Steamboat's first ski jump built with $50 and a lard bucket

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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Steamboat Springs' first Winter Carnival ski jumping competition was held on the sunlit hill in the background on a jump built with $50 of lumber. By 1915, the second Winter Carnival had moved to the south side of the Yampa River, where a new jump had been built on the hill above the pasture where a captive elk herd was kept. It would become known as Howelsen Hill.

— In 1914, a $50 investment and a lard bucket helped found a mid-winter tradition that has persisted for 95 years in Steamboat Springs.

We've devoted a substantial amount of ink to the history of Winter Carnival in this newspaper, but I've just stumbled upon a historical account of the first carnival. It is one that I had not seen before.

I was digging through the newspaper's files Monday when I stumbled on a faded piece of yellow paper bearing six long paragraphs of text. The words on paper look like a manual typewriter in need of a ribbon change produced them.

The essay is entitled, "The First Ski Carnival by Clarence Light."

Light was the son of pioneer retailer F.M. Light, and he must have been a fairly formal gentleman for he was known to set out for a skiing excursion in a suit coat and tie.

In the early part of the 20th century, Light and his brother Olin took turns driving the F.M. Light van into the surrounding countryside to deliver goods to ranchers. It was a tradition that Clarence Light observed until he was 86 years old. He died in 1974 but left us this record of the first Winter Carnival in 1914.

"A Norwegian named Carl Howelsen came to live in Steamboat Springs about the year 1913," he wrote. "He chose this spot because as he said, 'This country is more like my own country than any place I have found.'"

Light recalls how Howelsen made his home on 10 acres in Strawberry Park and, owning neither bicycle nor horse, he walked to town every morning to ply his trade as a stone mason, bricklayer and cement contractor.

Howelsen often regaled his co-workers with tales of the many ski jumping competitions he had won in his home country as well as in Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

"They were all greatly interested and one morning he came to work bringing a 10-pound lard bucket full of medals and ribbons," Light wrote. "The fellows were greatly excited about the new sport of ski jumping and Carl says to them, 'If you can raise $50 we will build a ski jump and have jumping.'"

Clarence's father chipped in $5, and within a couple of hours, the $50 was in hand.

"It was all spent for lumber and materials, and with volunteer labor and Carl for supervisor, a jump was built on Woodchuck Mountain very near the Iron and Soda springs."

Ski jumping drew a crowd to that first Winter Carnival, even though Howelsen was the only athlete in the exhibition.

"He had magnificent form and went through the air like a bird, never falling," Light wrote. "Everybody was crazy about ski jumping, and Carl built jumps of snow and showed the kids how to practice and we soon had an army of young skiers."

Encouraged by the response, Howelsen proposed a grander project.

"If you can raise $500, we will build a real jump over on the hill in the Elk pasture." That "Elk pasture," of course, would later be re-named Howelsen Hill.

Substantially more than the $500 was raised. The organizing committee for the second Winter Carnival in 1915 produced $800 to attract a field of professional ski jumpers, including world champion Ragnar Omtvedt. C. Andrews, secretary of the Denver Rocky Mountain Ski Club, helped Howelsen bring attention to the event, and the Denver Post reported that "society ladies from Denver" would take part in the cross-country skiing races and toboggan events.

In her book "The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs," author Sureva Towler wrote of reports that 2,000 people witnessed the events, a number supported by the fact that the railroad cut the roundtrip fare for a trip from Denver in half.

Photographers from New York and Chicago covered the carnival, Towler wrote, leading to predictions that Steamboat Springs had a future as a winter sports playground to rival those in Switzerland.

The impact of that original $50 has spread much further than anyone could have guessed in 1914.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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