Mount Rainier from Tacoma City Hall, December 1894. The railroad line can be seen crossing the tideflats. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Alvin H. Waite Collection, negative 227-12.
Mount Rainier from Tacoma City Hall, December 1894. The railroad line can be seen crossing the tideflats. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Alvin H. Waite Collection, negative 227-12.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
A Far White Country
  Unlocking the Northwest mountains in winter  

 
 
` As a boy in Minnesota, I had my own skis.”

Nearly sixty years later, the memory of those days made Howard A. Hanson wistful. “When we moved to Seattle in 1889, my father induced me to give away the skis. He said the climate here was too mild for skiing and the mountains were inaccessible, for lack of roads.” Hanson, who served as a Washington state legislator and Seattle attorney in the early 1900s, never forgot his boyhood love of skiing. “Naturally, I longed for my skis,” he recalled. “In later years, when I was in a position to do so, I took steps to help popularize the sport for others to enjoy.”

Hanson’s story was typical of Scandinavian-Americans who came to the Northwest in the late 1800s. Between 1875 and 1895, over 260,000 Norwegians immigrated to the United States. Many were young people who left family farms in Norway that were too small to divide any further. In 1882, over 100,000 people arrived from Norway, Sweden and Finland in a single year. The Midwest was a popular destination for families like Hanson’s. Some continued to the Pacific Northwest, where mining, forestry, and fishing offered opportunities to start a new life.

Those who settled in western Washington soon realized that they must set aside a cherished part of their old life—skiing. From his new home in Seattle, Howard Hanson could see mountains in nearly every direction. To the west rose the mysterious Olympics; to the north, the cone of Mount Baker; to the south, massive 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. On a clear winter day, hundreds of miles of snowy peaks beckoned along the skyline between Mount Baker and Mount Rainier. But for a young man like Hanson, the mountains were no more accessible than distant clouds. To travel crude wagon roads for fifty miles or more to find skiing was out of the question. The low country where Hanson lived was mild and rainy, a place for umbrellas and overshoes, not skis.

Railroads Open the Doors to the Northwest

In the early days, Seattle was isolated not only from its nearby mountains, but from all of America. For pioneers like Arthur Denny, coming to the Northwest was an exhausting journey. During the summer of 1851, the Denny party traveled west by wagon from Illinois to Portland, Oregon. Three months later, they sailed from Portland to Puget Sound, landing at Alki Point on a gray November day. As they disembarked from the schooner Exact, the captain’s wife recalled: “I can’t never forget when the folks landed at Alki Point. I was sorry for Mrs. Denny with her baby and the rest of the women. I remember it rained awful hard and the starch got took out of our bonnets and the wind blew, and when the women got into the rowboat to go ashore they were crying every one of ’em [...] The last glimpse I had of them was the women standing under the trees with their wet sun bonnets lopping down over their faces and their aprons to their eyes.”

Arthur Denny was one of the founders of Seattle. From the beginning, Denny saw that the future of the city lay in connecting to the East: “I came to the coast with the belief that a railroad would be built across the continent to some point on the northern coast within the next fifteen or twenty years, and [I] located on the Sound with that expectation.” Denny would have to wait longer than he hoped.

In 1853, when Washington Territory was established, Congress authorized the reconnaissance of potential rail routes from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Isaac Stevens, Washington’s first territorial governor, was put in charge of the northernmost survey. This survey proposed a route from the east with two branches, one down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver and the other over the Cascade Mountains to Puget Sound. When the Northern Pacific Railroad bill was approved by Congress in 1864, more detailed surveys were launched, and they eventually selected the Columbia River as the main rail line and the trans-Cascade route as the secondary, branch line.

George Longworth (left) and his fireman pose next to Locomotive #1265 at Lester below Stampede Pass, circa 1905. Railway access in the early 1900s made winter recreation in the Cascades possible. Photo: Northwest Railway Museum, George Longworth Collection, No. 97.07.64.
George Longworth (left) and his fireman pose next to Locomotive #1265 at Lester below Stampede Pass, circa 1905. Railway access in the early 1900s made winter recreation in the Cascades possible. Photo: Northwest Railway Museum, George Longworth Collection, No. 97.07.64.
Locomotive at Lester below Stampede Pass, circa 1905. Photo: Northwest Railway Museum, George Longworth Collection, No. 97.07.64.

Construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad started in Minnesota in 1870. With Puget Sound as the end point, a fierce rivalry developed between Seattle and Tacoma to be the terminal city. Tacoma was selected as the terminus in 1873. The railroad reached Tacoma in 1883 via the Columbia River and a line that ran northward from Kalama, Washington. Henry Villard, chief of the Northern Pacific, rode the train to Tacoma for a triumphant celebration. In Seattle on September 14, future mayor Dr. Thomas T. Minor told Villard, “Sir, we have waited long for this day—for years we have waited! Isolation is the severest of prison discipline, and isolation in a community active and industrious, enterprising and aspiring, is as it is in solitary confinement, the severest punishment it can undergo…we have suffered under it and longed for relief from it, and rejoice now without measure in at last feeling that we have union, and that the doorway is opened between us and the civilized world. [...] You have opened to us the doors of new life, and new liberty!”

In 1884, Seattle completed a spur line to connect the city with the Northern Pacific Railroad at Tacoma. Meanwhile, the Northern Pacific turned its attention to completing the trans-Cascade line between Ellensburg and western Washington. The Stampede Pass crossing (via switchbacks) opened in 1887. Seattle celebrated with “jollifications” that almost eclipsed 1883’s. As rail historian Kurt Armbruster wrote: “A great bonfire blazed on Front Street, skyrockets whooshed into the night, revolvers were emptied with abandon, and a long Victorian conga line snaked uptown to the Post-Intelligencer office.” In 1888, the Stampede Pass tunnel opened, eliminating the need for switchbacks over the pass.

During the 1880s, the Northern Pacific’s immigration agencies lured thousands of German, Scandinavian, and British settlers onto its land grant. The tide was so great that San Francisco bemoaned the “strange fondness of immigrants for the wet slopes of the Cascade Mountains and the solitary banks of the great Columbia.” The population of Washington Territory grew by nearly 400% during that decade. This explosive growth led to statehood for Washington in 1889. Naturalist John Muir observed at the time: “To many, especially in the Atlantic States, Washington is hardly known at all. It is regarded as being yet a far wild west—a dim, nebulous expanse of woods—by those who do not know that railroads and steamers have brought the country out of the wilderness and abolished the old distances.”

The second trans-Cascade route opened in 1893, when the Great Northern Railroad under James J. Hill completed its line over Stevens Pass. The Stevens Pass crossing was made by an intricate series of switchbacks. In 1897, construction began on the 13,000-foot Cascade Tunnel under the pass. It opened to trains in 1900.

“Norwegian Snowshoes” Follow the Railroads

With railroads spanning the Cascades, the stage was set for the emergence of winter recreation in Washington’s mountains. Records of skiing in the Cascades began to appear almost immediately after the railroads went in. The earliest records came not from train-hopping recreationists but from men who lived and worked in the mountains year-round.

The Silver Creek mining district, about 10 miles NE of Index, is the oldest mining area in the western Cascades of Washington. The first known mineral discoveries by white Americans in the area were made in 1871. In 1889, prospectors crossed the mountains from Silver Creek into the headwaters of the Sauk River and staked claims in an area they called Monte Cristo. A boom followed, and Monte Cristo became the richest mining district in the state in the 1890s.

During 1892-93, a railroad was constructed between the Puget Sound port of Everett and Monte Cristo. The winter of 1893, before the railroad was completed, brought enormous snowfalls. Henry Pennycock, in charge of a camp seven miles below Monte Cristo, reported that over 36 feet of snow fell during the winter. In late April, seven feet of snow was still on the ground less than 1800 feet above sea level. Pennycock noted, “They are hauling goods to Silverton on sleighs” and “traveling is all done on snowshoes or on Norwegian ski.”

A Mountaineers party climbs to the railroad track above Scenic Hot Springs. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Skykomish 1913 lantern slide #2.
A Mountaineers party climbs to the railroad track above Scenic Hot Springs. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Skykomish 1913 lantern slide #2.
Climbing above Scenic Hot Springs. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Skykomish 1913 lantern slide #2.

Over the ridge at Galena, near the mouth of Silver Creek, the editor of the InterCascade Miner described the winter view from his window: “The office windows command an extensive view of the business and residence portions of the town, and the hours of labor are frequently enlivened by the gyrations and lofty tumbling that a man and a pair of able-bodied Norwegian snow-shoes [i.e. skis] can execute when a slight misunderstanding arises between them. The snow-shoes invariably come out on top while the man is buried, head down in the snow.”

Newspapers record that Silver Creek miners held a snowshoe race on Silver Lake during Christmas, 1891. This may have been the earliest recorded winter sports event in the Washington Cascades. But the first Cascade location that might properly be called a winter recreation site was at Scenic Hot Springs, a few miles west of Stevens Pass. The hot springs were discovered during construction of the Great Northern Railroad. In 1904, the Scenic Hot Springs Hotel was built nearby. Since it was just a four-hour train ride from Seattle, it soon became a popular destination for Seattleites in both summer and winter.

Timeline - Rails Before Ski Trails

1851 - Founding of the city of Seattle.

1853 - Washington Territory established, early railroad surveys begin.

1864 - Congress approves Northern Pacific Railroad bill.

1870 - Northern Pacific construction begins in Minnesota.

1883 - Northern Pacific Railroad completed to Tacoma via Columbia River and Portland.

1886 - Great Northern Railroad construction begins in Minnesota.

1887 - Northern Pacific trans-Cascade route completed over Stampede Pass.

1888 - Stampede Tunnel completed, replacing railroad switchbacks over Stampede Pass.

1889 - Washington becomes the 42nd state in the Union.

1890 - James Longmire opens Longmire Springs Hotel, near Mount Rainier.

1892-93 - Everett & Monte Cristo Railway built.

1893 - Earliest recorded skiing in the Washington Cascades, in the Silver Creek and Monte Cristo mining districts.

1893 - Great Northern Railroad completed to Seattle via Stevens Pass.

1897 - Construction begins on Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass.

1899 - Mount Rainier National Park established.

1900 - Cascade Tunnel completed, replacing railroad switchbacks over Stevens Pass.

1904 - Tacoma Eastern Railroad completed to Ashford, near Mount Rainier.

1904 - Scenic Hot Springs Hotel built near Stevens Pass.

1906 - National Park Inn opens at Longmire, Mount Rainier.

1909 - Earliest recorded skiing at Mount Rainier.

1909 - Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad opens over Snoqualmie Pass.

1912 - First automobile drives unaided to Paradise on Mount Rainier.

1914 - Mountaineers Snoqualmie Lodge constructed, bringing snowshoeing and skiing to the Snoqualmie Pass area.

1915 - Snoqualmie Tunnel opens, replacing railroad line over Snoqualmie Pass.

1915 - Sunset Highway (first permanent auto road) opens over Snoqualmie Pass. The highway would not be kept open in winter until 1930-31.

1916 - Record-breaking snow storm paralyzes Seattle. Norwegian residents give an exhibition of ski jumping on Queen Anne Hill.

1917 - Inspired by the ski jumping exhibition in Seattle, the first ski tournament in the Washington Cascades is held at Scenic Hot Springs.

1917 - Paradise Inn opens on Mount Rainier.

1917 - First ski tournament on Mount Rainier, held in late July.

 
 
Continued
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