Seattle's Municipal Ski Park at Snoqualmie Summit (1934-1940)

  • By John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin
  • Posted 3/29/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10362

In the winter of 1934, Seattle made national news when its Board of Park Commissioners opened one of the first municipal ski areas in the country at the old Milwaukee Railroad stop of Laconia at Snoqualmie Summit, along with an indoor ski arena in downtown Seattle where residents could take free ski lessons to learn the new sport. The Seattle park board, under the leadership of Ben Evans, Director of Playfields, managed the Municipal Ski Park through the winter of 1940. Seattle's efforts were led by Mayor John F. Dore (1881-1938), a skier who envisioned the project as one that could lift his city's spirits during the midst of the Great Depression. The story of Seattle's municipal ski area operated by its park board is virtually unknown these days. This People's History was written by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin, former members of the Sahalie Ski Club on Snoqualmie Pass, whose mother, Margaret Odell (1916-2001), was part of Seattle's early ski scene in the late 1930s.

In the early 1930s, the sport of skiing was growing in popularity in the Seattle area, led in large part by residents of Scandinavian descent. Only a relatively few hardy outdoor enthusiasts participated, going mainly to Paradise Valley on Mount Rainier and Snoqualmie Pass and hiking up the hills before skiing down. In 1931, the Snoqualmie Pass highway was kept open all winter for the first time, providing greater accessibility for the region's skiers, and the sport grew in popularity. In January 1932, The Seattle Times said "the whole world seems suddenly to have gone skiing."

Public Playground at the Pass 

Despite skiing's increasing popularity, opening the municipal ski park was especially daring because it was the middle of the Great Depression -- funds for any activity were scarce and the City was slashing its budget. Yet Seattle opened a new recreation area 60 miles from its city limits, accessible in the winter over an icy, snow-covered, two-lane road. The Seattle Times called the ski park "an unprecedented enterprise. ... It marks the first known time in America a city has ventured into the recreational skiing field in such a first-class manner." A park board report written in the spring of 1934 explained the reason for the project: "Before the development of the municipal ski course, various clubs and outdoor groups maintained camps and cabins there [Snoqualmie Pass] but there were no facilities for the general public, and only a small number of persons could be accommodated." The Municipal Ski Park was opened to address that problem.

On December 20, 1933, the U.S. Forest Service issued a Special Use Permit to the City of Seattle Parks Department covering "28.4 acres more or less of land" near the Snoqualmie Pass Highway for a "Public Playground," and specifying that "the permittee shall pay NO CHARGE." The permit was valid for five years (until December 1939), and could be extended. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) donated labor to clear the land and a crew of 40 to 50 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers (loggers and a few carpenters) from North Bend spent five weeks clearing a 10-acre tract of land. They cut trees above a meadow for skiing, and erected a warming hut the size of a double garage for a shelter.

Gala opening ceremonies were held on January 21, 1934, witnessed by 1,000 spectators, "most of them on skis," in spite of the steady rain that fell. A Seattle Times headline announced "Snoqualmie Ski Park at Summit Becomes a Unit in Seattle's Rapidly Expanding Ski Plan." Mayor Dore, addressing that part of the crowd that witnessed the program (the rest were already skiing), proclaimed:

"This park is yours. ... We hope to expand it, to take in more territory, make more of a clearing. We want to give you a ski instructor so that your children may learn to ski. There are other plans which need developing, and which we shall lend our assistance to."

Marguerite Strizek of the Seattle Ski Club was chosen Ski Queen after a skiing competition was held between contenders from seven Snoqualmie Pass ski clubs. "It was decided by the judges Miss Strizek had chosen a more difficult course to run." Junior jumpers gave an exhibition on a miniature hill, and 20 skiers raced down a "quickly devised slalom course, and the dedication broke up in a general rush of skiers to the hill."

Indoor Skiing 

In February 1934 the Board of Park Commissioners opened an indoor school for skiers, offering free courses in the old Westlake Skating Rink at 2229 9th Avenue in Seattle. Six classes were offered each day, with in-city courses lasting from Monday through Friday and the final day taking place Sunday on the "snowy slopes of the municipal park." Students received lectures on equipment and its use and on first aid, and got practice and training in ski walking, sliding, and various turns. Seattle's unusual indoor ski arena attracted attention throughout the country, with the Sarasota [Florida] Herald-Tribune of March 2, 1934, announcing "Seattle Skiers Learn to Ski on a Soapy Skidway," and the Christian Science Monitor saying "Seattle Ski School Trains for Events on Municipal Field."

The first week in February 1934 was Winter Sports Week in Seattle, designed to promote the new sport of skiing. The week ended with the Seattle Ski Club's tournament at the Summit. A luncheon was held by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce honoring Portland ski officials, attended by the mayors of Portland and Seattle and three ski queens, including Marguerite Strizek. This was Seattle's first Winter Sports Week but Portland had hosted three successful ones and the Seattle Chamber wanted to learn from that city's experience.

The Seattle Ski Club's Fourth Annual Jumping Championship was held at Snoqualmie Summit the first weekend of February 1934. In addition to jumping, there was a cross-country race, and the first slalom race sanctioned by the Pacific Northwest Ski Association. Motorists stopped by traffic on the pass were instructed to "park their machines, purchase tickets from the ticket sellers who follow traffic down the highway, and get free transportation to the Summit in the buses the ski club has retained for the tournament." Tom Mobraaten of Vancouver, B.C., won the ten-mile cross-country race and the combined racing and jumping championship. Hamish Davidson of Vancouver, B.C., won the slalom race featuring 38 competitors, which was "a test of racing skill which proved to be unexpectedly strenuous and spectacular." Attendance was huge, and 5,000 cars were parked on the highway by spectators at the event.

Popular Success 

Seattle's Ski Park turned out to be such a success that on March 19, 1934, Seattle's Park Superintendent wrote the Director of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., seeking permission to expand ski facilities on Mount Rainier. In May 1934, the Seattle Parks Department enlisted the help of local skiers to improve the Ski Park. "Skiers Wanted at Park Today," said Ben Evans, inviting all willing to lend a hand to help clear fallen timber on the "10-acre tract hastily cleared at the Summit to permit skiing" the previous winter. Attendees were to bring their own axes and lunch. Evans hoped to get more land cleared and more trails cut in for the next season.  A park board report described the first year's operations at the Municipal Ski Park: 

"Each winter skiing becomes more popular, and people of all ages seem to derive extreme pleasure from this unusual and health-giving pastime. We feel that the operation of the ski site at Snoqualmie Pass was a very timely thought, and the people of Seattle and the territory from which this ski site may be reached owe a vote of thanks to the government for the permission granted to the Parks Department to use the ground for this purpose, as well as to the Board of Park Commissioners for their interest in the matter. The site consists of a 45-acre tract [30-acre is crossed out] turned over to the City of Seattle by the U.S. Forestry Service on a five-year lease grant for recreational purposes. CWA labor constructed a building for the use of the people who frequent the ski course, and parks department employees with the assistance of other interested citizens of Seattle donated spare time in clearing the ground for use, preparatory to the work which was done by the CWA workers."

In January 1936, The Seattle Times said the Municipal Ski Park was "unique in American skiing, since it is owned and operated by a city and is undergoing somewhat of a spiritual transformation." The popularity of skiing had grown so much the past two years that skiing was actually dangerous, although a ski director was appointed, and skiing was becoming "more or less controlled." The ski director said there would be "no more of this stuff of skiers climbing up in the middle and getting knocked down by someone who hasn't learned to make a turn. We're trying to educate them to go up the sides and then ski down the middle. The upper half of the slope is for the better skiers, who perhaps are learning to turn to a stop. My megaphone helps. I stand in the middle and direct traffic." A traffic cop patrolled the hill, and used "megaphone warnings when thoughtless or slow-footed skiers 'park' in prohibited areas, such as in the middle of a ski track. The 'ski cop' makes no arrests for speeding, however. A skier can go as fast as his skill permits." Evans hoped to persuade the Forest Service to widen the ski area by cleaning out trees. Floodlight skiing would begin that weekend -- three huge searchlights had been erected at the bottom of the hill.

Planning Improvements 

The premier issue of Ski Magazine, in January 1936, discussed a plan to improve the Municipal Ski Park by cutting more trees and smoothing out terrain so several thousand skiers could enjoy themselves. People must choose:

"Whether a huge ski development shall take place and Seattle and neighboring communities reap the fullest reward both commercially and recreationally ... [D]oes conservation mean to keep our ski hills in comparative idleness -- unused through the ages -- or to yield to the demand of young America that they be given an adequate winter playground? The high school boys and girls are the skiers of today and tomorrow. They cannot afford trips to distant places and to expensive hotels, but they must have physical activity to develop fully and to satisfy their love of adventure. The exhilaration of swift running skis, the purity of mountain air, the achievement of skill and the approbation of their companions, the feats of daring on skis ... all these give to young America an outlet of exuberant spirits. It is a youth movement worthwhile. It teaches them teamwork, self control, good sportsmanship, ability to overcome obstacles, to endure and enjoy a mountain storm and to really know the outdoors in all its varying beauties and vicissitudes. Let us then work ceaselessly for the further development of skiing in Snoqualmie Pass."

For a number of years, the City sought federal funds to build a new ski jump and lodge at the Ski Park. In December 1935, The Seattle Times announced that $50,000 in Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects had been approved for the Municipal Ski Park: a new jumping hill that would be the most modern one this side of the huge Olympic take-off at Lake Placid, New York, and "a comfortable cabin for skiers who frequent the Seattle Parks Department's big ski sector." In February 1936, the WPA grant was $18,520, to create a "new skiing paradise." The project would include a 200-foot jumping hill patterned after the one at Lake Placid, new trails cut in the forest, and a large warming shed. Land would be cleared for a new 10-acre park, and improvements made on the existing five-acre park, which had been partially developed under the Civil Works Administration. The 20-by-20-foot warming hut would be supplemented by a 60-by-30-foot similar structure, made of lodge poles cut locally, with a large rock fire place. In July 1936, the Times announced "W.P.A Will Build Jump Project." A 225-foot-capacity jump, designed by Peter Hostmark of the Pacific Northwest Ski Association, would give the West a hill comparable to the magnificent ones in Norway. The runout would be lined with a grandstand and the hill built on wooden trestles of cedar taken from the Snoqualmie National Forest. The jump was not built until 1938.

The Ski Park Report for 1936 said the area operated from January 27 to April 20, 1936, Friday through Sunday. Total attendance was 16,480 skiers and spectators, with 400-500 on the hill on several Sundays. The hill was divided by ropes to allow more people to use the hill at once with less danger. There was a regular uphill route separated from the area on the left for those coming down. Lights permitted skiers to enjoy night skiing. Ski races were not encouraged due to the lack of space, but the annual high school meet was held there. Special buses brought skiers to the Ski Park, including the UW Girls, Sails and Trails, and high school students from Garfield, West Seattle, North Bend, and Renton. Regular bus service was provided by the University Book Store. "With skiing's popularity growing every year, it seems advisable that the skiing area be enlarged for safety and really enjoyable skiing by the many who use the ski hill during the winter."

The Ski Park Report for 1937 said the area operated from Sunday December 20, 1936, to Sunday, May 2, 1937. Snow conditions were good nearly every weekend, with 124 inches being the largest snow pack. The average depth was 85 to 90 inches. Excellent spring skiing lasted right to the end of the season. Total attendance was 19,865, with 2,800 the largest single day. Special buses brought high school students from Garfield, Roosevelt, West Seattle, Ballard, North Bend, and Franklin, and the Sails and Trails Club and West Seattle YMCA. Local sporting goods stores sent at least one busload of skiers every Sunday in January and February. A 1,000-watt floodlight made night skiing possible and more popular than daytime skiing. A Seattle high school ski meet, held at the Ski Park, was won by Garfield. "It must be said that from the crowded condition of the hill and the falls some of the skiers took it is really a miracle that there were no broken arms, legs, or bodies." Needed improvements included a larger cleared area to accommodate the hundreds of skiers who overcrowded the hill each week; making the hill "a little less bumpy; and running water so skiers could quench their thirst when they desired."

The City attempted to improve its Ski Park for several years, although it lacked sufficient funds to bring the facility up to the condition the Forest Service and public desired. In a letter dated July 16, 1937, the Forest Service criticized the lack of development of the Ski Park, saying Seattle had done little toward carrying out the original plan for development, which was to be put into effect as rapidly as possible. The warming house and the latrines were makeshift structures approved by the Forest Service only until such time it was demonstrated that public use of the area required permanent structures. The buildings and the ski runs were inadequate, and increasing public use will make it imperative that additional and better facilities be installed for skiing and the comfort of the skiers. "Sanitary facilities always have been inadequate." The Forest Service recognized that limited funds and the difficulty of using relief labor made it hard for the City to carry out all of the original plans, but the project was started by the City, the public made use of the area and would continue using it, so both the Parks Department and the Forest Service would be subject to criticism if no further action were taken to meet the public's needs. The letter concluded, "I wish to assure you of my interest in your winter sports program and to express my desire to be of assistance to you in this worthwhile undertaking."

Rope Tows Arrive 

For the ski season of 1937, the Union Pacific Railroad opened Sun Valley Resort near Ketchum, Idaho, at a cost of $1,250,000, transforming skiing in the U.S. The Seattle Times reported, "Sun Valley was born -- a fashionable ski resort costing Harriman and the Union Pacific something more than $1,000,000; offering a luxurious, ultra-modern hotel with accommodations for some 200 guests; sun-bathing in roofless ice igloos; mid-winter swimming in outdoor swimming pools fed by natural hot springs; ski-tows to raise skiers 1,470 feet in elevation on a 6,500 foot-long hoist; the other which gives the skier 650 feet of elevation above the valley level." Sun Valley was the country's first destination ski resort, where the chair lift was invented, changing skiing forever.

The installation of the chair lift at Sun Valley caused a sensation in the Northwest. Skiers no longer had to climb hills with skins on their skis, but could ride up to the top again and again, making more runs than they ever dreamed possible. Rope tows installed at Woodstock, Vermont, and Williamstown, Massachusetts, also got publicity. Skiers in the Seattle area took notice and discussions began about installing tows in local areas.

In the summer of 1937, James Parker and Chauncey Griggs got permission to install a rope tow at the Snoqualmie Ski Park, through their company, Ski Lifts, Inc., which would be the means of "developing this area to its greatest possibilities as a popular ski center." Parker argued the ski tow would make the Ski Park safer, by dividing uphill and downhill traffic; increase skier proficiency, enjoyment and hill capacity as more skiers could use the hill. Five times as much skiing would be possible for each skier, skiers would arrive at the top "fresh for the down run," and a tow would bring more people to the Ski Park.

In 1938, an important year for Northwest skiing, Ski Lifts, Inc. installed rope tows at the Municipal Ski Park at Snoqualmie Summit, and at Mount Baker and Mount Rainier, providing an alternative to walking up the hills. The Ski Park's tow was 1,000 feet long, lifted skiers up 450 feet, and served the pie shaped wedge clearing west of the Seattle Ski Club, with rates of 10 cents per ride or $1 for unlimited rides. "Skiers could get downhill training without the long uphill climbs and sudden, weary-legged returns," said The Seattle Times, noting the tow would be the solution to the area's "weekly traffic jam, [because] it keeps up-hill skiers on the right side with the downhill-bound skiers on the other side," and meant "the Northwest will have made the first step toward catching up with Europe in the matter of ski equipment." Webb Moffett was hired to operate the tow on weekends at the Ski Park, earning $10 per weekend plus 10 percent of the gross. Money was so tight that Moffett and his wife slept in the equipment room their first year of operation.

Competition from Hyak 

Also in 1938, the Milwaukee Railroad opened the Milwaukee Ski Bowl at its Hyak stop on the east end of its tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass, offering access by train from downtown Seattle in two hours. The Ski Bowl, which had the first J-bar ski lift in the Northwest and lighted slopes for night skiing, dramatically changed Seattle's ski scene. The Ski Bowl offered the country's first night ski train, with an orchestra providing music for dancing, which became one of the main attractions of area. Once the Ski Bowl opened, it received most of the publicity, and the Municipal Ski Park was rarely mentioned as the Ski Bowl became the area's most popular ski destination.

On February 1, 1938, a committee visited the Ski Park to determine the best location for a new ski jump, in a continuation of the process started in 1936. "Trip to Pass. Both sites looked over. All agreed area across from present area best for jump." The new jump was built in 1938, but the new lodge was never built.

On April 27, 1938, Jim Parker, President of Ski-Lifts, Inc., wrote the Seattle park board saying the tow had contributed to the pleasure of skiing and further development of the sport as it did not take skiers long to appreciate its benefits:

"When we first started operation in January the lift was patronized by only about 15 percent of the skiers on the hill. The acceptance of the lift increased throughout the season until at the close of the season approximately 75 percent of the skiers were accustomed to taking advantage of the lift.

"We started operating the tow on January 1st and continued each Saturday and Sunday until the closing date April 17th. During this time almost 3,000 people took rides. Some of these customers would average between 50 and 70 rides per day so that approximately 100,000 rides were given in all. Since the machinery and equipment in connection with the lift was expensive to install, we are satisfied in netting a sufficient profit during the season to pay for approximately one-third of the original investment. We believe, because of location and accessibility, that the Snoqualmie area is an ideal district for Seattle skiers. Further development of this playground would prove an immeasurable benefit to Seattle."

A Ski Park Report for 1936-1939 gave week by week attendance figures, together with the snow conditions and injuries at the area. The figures show a substantial jump in the number of skiers in 1938, after the rope tow was installed, but a drop in participants in 1939, perhaps reflecting the increased popularity of the Milwaukee Ski Bowl. In 1937, 19,865 people went to the park; 26,025 went in 1938; and 22,880 went in 1939.

Out of the Ski Business 

In spring of 1940, the Seattle Parks Department got out of the ski business after Seattle residents concluded that Snoqualmie Pass was too far away for a city park. The difficulty in getting funds and labor to improve the Municipal Ski Park, and the criticism of the condition of the facilities by the Forest Service in 1937, likely contributed to the decision. Competition from the Milwaukee Road Ski Bowl took away some of the appeal from Ski Park, and the Ski Bowl became the new focus of Seattle area skiing.

Webb Moffett continued to operate the ski area at the Summit for Ski Lifts, Inc., which obtained its own Forest Service permit. In 1942, Webb Moffett and Rance Morris bought Chauncy Griggs's stock in Ski Lifts, Inc. for $3,500, and in 1947, Moffett bought out all of the other shareholders for $15,000. Ski Lifts, Inc. eventually took over all the ski areas on Snoqualmie Pass, including Alpental, Ski Acres, and Hyak, which it operated until 1998, when the company sold out to Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., a company that operates ski resorts nationwide.

The only remnant of Seattle's Municipal Ski Park is the Municipal Hill ski run at the Snoqualmie Summit ski area (now Summit West). It is the original hill above the old hamburger hut, which was located a little to the south (toward Hyak) of the current Alpenhaus. Few people are aware of wonderful history associated with the run or the origin of its name.


Sources:

The Seattle Times articles, 1932-1938; Yvonne Prater, Snoqualmie Pass: From Indian Trail to Interstate (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1981), 133-137; "History of the Snoqualmie Pass Area," Alpental website accessed March 25, 2013 (http://www.alpental.com/history.htm); The Summit at Snoqualmie website accessed March 25, 2013 (www.summitatsnoqualmie.com); "Timeline of Snoqualmie Pass Area Events in History," Hyak website accessed March 25, 2013 (www.hyak.net/history.htm); "Chronology -- Alpine Lakes Region," Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project website accessed March 25, 2013 (http://alpenglow.org/ski-history/chronology/snoqualmie.html).


Related Topics:   People's Histories | Recreation | Sports

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