Steamboat Springs For first-time visitors to Steamboat Springs or people unfamiliar with the city’s annual Winter Carnival, walking into the Tread of Pioneers Museum can be an eye-opening experience.
The first thing people see when stepping through the door at 800 Oak St. is a mannequin in an orange jumpsuit with a backpack full of explosives and an outfit with enough lights for a Christmas tree.
“The majority of the people, if they’re new to town, the reaction is ‘what in the heck is that?’” said Candice Bannister, executive director of the museum. “It’s one of those old, old, old-school mannequins, and you just don’t see those anymore. … People just really don’t know what to make of it, unless you’ve seen the carnival.”
Those who have experienced Steamboat’s iconic Winter Carnival know the mannequin is a portrayal of the Lighted Man, a 70-year tradition started by Claudius Banks in 1939 and continued to this day by his sons, Jon and Kent. The Lighted Man skis down Howelsen Hill at the culmination of the Winter Carnival Night Extravaganza. Electric lights illuminate his poles and skis while Roman candles fire out of a metal-frame backpack.
Claudius and Jon skied together as two Lighted Men from 1971 to 1978, and in 1977, Kent made it a trio. Most years, Kent serves as a fire guard, skiing closely behind Jon in case of danger.
The Lighted Man is just one of many beloved traditions of the Winter Carnival, which turns 97 this year with a theme of “Living the Dream.”
The legendary Carl Howelsen organized the first Winter Carnival in 1914.
Howelsen’s front-page announcement for his “Midwinter Sports Carnival” on Jan. 12, 1914, was the first mention of skiing in the Steamboat Pilot newspaper, according to Tread of Pioneers Museum archives.
In 1914, the carnival was held on Woodchuck Hill, where Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus now stands. The next year, the event moved across the Yampa River to Howelsen Hill, after Howelsen raised about $500 to lay a ski-jumping course and cut the trees.
Festivities for the inaugural carnival included ski jumping and cross-country races, as well as a dance at the Cabin Hotel. Twenty trains brought between 1,500 and 2,000 spectators from the Front Range.
The exhibition moved to Howelsen Hill in 1915, where Steamboat’s first ski-jumping world record was set during the 1916 carnival. Ragnar Omtvedt set the bar at 192 feet, 6 inches — a record that stood only until the 1917 Winter Carnival, when Hans Hall improved upon Omtvedt’s leap by more than 10 feet.
As years passed and transportation improved, the event grew in size and scope, eventually including events such as skijoring, in which children on skis are pulled down Lincoln Avenue by horses.
Some of the more traditional aspects of the Winter Carnival — the parade featuring the Steamboat Springs High School ski band, horse events and ski jumping — are still crowd and participant favorites, nearly 100 years later.
The beneficiary and organizer of the carnival is the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, a local winter sports program that provides training and coaching to hundreds of aspiring skiers and snowboarders. Proceeds from the sales of Winter Carnival buttons — the official entry pass to festival events — help fund the Winter Sports Club.
Caroline Bohlmann, special events director for the Winter Sports Club, said the club already has begun thinking about the Winter Carnival’s 100th birthday.
“We’re definitely talking about it and pushing around some ideas, but we haven’t solidified anything yet,” Bohlmann said in January. “But it is definitely on the forefront of our minds. That’ll be fun.”
The 100th Winter Carnival will come in 2013.
With the help of continued good fortune, the Lighted Man should be there in all his lighted glory, skiing Howelsen during the night event that also features young Winter Sports Club athletes curving their way down the slope in a stream of red lights.
Bohlmann said that event is her favorite of the Winter Carnival.
“I love the night show — that’s the one that gives me the chills. Just watching all those kids,” she said. “It’s just so Steamboat.”