among the urban population and improved transportation infrastructure. Tourist destinations noticed that visitors “showing a marked preference for transporting itself, reports from every park showing a decrease in the number of those arriving by rail.”[46]

The improved transportation infrastructure supported American society’s rapid transition into a country powered by automobiles.[47] Simultaneously, outdoor leisure activities had become more affordable due to rising incomes. Winter activities, which had been popular before the war, quickly regained their cultural status. A 1929 edition of the Tacoma Sunday Ledger proclaimed, “Americans no longer are afraid of winter.”[48] Winter recreation, especially skiing, allowed people to interact with nature according to Teddy Roosevelt’s prescribed “strenuous life.” As a 1923 newspaper editorial explained:

The idea has become widespread that coasting, tobogganing, skiing, snowshoeing, skijoring, hiking and all of the other winter sports easily within reach of the average American are first-class fun. The complementary idea is that a real tussle with Jack Frost in his native wilds is more conducive to red blood and rosy cheeks and a good appetite than less strenuous exercise under warmer skies at home or abroad.[49]

Men would document their physical prowness by logging how many miles and mountains they skied during a season. College students reported turning to recreation for fitness in hopes of warding off an increasingly urban and “artificial” society.[50] Dartmouth College added skiing, snowshoeing and skating to its required recreational activities during this era.[51]

The National Ski Association’s president, G.C. Ferguson, declared in 1920 that “the Rockies will become the center of skiing in the United States.” He based his prediction on several indicators from the past few decades. Denver was chosen to host the annual national ski tournament from 1912 until 1920.[52] Denver also had a mountain park system of 5,000 acres located outside of the city, and in 1922, the parks attracted 600,000 visitors.[53] By 1927, the Denver Post declared that the city had “enlisted the cooperation of every service and athletic club and every civic organization in the state in its extensive plans for making Colorado the winter sports headquarters of the world.”[54] The state had realized that winter sports could be much more than “a pleasant diversion”; they could be good business.

As recreational skiing developed throughout the country and an increasing number of westerners turned to the sport, skiing’s role in mountain communities also continued to evolve. Skiing was a significant part of life in these mountain communities and it had maintained a strong presence in community culture. Skis were relatively easy and inexpensive to make, and people of all ages, class, and gender could participate. Steamboat Springs, Colorado’s annual snowfall of 260 inches meant that its residents were surrounded by four feet of snow all winter. Children raised in mountain communities learned to walk and ski simultaneously. Steamboat native, Carol Rickus, confessed, “I learned [to ski] so early I have no recollection of it.”[55] Some locals were able to go “outside” for the winter season and return again in the spring, but most had property and livestock to care for.[56] As technological advancements started to make life in the high country less of a daily struggle for survival, locals began to use the once purely functional skis as a form of entertainment during the long winter months.

Mountain residents recognized that skiing was a significant part of their communities’ identities and began to celebrate their tradition with winter carnivals. After Carl Howelsen finished his tour with Barnum & Bailey, he moved west to Hot Sulpher Springs, Colorado in 1909. This small mountain town hosted Colorado’s first winter carnival in 1911. The winter carnival used Howelsen’s childhood memories of similar celebrations in Norway to plan the festivities. It was a social event, much like a county fair, and became an annual event. Hot Sulpher Springs had the rare advantage of the railroad and therefore the town was easily accessible, even in the winter, from “outside.”[57] In 1914, Howelsen relocated to Steamboat Springs where he immediately became involved with the local skiing community and helped to organize the town’s first winter carnivals.[58]

Steamboat Springs’ first annual winter festival took place in 1913, and was a two-day event that included men and women’s ski jumping and long-distance ski racing, sprints, and shooting on skis competitions. The mostly local crowd watched both amateur and professional athletes compete and enjoyed the excitement that the festival provided during an otherwise quiet winter. Only twenty out of the 2,000 spectators were from outside the area, the majority Denverites. The annual winter carnival was a community bonding and social event. Its purpose was enjoyment and community-building, not tourism.

The events that eventually did attract outsiders to the festivities was the addition of a “ski-joring” race, where a skier is pulled by a horse, and most importantly, Carl Howelsen’s ski jump.[59] As a local paper noticed, “Northwestern Colorado’s fourth annual mid-winter carnival, the event which has attracted international attention, will occur in Steamboat Springs on the first and second days of March.”[60] People from around the country could identify with skijumping and many wanted to watch the popular sport’s top athletes compete. As the carnival competitions’ notoriety grew, more and more of ski-jumping’s top athletes came to the carnivals, drawing even more spectators.

A rivalry began between the towns of Hot Sulpher Springs and Steamboat Springs. Both thought that they had the true winter atmosphere. In 1915, Steamboat citizens founded their own Winter Sports Club. This organization not only promoted skiing among its youth, but also advertised the community to people outside of the area. Steamboat to Denver became a day trip once the Moffat Tunnel opened in the early 1920s, allowing even more people from outside the immediate locality to visit.[61]

Winter festivals continued to be celebrated events, and the number of festivals continued to increase. In a 1918 sports briefing, three separate festivals happened in Colorado within the same week.[62] After the United States became involved in World War I, the Steamboat Springs Ski Club announced that the annual ski carnival was called off because most of the expert jumpers were in military service.[63] Yet either because of public outcry or because of the town’s jeopardized reputation, the Club reversed its decision and held the carnival. The following week, the local newspaper proclaimed that, “the tournament this year will eclipse all others as added attractions are being obtained and the top notch professionals of the world will be in attendance to try again to lower the world’s record jump made on local track.”[64] The winter carnival was evolving away from its roots as local entertainment and into a tourist event.

Mountain towns were beginning to see the potential that winter tourism could have for their communities.[65] The Colorado mining town of Silverton recognized that towns prospered from holding these winter carnivals and hoped to host its own. An editorial in the local newspaper pointed out that “Silverton has natural advantages that others have to build. Silverton has ample snow at all times during the winter…[T]here should be no real reason why our younger people are not paving the way for an annual carnival that will add to their enjoyment of life and to the elimination of our usually dull winter season.”[66] Besides wanting to eliminate dullness from the winter months, the town would also have enjoyed some winter revenue.

More visitors from outside the immediate locality came to watch and sometimes participate in the carnival events as the carnivals earned a more regional reputation, and transportation infrastructure for railroads and autos developed. The large number of people who began to visit for winter carnivals demonstrated the wide appeal of winter sports to mountain communities and hinted at skiing’s economic potential. Communities responded by beginning to shape their identities to match what ski tourists were looking for. Leadville’s citizens planned to model their town after the famous European ski resort by making “this city a second St. Moritz.”[67]

One way Colorado mountain communities marketed their ski town images to a broader audience was by advertising their community and ski slopes through “snow trains.” In 1936, the first snow train left Denver and took passengers on a weeklong trip to ski communities that were holding their winter festivals. On a more regular basis, trains transported skiers to the various ski slopes. In the 1930s, Denver’s Arlberg Club would ride the train to the summit of Berthoud Pass and then jump off while the train slowed. After much persuasion, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began to offer ski specials that left the city on Saturdays at noon, and returned Sunday evenings. The American Ski Annual reported that train access had made Berthoud Pass “so crowded that there was scarcely room for skiing.”[68] Dependable train, as well as automobile access, was crucial for an area that hoped to develop skiing as an economic base.[69]

As the mountain town winter carnivals succeeded in their new purpose of attracting visitors, other places began to copy the model. National parks tried to replicate the winter carnival activities in order to boost their visitor numbers. Rocky Mountain and Crater Lake National Parks both hosted winter competitions.[70] “To mark its twenty-fifth anniversary, Rocky Mountain held a “jubilee in the Rockies.”[71] The New York Times reported that:

Mount Rainier National Park, in Washington, removed but a few hours from the wild Puget Sound country, has a program of Winter sports planned to cover a season beginning Dec. 1 and extending through May 1. Between Christmas and mid-March Mount Rainier, once a flaming volcanic peak but now covered with an enormous glacial system, may be said to present the features of a continuing Mardi-Gras Carnival.

Yosemite also held an annual Snow Day, complete with competitions and a winter king and queen election.[72] The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper began sponsoring the annual Silver Skis Race on Mount Rainier in the 1930s; even businesses were appreciating skiing’s financial benefits. These winter festivals were the national parks’ attempts to promote skiing and winter recreation in the parks and therefore increase revenue.

By the 1930s, skiing had exploded despite the country’s economic depression. A Tacoma high school student wrote in a inter-school newsletter that, “Skiing is like the measles! I was exposed about three years ago…[and] the craze spread among my friends, just as it is spreading all over the country.”[73] In fact, government programs laid the foundation for the post World War II ski industry. The federal and state governments promoted the sport through advertisements. The Civilian Conservation Corps, using federal funding, built ski facilities and roads to ski areas. Ski areas were issued permits to develop federal lands. The hope was that this popular activity would support the West economically.[74] In 1933, the infant California ski industry was valued at 6.5 million dollars.[75]

Record numbers of visitors were traveling to national parks during the winter, making the season an important part of the parks’ financial status.[76] By 1937, Mount Rainier had to employ a fulltime doctor to treat all of the broken and sprained ankles and knees.[77] The New York Times noted, “In recent years the popularity of Mount Rainier as a Winter resort has grown steadily, visitors coming not only from the neighboring cities, but also from points far away.”[78] Not only were skiers flocking to snowy national parks, but also to ski resorts with newly constructed physical appearances and ambience.

Historian Annie Coleman argues that ski resorts began to support “their own distinct culture.” Western ski resorts marketed their skiing as an opportunity for safe adventure, comfortable outdoors experiences, and naturally beautiful surroundings with cosmopolitan amenities. Ski towns wanted visitors to feel like they were visiting European alpine villages, Victorian mining towns, and western cow towns, depending on the individual community.[79] For resort towns, developing a distinct identity was imperative for competing with the many other developing ski resorts. The growing demand for ski resorts caught the attention of many investors, including railroad executive W. Averell Harriman.

The 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid created another surge in skiing’s popularity. The same year, W. Averell Harriman also became the executive chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad. Harriman recognized that the railroad could act as an invaluable lifeline to a ski resort, which would in turn financially boost the railroad. Harriman decided to act on this idea and construct a ski resort that would be “the American St. Moritz.”[80] He hired Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch in 1935 to find the perfect place for a European style ski resort in the West.

After rejecting Aspen for being at too high an altitude, the Count found what he was looking for in Idaho. The same man who had promoted Miami Beach decided that the new resort’s name would be Sun Valley, to counteract the negative stereotype of an Idaho winter.[81] Sun Valley turned into an amazing success story, and all western resorts of the era were measured against it. This Idaho ski resort was built to epitomize luxury and glamour. Sun Valley entered American consciousness with images of its famous residents like Ernest Hemingway and Hollywood visitors, such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.[82] The movies I Met Him In Paris, The Mortal Storm, and Sun Valley Serenade, (Gretchen Fraser was hired as Sonja Henie’s stunt double) promoted the resort’s national reputation.[83] Sun Valley came to epitomize skiing’s glamour and style to Americans throughout the country.

Aspen soon followed Sun Valley’s lead in marketing itself as a sophisticated and fashionable resort town. Aspen’s economy had been struggling ever since the silver panic of 1893, and the town found new hope in the idea of a ski area. The town also promoted the idea that it was an American version of a European resort. Advertisements boasted that visitors could view “the majestic wonders of our ageless sentinels.”[84] In the 1930s, Aspen developers hired Swiss Andre Roche to survey possible ski runs. Roche declared that the resort’s terrain “would be in no way inferior to anything in the Alps.”[85] This was crucial because the local manager believed that that unless Aspen could provide exceptional terrain, it would not be able to compete with more accessible places. This problem was solved when new railroad streamliners turned Aspen into an overnight trip from Chicago.[86]

As the 1930s came to a close, Denver’s Department of Parks and Improvements manager George Cranmer, in collaboration with Carl Howelsen, persuaded the city to help fund the construction of a resort seventy miles away. Using municipal as well as Works Progress Administration funding, a city-owned recreation area opened in 1940 offering Denverites and visitors intermediate skiing terrain. This opening also marked the end of the annual Hot Sulpher Springs Winter Carnival as a new era in skiing had begun.

The western ski industry was ready to take off by the end of the 1930s. After decades of transportation and technological development, ski areas were accessible to the average American. Western skiing’s constituency had expanded from locals and elite travelers to Americans from throughout the country who came from a wider range of incomes. Skiing’s functional purpose had changed. Skis were no longer for transportation, but for tourism. Western towns had turned to recreational tourism, particularly skiing, as a new economic base. The West had found another way to utilize the region’s natural resources by turning snow into a commodity. The economic potential that westerners saw in the ski industry reinforced skiing’s importance in regional culture.

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Rollins, William B. “The North Slope Circus.” The Nation, 207, no. 19 (2 Dec. 1968): 591-593.

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[1] Jean Weiss, “Rhapsody in White,” in Nike is a Goddess, ed. Lissa Smith, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), 137-55.
[2] International Olympic Committee, “Gretchen Fraser: the First American Ski Champion,” [www page] (International Olympic Committee [cited 15 October 2004]; available from
[3] Annie Gilbert Coleman. Ski Style (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 68.
[4] Coleman, Ski Style, 4.
[5]Annie Gilbert Coleman, “Culture, Landscape, and the Making of the Colorado Ski Industry” (Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado, 1996), 21.
[6] Coleman, “Culture, Landscape, and the Making of the Colorado Ski Industry,” 21-22.
[7] Jack A. Benson, “Before Skiing Was Fun,” The Western Historical Quarterly, 8, no. 4 (Oct 1977): 433.
[8] Ibid., 439.
[9] “Silverton Gets Food,” Akron Weekly Pioneer Press, 11 Feb 1916, 2. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from The term “snowshoe” was often used instead of the more modern term “skiing” in the early twentieth century.
[10] Benson, “Before Skiing Was Fun,” 441.
[11] Coleman, “Culture, Landscape, and the Making of the Colorado Ski Industry,” 29-30.
[12] Benson, “Before Skiing Was Fun,” 436.
[13] John B. Allen. From Skisport to Skiing: One Hundred Years of an American Sport, 1840-1940. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), 37-39.
[14] Benson, “Before Skiing Was Fun,” 431.
[15] John Gladwyn Jebb. A Strange Career: Life and Adventures of John Gladwyn Jebb (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1895), 121.
[16] John L. Dyer. Snow-show Itinerant (Cincinnati: Cranston & Stowe, 1891), 174.
[17] Benson, “Before Skiing Was Fun,” 431.
[18] Allen, 46.
[19] Allen, 55.
[20] Hal K. Rothman. Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998), 174.
[21] “Fern Lake, Rocky Mountain,” Creede Candle, 24 Feb 1923, 6. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[22] “Photographs of ski jumpers at Norge Ski Club, in Cary, Illinois,” Chicago Daily News. American Memory Project [database online]; available from
[23] Allen, 53.
[24] Rothman, 174.
[25] “Telegraphic News,” Durango Wage Earner 2 Feb 1911, 1. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[26] Rothman, 178.
[27] Bayfield Blade, 11 Feb 1916, 4. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[28] “Foreign,” San Juan Prospector, 26 Feb 1923. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[29] Allen, 84.
[30] Ibid., 12, 64.
[31] Kirk, 115.
[32] Gertrude Metcalfe, “Above the Clouds on Rainier King of Mountains,” Mazama, 2, no. 4 (Dec) 1905 in Ruth Kirk. Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 116.
[33] Kjeldsen, Jim. The Mountaineers: A History (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1998), 11-13.
[34] Kirk, 119. Emphasis added.
[35] Lowell Skoog, “S.O.Y.P.s- The Book of SOYP.” Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering Project [cited 2002]; available from
[36] Ibid.
[37] Philip J. Deloria. Playing Indian. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 3.
[38] Skoog.
[39] Skoog.
[40] “Fern Lake, Rocky Mountain,” Creede Candle, 24 Feb 1923, 6. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[41] “American Tourists Break All Records,” New York Times, 3 Aug 1930, 3.
[42] Arno B. Cammerer, “Snow Lures Travelers to National Parks,” New York Times, 6 Jan 1935, XX9.
[43] William Atherton Du Puy, “Winter Magic in Summer Haunts,” New York Times, 19 Feb 1933, SM10.
[44] F.W. Schmoe, “The Snow,” Mount Rainier Nature News Notes 4, no. 15, (1 Jan 1927): 1-3.
[45] Gayle A. Waldrop, “Park in the Rockies to Grow,” New York Times, 20 Dec 1925, XX5.
[46] “American Tourists Break All Records.”
[47] Allen, 89-90.
[48] “Longmire Springs is Sunday Mecca for Lovers of Nature,” Tacoma Sunday Ledger, 6 Jan 1929.
[49] “Fern Lake, Rocky Mountain,” Creede Candle, 24 Feb 1923, 6. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[50] Allen, 5.
[51] Akron Weekly Pioneer Press, 13 Jan 1922. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[52] Allen, 84.
[53] “Colorado State News,” Creede Candle, 4 Feb 1922, 4. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[54] Coleman, Ski Style, 79.
[55] Rothman, 173.
[56] Ibid., 171.
[57] Rothman, 175.
[58] Ibid., 176.
[59] Rothman, 173-78.
[60] “Dates for Coming Events,” Bayfield Blade 16 Feb 1916, 2. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[61] Allen, 178-179.
[62] “Telegraphic News,” Durango Wage Earner, 2 Feb 1911, 1.
[63] “Colorado News Notes,” Creede Candle, 1 Feb. 1919, 2. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[64] “Colorado State News,” Creede Candle, 8 Feb 1919. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[65] Rothman, 178.
[66] “Distant Pastures Are Greenest,” Silverton Standard, 6 March 1920, 2. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[67] “Colorado News Notes,” Akron Weekly Pioneer Press, 16 June 1922, 4. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection (Denver: Colorado’s Digitization Program, 2003) [database online]; available from
[68] Frank M. Ashley, “Colorado Skiing,” American Ski Annual (1936) in Allen, 139-40.
[69] Rothman, 181.
[70] “Americans Break All Records.”
[71] “Jubilee in the Rockies,” New York Times, 19 May 1940, 147.
[72] Cammerer.
[73] Ralph A. Spencer, Scholastic in Kirk, 123.
[74] Allen, 133, 142.
[75] Ibid., 150.
[76] Cammerer.
[77] Kirk, 118.
[78] Du Puy.
[79] Coleman, Ski Style, 2.
[80] Ibid, 75.
[81] Rothman, 186.
[82] Hemingway fact from “Mogul moguls: The Ski Industry,” The Economist 366, no. 8305 (4 Jan 20030: 72. Clark Cable and Gary Cooper information from Allen, 144.
[83] Coleman, Ski Style, 76.
[84] Rothman, 182-83.
[85] Allen, 139.
[86] Rothman, 182-84.