During “The Big Snow” of February 1916, twenty-nine inches of snow fell on Seattle in a single storm. Here, L.C. Twito skis along 6th Avenue near University Street. He and other Norwegians made their own skis and thus had no problems in getting around town. Photo from the Collection of the Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, 1999.020.013.
During “The Big Snow” of February 1916, twenty-nine inches of snow fell on Seattle in a single storm. Here, L.C. Twito skis along 6th Avenue near University Street. He and other Norwegians made their own skis and thus had no problems in getting around town. Photo from the Collection of the Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, 1999.020.013.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
A Far White Country
  Part 4  

 
 
T he Big Snow

With its maritime climate, Seattle doesn’t usually get a lot of snow in winter. Snow in town is a novelty that quickly turns into a nuisance because of the city’s steep hills and limited ability to clear them. Scandinavians who grew up skiing and who settled in Seattle in the early 1900s were disappointed because snow never lasted long enough to encourage development of the sport here. But events in the winter of 1916 began to change this.

January 1916 was unusually cold. Lakes around the city froze over, and during the last weekend of the month 3,000 skaters flocked to Green Lake on a Sunday afternoon. Snow began falling on the 31st, and over a period of three days, 29 inches blanketed the city. The one-day record for snowfall in Seattle (21.5 inches, a record that still stands) was established on February 1, 1916. At 10 o’clock that morning, the grandstand at the UW’s Denny Field crumpled under the weight of new snow. The following afternoon, the dome of St. James Cathedral in Seattle collapsed. Newspapers reported similar cave-ins all around western Washington. Street cars were disabled by the snow, five-foot drifts clogged residential streets, and the Smith Tower hurled rooftop avalanches onto pedestrians below.

On February 1, the Seattle Times reported that the city was “In the Clutch of the Snow King.” As Seattle slowly dug itself out during the days that followed, Times editorials exhorted citizens to “Clean your sidewalks!”, “Clean off that roof!” and “Clean out the alleys.” By the end of the week, odd tales of citizens coping with the snow were widespread. The Seattle P-I ran a humorous (but probably fictional) story of one Henry Steinkopf, who lost everything when he borrowed his neighbor’s skis for a trip to the grocer.

Front page of the Seattle Daily Times on February 7, 1916.  Ski jumpers: A. Flakstad (upper-left), Reidar Gjolme (upper-right), L.  Orvald (bottom).
Front page of the Seattle Daily Times on February 7, 1916. Ski jumpers: A. Flakstad (upper-left), Reidar Gjolme (upper-right), L. Orvald (bottom).
Front page of the Seattle Daily Times on February 7, 1916. The ski jumping exhibition was held on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle.

On Sunday, February 6, the Times printed an unusual announcement: “Ski jumping and speed skiing today will be introduced to the Seattle public,” stated the paper. “The committee in charge of the event believes that this is the first display of ski jumping ever staged in Seattle.” Three men worked late Saturday night to prepare a ski jump on 4th Avenue North, one of the city’s steepest streets, near the Fremont Bridge. “The contest Sunday,” explained John Sagdahl, “is in the nature of an experiment. For many years, a number of ski jumpers from Norway who are now businessmen here have been attempting to create interest in the sport without success. We believe that skiing is one of the most thrilling sports in existence, both from the skier’s and spectator’s viewpoint. If this event proves a success, we will hold a second exhibition on the same hill Monday afternoon.”

The ski jumping exhibition was front-page news on Monday. Warming temperatures, light rain, and sticky snow failed to deter ten jumpers from competing. Reidar Gjolme, general agent of the Norwegian American (steamship) Line, won the event with a leap of 43 feet. L. Orvald was second with 38 feet, and three jumpers tied for third. The snow didn’t last long enough for a second exhibition. By Monday, a rapid thaw was flooding Northwest rivers and the Great Northern Railroad cancelled its trains through the mountains due to avalanche danger. Life in the city returned to a soggy routine.

For the men who participated, the exhibition stirred powerful memories of their skiing youth. In the months that followed, they discussed how they might revive ski jumping and put it on a firmer footing. By the next winter, they had a tentative solution.

In early February, 1917, Seattle newspapers announced the “First Ski Tournament Ever Held in the Northwest” at Scenic Hot Springs. Scenic was on the Great Northern line and had for several years been popular for winter outings. In addition to mineral baths and “an invigorating atmosphere,” the hotel offered skis and toboggans for the use of its guests and a small slope behind the hotel carved out of the forest. Five silver cups were put up for the event, with contests for both men and women. The Great Northern Railway offered a special $2.80 round trip rate for the tournament.

Nineteen skiers from Seattle, Tacoma, Victoria and Vancouver entered the event, including Reidar Gjolme, who had won the exhibition in Seattle and who had competed on the famous Holmenkollen jump in Norway in 1902. Also in the tournament was Thor Bisgaard of Tacoma. Jumps of 80 to 100 feet were expected, although the newspapers acknowledged that “some of the men who will compete have had many seasons pass their heads since they essayed the flight through the air on skis.”

“First ski tournament ever held in the Northwest” - Advertisement for the event at Scenic Hot Springs which ran in Seattle newspapers on February 1-2, 1917.
“First ski tournament ever held in the Northwest” - Advertisement for the event at Scenic Hot Springs which ran in Seattle newspapers on February 1-2, 1917.
  The February 1917 ski tournament at Scenic Hot Springs was held on the small, cleared slope behind the hotel in this picture. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Lee Picket Collection, #1605.
The February 1917 ski tournament at Scenic Hot Springs was held on the small, cleared slope behind the hotel in this picture. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Lee Picket Collection, #1605.
  A week before the 1917 tournament at Paradise, the press heralded Miss Olga Bolstad as “the most sensational lady ski-jumper in the Northwest.” Source: Tacoma News Tribune, July 22, 1917.
A week before the 1917 tournament at Paradise, the press heralded Miss Olga Bolstad as “the most sensational lady ski-jumper in the Northwest.” Source: Tacoma News Tribune, July 22, 1917.
Advertisement for Scenic Hot Springs tournament in Seattle newspapers on February 1-2, 1917.   The February 1917 ski tournament at Scenic Hot Springs was held on the cleared slope behind the hotel. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Lee Picket Collection, #1605.   Olga Bolstad, “the most sensational lady ski-jumper in the Northwest.” Source: Tacoma News Tribune, July 22, 1917.

The tournament on February 4 was marred by rain and sticky snow. Reidar Gjolme won the meet with jumps of 70, 76, and 72 feet. Birger Normann of Tacoma was second. Due to the difficult snow conditions, Norman was the only jumper to stand up after his leaps. The highlight of the tournament was a young Norwegian woman, Olga Bolstad, who arrived during the event and asked to borrow a pair of skis. “Although an unknown when she arrived,” newspapers reported, “she speedily became the most talked-of person in the tourney, owing to her sensational jumping.” Miss Bolstad cleaned up the women’s prizes and was awarded honorable mention in the men’s events for her jumping. About 150 people traveled from Seattle to watch the tournament.

At an elevation of only 2200 feet above sea level, Scenic Hot Springs receives as much rain in winter as snow. Tournament organizers realized that Scenic was not an ideal location for skiing. Fortunately, one of the group’s members was Thor Bisgaard, who knew Mount Rainier as well as any skier. Bisgaard had attended the Mountaineers winter outing at Paradise just five weeks before the Scenic tournament. He knew that the Paradise Inn would open to the public that summer. At an elevation of 5400 feet, Paradise often held snow into July. After meeting with Thomas H. Martin, proprietor of the new inn, Bisgaard organized an event unprecedented in America, a midsummer ski tournament.

The tournament was scheduled for July 29, 1917. Paradise Inn opened before the road was cleared and the first guests saw their baggage delivered on sleds. Advance publicity for the event announced that Miss Olga Bolstad, “the most sensational lady ski-jumper in the Northwest,” would be competing. The newspapers also advised that “novices who wish to try their luck on the queer looking skis will be given an opportunity to do so, and some of the professionals will give instructions in their proper use.”

Artwork by Yngvar Sonnichsen commemorating the first ski tournament held on Mount Rainier, from the Tacoma News Tribune, August 5, 1917.
Artwork by Yngvar Sonnichsen commemorating the first ski tournament held on Mount Rainier, from the Tacoma News Tribune, August 5, 1917.
  Miss Olga Bolstad, winner of the first ski tournament held on Mount Rainier, July 29, 1917. She defeated all the male competitors. Photo: Asahel Curtis, Washington State Historical Society, WSHS.1943.42.40132.
Miss Olga Bolstad, winner of the first ski tournament held on Mount Rainier, July 29, 1917. She defeated all the male competitors. Photo: Asahel Curtis, Washington State Historical Society, WSHS.1943.42.40132.
  Tacoma News Tribune article on July 8, 1918. This story acknowledged that Olga Bolstad won the 1917 tournament.
Tacoma News Tribune article on July 8, 1918. This story acknowledged that Olga Bolstad won the 1917 tournament.
Artwork by Yngvar Sonnichsen commemorating the first ski tournament held on Mount Rainier, from the Tacoma News Tribune, August 5, 1917.   Olga Bolstad, winner of the 1917 ski tournament at Mount Rainier. Photo: Asahel Curtis, Washington State Historical Society, WSHS.1943.42.40132.   Tacoma News Tribune article on July 8, 1918. This story acknowledged that Olga Bolstad won the 1917 tournament.

Warm sunshine greeted the spectators on July 29 and Mount Rainier presided over the scene in a robe of brilliant snow. A feeling of celebration filled the air and the tournament unfolded like a coming-out party, with the sport of skiing as the debutante. The ski jump was constructed on the east slope of Alta Vista, just a few hundred yards above Paradise Inn.

“One of the most picturesque athletic events of the season was last Sunday’s ski tournament on the slopes of Mount Tacoma,” wrote the News Tribune. “The beautiful Camp of the Clouds was the scene of the tourney, and the ideal weather made the day one long to be remembered. One side of the hill was deep with snow, while the other was green and decked with tulips, anemones and fragrant flowers. Summer and winter seemed to have met for the occasion.”

Reidar Gjolme entered the meet, but this time he did not win. The winner was Miss Olga Bolstad, 24 years old, who defeated all the men to become the first ski champion crowned on Mount Rainier. Newspapers reported that Miss Bolstad had come to America four years earlier from Åmot, Østerdalen, Norway, where she learned to ski traveling to and from school. “Olga Bolstad, the pretty Seattle girl, was the greatest center of attraction among all the ski jumpers,” wrote the News Tribune. “Her lightness and grace made her a favorite with all, and she seemed to skim through the air like a bird.”

The men accepted their defeat with grace. As the News Tribune reported, “The girl champion has been made an honorary, lifelong member of the Puget Sound Ski club, which has been formed by Messrs. Overn, Berg and Bisgaard of Tacoma, and Messrs. Gjolme and Sonnichsen of Seattle.” The Pacific Northwest had a new spectator sport and Olga Bolstad was its first star.

Standard Oil Company ran a story about the 3rd annual Mount Rainier ski tournament in its September 1919 bulletin. Olga Bolstad won an extra prize that year and Thor Bisgaard was referee. Source: Tacoma Public Library clippings, Washington, Mount Rainier, Sports.
Standard Oil Company ran a story about the 3rd annual Mount Rainier ski tournament in its September 1919 bulletin. Olga Bolstad won an extra prize that year and Thor Bisgaard was referee. Source: Tacoma Public Library clippings, Washington, Mount Rainier, Sports.
  1919: A jumper takes to the air at the annual Fourth of July tournament on Mount Rainier. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 8.
1919: A jumper takes to the air at the annual Fourth of July tournament on Mount Rainier. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 8.
Standard Oil Company bulletin about the 1919 tournament. Source: Tacoma Public Library clippings, Washington, Mount Rainier, Sports.   A jumper takes to the air at the annual Fourth of July tournament on Mount Rainier. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 8.

A year later, the tournament on July 7, 1918 was billed as a “big sport classic.” Nearly 400 spectators attended, helped by the opening of the auto road a day before the meet. Miss Bolstad was the center of attention. “The little Seattle woman was easily the favorite of the spectators, who cheered her lustily when she made her appearance on the long slide,” wrote the Tacoma News Tribune. “She made beautiful runs of exceptional length, with poise.” Although she jumped well, Miss Bolstad failed to repeat her victory. She placed fourth, after Sigurd Johnson and two other men. This result inspired an odd headline in the News Tribune, a sort of reverse man-bites-dog story. “Man Defeats Woman in Ski tournament,” the newspaper announced flatly.

After the 1918 contest, the organizers decided to make the tournament an annual classic. The 1919 event was the first since the end of World War I and the first in which jumps longer than 100 feet were recorded. Sigurd Johnson of Tacoma won in 1919 and 1921, while L. Larson of Aberdeen was champion in 1920. The tournament date was shifted to July 4 to attract more spectators. According to the News Tribune, “Nowhere else on the American continent, outside of remote regions of the North, can be found conditions which would permit a ski meet while the sun is pouring down its heat and driving sweltering humanity to vacational scenes of rest and relaxation.”

In 1922 and 1923, the sponsoring club worked to expand the tournament beyond the local community. Professionals were invited from Colorado, the Midwest, and British Columbia. One of the club directors was Riedar Gjolme, who had been involved since the first ski jumping exhibition on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle and who would later become president of the Seattle Ski Club. Another was Howard A. Hanson, who as a boy in Seattle had been induced to give away his skis.

Nels Nelson, “Amateur Ski Champion of the World,” jumping on his home hill at Revelstoke, B.C. Nelson made the longest jump at the July 1923 tournament on Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese archives.
Nels Nelson, “Amateur Ski Champion of the World,” jumping on his home hill at Revelstoke, B.C. Nelson made the longest jump at the July 1923 tournament on Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese archives.
  Recently arrived from Germany, Hans-Otto Giese practices for the July 1923 cross-country ski race on Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese archives.
Recently arrived from Germany, Hans-Otto Giese practices for the July 1923 cross-country ski race on Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese archives.
  Competitors line up for the July 1923 cross-country ski race on Mount Rainier. Hans-Otto Giese wears number 15, next to the pole with the Norwegian flag. Photo: Giese archives.
Competitors line up for the July 1923 cross-country ski race on Mount Rainier. Hans-Otto Giese wears number 15, next to the pole with the Norwegian flag. Photo: Giese archives.
Nels Nelson, jumping on his home hill at Revelstoke, B.C. Photo: Giese archives.   Hans-Otto Giese practices for the July 1923 cross-country ski race on Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese archives.   Competitors line up for the July 1923 cross-country ski race on Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese archives.

The 1923 tournament attracted over a thousand spectators, despite a one-mile hike in snow from Narada Falls to Paradise. One of the competitors was Hans-Otto Giese, newly arrived from Germany and a veteran of the German Olympic Games in 1922. Giese would become one of the fathers of alpine skiing and ski mountaineering in the Northwest in the decade that followed.

As skiing spread throughout the Northwest during the 1920s, the Fourth of July tournament on Mount Rainier fell by the wayside. Other events took its place, and what had been a curiosity on a Seattle street in 1916 became a sport enjoyed by many. By the early 1930s, Paradise would become the premier ski resort in the Northwest. The far white country that beckoned to settlers in the 1800s would become their grandchildren’s winter playground.

Pioneer Ski Tournaments

1916, February 6
• Exhibition of “ski leaping” in Seattle, won by Reidar Gjolme (winning jump 43 feet).

1917, February 4
• Scenic Hot Springs, won by Reidar Gjolme (70+ foot jumps).

Mount Rainier Summer Tourneys

1917, July 29
• Olga Bolstad defeats all male competitors (statistics unknown).

1918, July 7
• Sigurd Johnson (67, 68 foot jumps).

1919, June 29
• Sigurd Johnson (winner on style and distance with jumps of 95, 100 feet).
• John Holen (longest jump regardless of style, 113 feet).

1920, June 27
• L. Larson overall winner (88 feet, judged for style and distance) and longest jump (95 feet).

1921, July 3
• Sigurd Johnson (overall winner)
• L. Larson (longest jump, 126 feet).

1922, July 4-5
• Chris Bakken, cross-country (27:28).
• Ivind Nelson, jumping (86 feet).

1923, July 3-4
• Chris Bakken, cross-country (19:00).
• Ivind Nelson, jumping (124 feet).

 
 
“Socks Outside Your Pants”

In August 1919, David Whitcomb, President of Rainier National Park Company, and Thomas H. Martin, General Manager, were standing on the porch of Paradise Inn. “I never come up here in summer,” remarked one, “without thinking how even more glorious this scene must be in winter.”

Out of this conversation grew the idea of caching supplies at the inn before the roads were blocked by snow and returning after the New Year with a group of friends.

Thus was born the Tribe of Soyp, and thus began February pilgrimages to the upper valleys of Mt Rainier. The Soyps (for “Socks Outside Your Pants”) were drawn from the Puget Sound elite.

Besides Whitcomb (Chief Soyp) and Martin (Tyee Paradise), members included the likes of Keith Bullitt, Asahel Curtis, Everett Griggs, Paul Sceva, Thomas Stimson, Park Superintendent O.A. Tomlinson, and Philip Weyerhaeuser.

Members took Indian names during “Tribal Councils.” Recruits were called Cheechakos; those who had completed one trip, Papooses; two trips, Tillicums; and three trips, Tyees. Attendance lists show over sixty men attending outings from 1920 through 1936.

Tribal Councils were held around Lincoln’s Birthday. The first was in February 1920. During the 1923 council at Paradise, “the Soyps gathered at night to relate the incidents of the trail, sing their songs, and discuss the possibilities of The Mountain as a scene for winter sports.” Influential men, the Soyps were instrumental in transforming Mount Rainier into a winter resort in the late 1920s.

The Tribe’s earliest trips were on snowshoes but eventually most Soyps learned to ski. Tribal records describe the scene after a day of skiing: “As the afternoon closed, they descended, leaving the white upper country scarred and cratered like some landscape of the moon.”

The men escaped to The Mountain for a few days each winter, leaving their business duties behind. When it was time to leave, they would gather for a moment, with hands extended in salute, and sing:

   “Oh, Mountain, now we leave thee,
   Departing, reverence give thee;
   Down there, whate’er o’ertake us,
   Oh, Spirit, ne’er forsake us;
   Farewell, farewell,
   For one long year.”

Soyps climb next to the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier in the early 1920s. Photo: The Book of SOYP.
Soyps climb next to the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier in the early 1920s. Photo: The Book of SOYP.
 
Continued
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