The birthplace of Tahoe skiing
December 24, 2016
The town of Truckee is justifiably proud of organizing its first winter carnival in 1895, an event that would transform the Tahoe Sierra into a winter sports powerhouse; but it was Tahoe City residents who nearly landed the first Winter Olympics held in the United States.
In the late 1920s, the first opportunity to expand into winter sports appeared at North Lake Tahoe. A steamship company had recently purchased the Tahoe Tavern Hotel, a 223-room, European-style resort near Tahoe City, and the new owners decided to keep it open from December to March.
In years past, the Tavern had shut down as summer faded into fall. Winter transportation to the Tavern would be provided by Southern Pacific Railroad, which maintained a track from Truckee. The train provided reliable access for winter sports enthusiasts heading to Tahoe.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Initially, the main attractions were ice skating and tobogganing near the hotel, but soon, a Winter Sports Grounds was developed at a forested slope (current location of Granlibakken Resort) about half a mile west.
Norwegian-born ski jumper Kjell "Rusty" Rustad had secured a land use permit for the Sports Grounds from the U.S. Forest Service. He cleared the slope of trees, installed a rope tow and built facilities for day visitors and overnight guests. He named it Granlibakken (Norwegian for "hillside sheltered by fir trees") because it reminded him of where he had skied as a boy.
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A double toboggan slide was built, and then shortly after a 65-meter "trajectory" jump was constructed and opened by December 1927. The jump was designed so at the apex of their leap, skiers could see distant Lake Tahoe over the forest canopy below.
Like the Hilltop scaffold jump built at Truckee, this project was designed and its construction supervised by Lars Haugen, a Norwegian-born professional jumper who would eventually win seven U.S. national jumping championships.
Before long, the Tavern's winter sports program at Granlibakken included downhill skiing and exhibition ski jumping. To entertain guests, the Tahoe Tavern hired Haugen and other nationally-ranked ski jumpers like Sig Ulland and brothers Alf and Sverre Engen to perform daring leaps.
Alf and Sverre had a signature move where they hit the jump simultaneously, clasped hands in mid flight and then broke away for the landing. These professional performances drew hundreds of spectators to the Tavern and Granlibakken.
A BID FOR THE OLYMPICS
During the winter of 1928-29, local skiers Jack Starratt, Carl Bechdolt, Joe Henry and others formed the Lake Tahoe Ski Club to organize more activities and competitive events. It was the beginning of a club that would leave an indelible mark on the sport and produce more national ski champions and Olympians than any other program in America.
At that time, the United States was chosen to host the 1932 Winter and Summer Olympics. Los Angeles secured the Summer Games, but competition for the first Winter Games in the U.S. grew into a fierce contest among three established winter snow play areas — Yosemite National Park, Tahoe City and Lake Placid in New York.
Optimistically, organizers started calling the Tahoe Tavern winter sports facility "Olympic Hill." Ultimately, Lake Placid was picked because it's located in upstate New York's reliable snowbelt and had an established history of hosting winter sports events.
Tahoe City's bid failed, but it was rewarded with the 1932 National Ski Association Championship Tournament, with events in jumping and cross-country skiing. In the weeks before the 1932 championship event, nearly 23 feet of fresh snow buried Tahoe City. Skiers and officials arriving from the just finished Winter Games at Lake Placid could hardly believe their eyes. Conditions had been so dry in New York jumpers landed on a mixture of dirty snow and straw.
The 1932 contests at Tahoe attracted Hollywood celebrities like movie star Buster Keaton and actress Anita Page, as well as California Gov. James Rolph.
An estimated 120 professional and amateur competitors from around the country traveled to Tahoe City to strut their stuff, but the Lake Tahoe Ski Club had plenty of members who successfully tested their own mettle against the world's best.
One newspaper gushed: "The 28th National Ski Tournament goes down as one of the best exhibitions of good sportsmanship, one of the most thrilling meets, one of the most spectacular events ever held in the United States under the auspices of the National Ski Association." It was a colorful affair with some 3,000 spectators.
ENDURING THROUGH GENERATIONS
Other than a few spectacular spills suffered by a few jumpers, most of the competitions went off without a hitch. The Dauerlauf cross-country ski race was billed as the first national-level contest of its type held west of the Rockies, but portions of it were so poorly marked racers found themselves lost in the woods. Several skiers didn't make it back until just before dark and one contestant went so far off trail he was returned to Tahoe City by boat.
After the event was over, word was spread across the country and Europe California may be known for sunny beaches and orange groves, but it also possessed a mountain climate and ski conditions superior to most other winter resorts. Visiting athletes went home to tell their friends and families California was the place to go for deep snow.
As a direct result of the 1932 tournament at Lake Tahoe, the popularity and economics of winter sports throughout the California Sierra boomed. This successful event established the Tahoe-Truckee area as a prime training ground for developing world class talent. It also propelled the region into its development as one of America's top-rated ski destinations.
The Tahoe Tavern is gone, but Granlibakken Resort is a conference center and lodge owned and operated by Tahoe locals Bill and Norma Parson, who purchased it in 1978.
Tahoe has a long history of producing ski champions, and it continues to grow every decade. You can thank Rusty Rustad and the Lake Tahoe Ski Club for establishing the deep roots of this great legacy.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at email@example.com. Check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.