Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Colorful beginnings of Summit skiing
January 18, 2016
Colorado's first recorded ski event took place here in snow-blessed Summit County in February 1860. The 29 men and one woman who alone braved the white prospectors' first winter here, built a fort in today's Breckenridge in autumn of 1859. By February they were supremely bored. No Internet, no email, no TV, no radio, no snail mail, no newspapers and nothing to do made their snowbound way of life tedious.
This mind-numbing tedium inspired Norwegian immigrants Balce and Christian Weaver to cut a spruce tree into boards, steam the board tips to curve upward and add long-thong bindings. Their creation enabled a February 1860 ski adventure that ended in the Weaver Brothers' discovery of wildly-rich gold in nearby Gold Run Gulch.
This story, and others, will punctuate this look at early-day Summit skiing. Tales will include one of the famous Dillon Ski Jump where a Norwegian skier set a world record in the 1920s and one of world champion local ski racer Edna Dercum teaching Summit school children using cast-off 10th Mountain Division skis to stop and turn.
WAY, WAY BACK IN HISTORY
Skiing dates to at least 2,500 B.C. in Siberia. Apparently, this Neolithic ski craze caught on, because archeologists have also unearthed ancient Scandinavian ski fragments in recent peat bog digs. Norway had ski troops in 1747 under army general Hans Jacob Amholdt. Norwegians later nurtured the birth of skiing in the U.S., officially introducing skiing by 1841 and establishing it as a transportation means in the California Sierras during the 1849 gold rush there. Snowshoe Thompson, whose mother was Norwegian, carried the mails in the high Sierras from 1855 to 1869. His 12-foot, one-and-one-half-inch thick skis weighed around 15 pounds. But they always got the mail — and Snowshoe Thompson — safely delivered.
Those Breckenridge miners who made the big gold strike in February 1860 by used what they called "snowshoes" (heavy wooden early day skis, not the Canadian racquet snowshoe) to penetrate Gold Run Gulch. By the 1880s, Crested Butte was staging ski races popular enough to close the school for the day, and skiing miners were whooping it up on Aspen Mountain. Teddy Roosevelt skied in 1884 in the Dakota Badlands.
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In 1869, Oliver Milner first strapped on 8-foot long wooden skis to carry the mail from Breckenridge, Summit's gold capitol, to silver-rich Montezuma. Every hazard that alpine winter hurled at Milner he managed to overcome. Mailman Milner toted a bulging mail sack on his route from the Blue River gold fields up along the Swan River, over a drop-dead steep 12,000-foot pass, then down along Sts. John Creek to Montezuma, today's "Mail Run" trail route. When he sounded his tin horn to announce his arrival, miners scrambled for precious letters and newspapers.
Breckenridge's Eli Fletcher crafted skis for friends in the 1880s. After a drying spell before the fire, the boards, often spruce, would retain their curved tips. He attached a cleat to the ski, which held the wearer's everyday boot. To this, the Summit skier would add a long, heavy pole, used to push off, steer and brake. Could the skier turn those weighty boards? "Turn?" said one old-time skier. "Sure, you could turn, if you wanted to. But the skis wouldn't turn — no way!"
A young Norwegian named Eyvind Flood dazzled Montezuma and Sts. John residents with his skiing expertise in the early 1900s. A mining engineer at Sts. John under British manager Mumby, Flood could "swoop down the hill from Sts. John in nothing flat," according to an awed Elizabeth Rice Roller. Flood was the "first expert skier we had known. He had professional equipment and his daring exhibitions on our wintry slopes made him a model and hero for all our boys …"
Mary Ellen Gilliland's "SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado," has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history's miscreants in her "Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods" and recounts the story of the region's first town in "Breckenridge." Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide, "The Summit Hiker." All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at alpenrosepress.com.