Members of the Roberts party travel to Mount Rainier for skiing in 1909.  Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.
Members of the Roberts party travel to Mount Rainier for skiing in 1909. L-R: Frank Dabney, Sally Nieman, Mary Dabney, Mrs. Worrall Wilson. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
A Far White Country
  Part 2  

 
 
A Wonderland of Snow

In 1883, as its line to Tacoma neared completion, the Northern Pacific Railroad launched a promotional campaign to attract travelers to the Northwest. To draw attention to Mount Rainier, the railroad invited a distinguished group of Europeans to visit the mountain in the company of Northern Pacific geologist Bailey Willis. The party included Professor James Bryce, a writer and member of the British Parliament, and Professor Karl von Zittel, a geologist. Following their visit, they wrote of Rainier:

The peak itself is as noble a mountain as we have ever seen in its lines and structure. The combination of ice scenery with woodland scenery of the grandest type is to be found nowhere in the Old World, unless it be in the Himalayas, and, so far as we know, nowhere else on the American Continent.

Bryce and von Zittel published a report expressing the hope that Mount Rainier would be treated as a national park. Their 1883 proposal went nowhere, but ten years later, Bailey Willis revived it. His proposal eventually attracted the support of a diverse group of scientists, mountaineers, and Northwest civic leaders. The Northern Pacific, whose land grant included the area of Mount Rainier, stayed discretely in the background during this campaign. In 1899, Mount Rainier National Park was established in a deal that gave the Northern Pacific prime forestland in exchange for the ice and rock it had owned on Mount Rainier.

Access to the new park centered on the southwest corner, the approach favored by early climbing parties. James Longmire led a wagon train over Naches Pass in 1853 and settled with his family near Olympia. Returning from an ascent of Mount Rainier in 1883, Longmire discovered mineral springs near the base of the mountain and conceived the idea of developing the springs as a resort. He cleared a trail to the site and in 1890 opened the Longmire Springs Hotel. A wagon road was built from Ashford to the hotel in the early 1890s. From there, Paradise Valley could be reached by a six-mile horse trail.

Just months after the national park was established, John Bagley decided to build a railroad toward the mountain from Tacoma. Bagley saw promise in coal deposits near Ashford and stands of timber en route from Tacoma. He also recognized the opportunity to develop tourism in the new park. In 1902, Bagley’s Tacoma Eastern Railroad reached Eatonville; in 1903, Elbe; and in 1904, Ashford. Stage service was inaugurated from Ashford over the remaining 12 miles to Longmire Springs. In 1906, a second hotel opened at Longmire Springs, called the National Park Inn. With room for sixty guests, this hotel was built and operated by the Tacoma Eastern Railroad Company. The increased tourist travel to the park soon filled both hotels to capacity.

It’s unknown when skis first appeared on Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier was the first national park to be patrolled exclusively by rangers, without resort to troops. Before 1909, the few rangers who worked in the park were all seasonal employees. A ranger cabin was built at Paradise, but it was unused in winter. The first two full-time rangers were William McCullough and Alfred B. Conrad, recruited in 1909 from the local communities of Ashford and Eatonville. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that early rangers used skis around Longmire in winter, but ski trips to Paradise would probably not have been a regular part of their duties.

Thor Bisgaard of Norway came to the Northwest in 1907 and worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad. As a member of the Tacoma Mountaineers, he was perhaps the first ski instructor in Washington. Photo courtesy Gary Bisgaard.
Thor Bisgaard of Norway came to the Northwest in 1907 and worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad. As a member of the Tacoma Mountaineers, he was perhaps the first ski instructor in Washington. Photo courtesy Gary Bisgaard.
  An unidentified man skis at Paradise on Mount Rainier, circa 1907. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Albert H. Barnes Collection, Box 1, #693.
An unidentified man skis at Paradise on Mount Rainier, circa 1907. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Albert H. Barnes Collection, Box 1, #693.
  Thor Bisgaard (left) and another man ski at Paradise on Mount Rainier. (I think the second man is the same as in the previous photo by Albert H. Barnes.) Photo courtesy Gary Bisgaard.
Thor Bisgaard (left) and another man ski at Paradise on Mount Rainier. (I think the second man is the same as in the previous photo by Albert H. Barnes.) Photo courtesy Gary Bisgaard.
Thor Bisgaard of Norway came to the Northwest in 1907 and worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Photo courtesy Gary Bisgaard.   An unidentified man skis at Paradise, circa 1907. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Albert H. Barnes Collection, Box 1, #693.   Thor Bisgaard (left) and another man ski at Paradise on Mount Rainier. Photo courtesy Gary Bisgaard.

One of the earliest known skiers was Thor Bisgaard, a Norwegian who moved to the Northwest in 1907 after living for a short time in Canada. Bisgaard took a job with the Northern Pacific in Tacoma and soon visited the mountain with skis. Snapshots in Bisgaard family albums and a photo by Albert H. Barnes at the University of Washington suggest that these trips may have started as early as 1907. But the precise date is unknown.

Recreational skiing on Mount Rainier definitely arrived in 1909. In March of that year, Professor Milnor Roberts of the University of Washington visited Longmire with friends for a week of skiing. It seems that fate chose an ideal person to underscore the importance of the railroads in opening Mount Rainier to visitors. Roberts’ own father, William Milnor Roberts, had been Chief Engineer for the Northern Pacific during most of the years of its construction.

1909 was an auspicious year in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Rainier National Park was ten years old. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 had made Seattle a boom town, and the city celebrated its prosperity by hosting its first world’s fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Returning to Seattle to address the exposition, James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad said, “This exposition may be regarded as the laying of the last rail, the driving of the last spike, in unity of mind and purpose between the Pacific coast and the country east of the mountains.” Between June and October of that year, nearly four million people attended the A-Y-P in Seattle.

The automobile was just beginning to transform America. In the fall of 1908, Henry Ford started production of his Model T, known as “Tin Lizzie.” To launch the A-Y-P, the first transcontinental auto race across North America was started in New York City at the exact moment that President Taft opened the exposition in Seattle. Twenty-three days later, four cars rumbled into Seattle, with the climax of the race being the rugged crossing of Snoqualmie Pass.

Mount Rainier is viewed from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in this 1909 composite photo. (The mountain has been made to appear closer than it actually is.) The reflecting pool is now Frosh Pond. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, A-Y-P Collection, Nowell negative x1040a.
Mount Rainier is viewed from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in this 1909 composite photo. (The mountain has been made to appear closer than it actually is.) The reflecting pool is now Frosh Pond. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, A-Y-P Collection, Nowell negative x1040a.
  Milnor Roberts skiing on the University of Washington campus, probably in the 1920s. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.
Milnor Roberts skiing on the University of Washington campus, probably in the 1920s. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.
Mount Rainier is viewed from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in this 1909 composite photo. The reflecting pool is now Frosh Pond. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, A-Y-P Collection, Nowell negative x1040a.   Milnor Roberts skiing on the UW campus. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.

Milnor Roberts was one of the A-Y-P organizers. He proposed that the A-Y-P be held on the University of Washington campus and he planned sports events for the exposition. At 32, he was young and energetic and, as Dean of the UW’s College of Mines, well traveled throughout the Northwest. During spring break from the University in 1909, Roberts took leave from his college and A-Y-P organizing duties to enjoy an unusual holiday in the Cascades.

On March 18, 1909, Roberts and a small group of friends arrived at the National Park Inn at Longmire. The party included Milnor Roberts and his sister Milnora, their friend Frank Dabney, his wife Mary and daughter Edith, Mrs. Worall Wilson, Miss Sally Nieman, Waldemar Nieman and Carl F. Gould (a renowned architect who would later design the UW campus). By special arrangement, the watchman of the inn allowed them entry, and they spent the next week enjoying skiing day-trips from the inn to the slopes of Eagle Peak, The Ramparts, and Paradise Valley.

The goal of the trip was to reach Paradise Valley on skis. The government road to Paradise was still under construction and would not be plowed in winter for another 20 to 30 years. The Paradise Inn didn’t exist yet and the only structure in the area was a small ranger’s cabin. The shortest route from Longmire to Paradise was the horse trail along the Paradise River, a six mile trek. Since the trail was unbroken through deep snow, the party made several trips toward Paradise, each time pushing the route farther up the valley.

Two groups eventually reached Paradise. The first, including Milnor Roberts, reached the ranger’s cabin and enjoyed views of Mount Rainier rising above the head of the valley. Roberts wrote, “The only toilsome part of the journey was at Narada Falls, where we were forced to navigate our skis sidewise, in crab fashion, up the steep slope.” On March 24, two young ladies of the party, accompanied by James McCullough, watchman at the National Park Inn, skied to Sluiskin Falls, well beyond the point reached by the first party. Roberts wrote, “As both the ladies had ascended Rainier in summer, they could enjoy to the utmost the wonderful view of the snow-clad range spread out before them.”

The Roberts ski party at Longmire in 1909.  Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec, UW9765.
The Roberts ski party at Longmire in 1909. L-R: Milnora Roberts, Mrs. Worrall Wilson, Sally Nieman, Edith Dabney, Frank and Mary Dabney, Milnor Roberts, Carl F. Gould. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec, UW9765.
  Edith Dabney skis under a timbered arch at Mount Rainier in 1909. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.
Edith Dabney skis under a timbered arch at Mount Rainier in 1909. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.
The Roberts ski party at Longmire in 1909. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec, UW9765. (Enlarge photo for party member names.)   Edith Dabney skis under a timbered arch at Mount Rainier in 1909. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Social Issues Collection, Folder Ec.

The Roberts party was enchanted by what they saw. In a letter to Mountaineers historian Eugene Faure a half-century later, Milnor Roberts recalled: “As we traversed the open slopes, now smooth with a great depth of snow, our skis hidden deep in the powder snow slid quietly along to make the only marks of man’s presence even for a day, or at least the only visible one. The possibilities of Paradise as a winter resort so impressed us that I wrote an article for the National Geographic Magazine [and] published it with some of our photos in the June 1909 issue with the title ’A Wonderland of Glaciers and Snow’.”

We may never know who were the very first people to ski at Paradise on Mount Rainier. Park rangers may have done it before, or Thor Bisgaard, or perhaps watchman James McCullough, who accompanied the ladies to Sluiskin Falls on that bright spring day. But the Roberts party came to Mount Rainier expressly for that purpose, and the story that Milnor Roberts wrote for National Geographic was the first on the subject to be published nationally. It’s fair to say that the March 1909 outing by Roberts marked the beginning of recreational skiing on Mount Rainier. His National Geographic article announced the birth of a new sport in the Cascades.

100 Years in “Wonderland”

On March 22, 2009, about twenty backcountry skiers converged at Longmire and Paradise to celebrate a century of skiing on Mount Rainier. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the March 1909 ski trip by Professor Milnor Roberts and friends. While the Roberts trip was made possible by the railroad, ours relied primarily on the Internet.

When I saw a newspaper story about the upcoming A-Y-P centennial celebration, I realized that 2009 also marked the centennial of recreational skiing in the Cascades. I started a discussion on the Turns-All-Year.com website proposing to commemorate the event. TAY readers were enthusiastic about the idea.

March 2009: Celebrating 100 years of skiing on Mount Rainier (from left to right): Steph Subak, Jorie Wackerman, Alison Kilroy, Holly Rydel, Lowell Skoog, Dorothea Driggers, Doug McDonnal, and Garth Ferber gather in front of the National Park Inn at Longmire. Photo: © Lowell Skoog.
March 2009: Celebrating 100 years of skiing on Mount Rainier (from left to right): Steph Subak, Jorie Wackerman, Alison Kilroy, Holly Rydel, Lowell Skoog, Dorothea Driggers, Doug McDonnal, and Garth Ferber gather in front of the National Park Inn at Longmire. Photo: © Lowell Skoog.

After arriving at the park, several of the group stopped at Longmire to re-enact one the photographs from the 1909 Roberts outing, a picture of five women and three men standing on skis and snowshoes outside the National Park Inn (click image above to enlarge).

Then we continued to the Paradise visitor center, where we picked up more skiers. Our goal was Sluiskin Falls, the high point of the Roberts party ski outings. Most of the participants had brought old-fashioned clothing and equipment. As we set out from the parking lot in stormy weather with tweedy clothing and fragile skis, we instantly gained a more intimate respect for the pioneers.

Jeff Berrens set the standard for authenticity. His 240cm, mortised skis were real museum pieces and could have been used by skiers in 1909. Jeff had an antique alpenstock and his equipment was complemented by a German motorcycle jacket, leather gloves, and a vintage backpack.

My edgeless wood skis dated from the 1930s and were complemented by a bamboo staff and second-hand-store clothing. I secured my leather climbing boots to bear-trap bindings using stretchy toe straps that fell off if I tried to turn too quickly.

My wife Steph dusted off her old cross-country skis and was reminded of why she enjoyed telemarking once upon a time. (Wearing a dress in powder, she also relearned why our grandmothers gave them up for skiing.)

With driving snow and poor visibility, most of us decided to stop as soon as we reached Mazama Ridge. It's unlikely that the Roberts party went much higher than that. During the descent, we were grateful for the invention of kick turns.

We returned to Paradise with a new appreciation for the hardiness of the pioneers. Their round-trip from Longmire to Sluiskin Falls was over ten miles longer than our modest outing, and a broken ski or twisted ankle would have had much more serious consequences for them.

 
 
Continued
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