Tales from the Tread: Celebrating the Winter Carnival
February 3, 2015
Louisville, my hometown, has the Kentucky Derby. New Orleans, the city of my alma mater Tulane University, has Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. To my delight, I have made my home for the past 19 years in a town just as steeped in festive tradition with the Winter Carnival, the oldest continuous winter celebration of its kind in the West.
Introduced by Norwegian ski jumping pioneer Carl Howelsen, the first Winter Carnival events took place in 1914 on Woodchuck Hill, present site of Colorado Mountain College. The first Carnival introduced ski jumping and competitive skiing to the people of Steamboat Springs. Until then, skiing was mostly a way to get from Point A to Point B in the deep Routt County winters.
It was estimated that some 1,500 to 2,000 people gathered to watch the twin jump by Carl Howelsen and James Pestrud that first year. The event was such a success that residents decided Winter Carnival should return annually.
The mid-winter Carnival also serves as a fundraiser for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. If only Howelsen knew then what we know now of this world-class club and the elite athletes it produces, he would be proud.
Although many people celebrate the Carnival that has evolved during the past 100 years, few know just how this tradition came to be. It all started in 1913, in neighboring Hot Sulphur Springs, when Steamboat Springs resident and outdoor enthusiast Marjorie Perry (sister of Charlotte Perry, co-founder of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp) stumbled upon the former Barnum and Bailey Circus star Carl Howelsen, and his "Winter Sports Carnival" while on her trip from Denver to Steamboat Springs by way of the Moffat Railroad. Perry was so impressed by the ski jumping events she witnessed there, she convinced Howelsen to come to Steamboat for an exhibition.
Howelsen's son, Leif Howelsen, confirmed that as soon as his father saw the town, "he immediately knew that Steamboat Springs was the place for him. The mountains, the open valleys, the ranches and the people, everything appealed to him."
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Howelsen soon made Steamboat Springs his home, and the town would never be the same again.
The depth of Howelsen's influence cannot be overstated. His contributions to the sports of skiing and ski jumping form the foundation of the history of these sports in this state and country. Locally, not only was he the founder and coach of the first Steamboat Ski Club (now the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club) and the Winter Carnival, but he also built the first ski jumps on Howelsen Hill, set ski jumping records, taught countless residents how to ski jump and ski for fun and competition, and coached early competitors including Steamboat's first Olympian ski jumper John Steele.
Of all of Howelsen's contributions to our community, perhaps his most impactful gifts were those he imparted to the local youths, summarized in this fitting tribute from the Steamboat Pilot: "During his time here, he taught the young riders to compete for the love of the sport, and has set an admirable example by never letting his medals get too heavy for him."
Sources: “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs” by Sureva Towler and the “Flying Norseman” by Leif Howelsen
Candice Bannister is the executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
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