Norway's Crown Prince Olav (1903-1991), later King Olav V, and his wife Princess Martha (1901-1954) excited the Northwest's Norwegian community and local skiers when they went skiing at Mount Rainier on May 24, 1939, during a West Coast tour on the eve of World War II. This People's History, written by John W. Lundin, a Seattle attorney and local historian, as part of his work to help open the Washington State Ski & Snowboard History Museum on Snoqualmie Pass, is based on The Seattle Times Historical Archives, HistoryLink essays, and other materials.
Prince Olav, born in 1903 at the British royal estate in Sandringham, England, was the son of Prince Carl of Denmark and Princess Maud, daughter of England's King Edward VII. Two years after Olav's birth, his father became King Haakon VII of Norway following that country's separation from Sweden. In 1929 Prince Olav married Princess Martha of Sweden.
A decade later, in the spring of 1939, Prince Olav and Princess Martha went on a grand tour of the United States, to strengthen ties between Norway and the U.S. on the eve of World War II. The royal couple visited Los Angeles, where they met fellow countrywoman Sonja Henie (1912-1969), a figure skater who won gold medals in the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Olympics. Henie had become a famous movie star, earning $2 million a year during her heyday, and later appeared as a skier in Sun Valley Serenade, produced in 1941. The prince and princess visited San Diego and San Francisco before traveling by train to the Northwest. They were celebrated by Norwegian communities and local dignitaries at all their stops.
Prince Olav was a well-known sportsman who won many ski-jumping and sailing contests, including a gold medal in sailing at the 1928 Olympic Games in the 5.5 meter class. His stop in Portland included a mountain trip where The Seattle Times reported that he and Princess Martha "frolicked in the snow at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood." The couple's three-day visit to the Seattle area included a festival of Norwegian choral and orchestral music sponsored by local Norwegian societies, an address to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, meetings with local elected officials and businessmen, and a Puget Sound yacht cruise. They also visited Fort Lewis, Tacoma, and Everett, and attended the dedication of the Toftezen (or Taftezon) Memorial in Stanwood, a memorial for a Norwegian pioneer who settled on Whidbey Island in 1849. Since Prince Olav had grown up skiing, his party traveled on May 24, 1939, to Paradise on Mount Rainier, where he demonstrated his athletic prowess.
Mount Rainier had been a center of Northwest skiing since the 1910s. The Mountaineers (founded in 1906) began skiing at Paradise in 1913-1914, during the annual Winter Outings which were held in Mount Rainier National Park for many years. In April 1934, the first Silver Skis race was run on Mount Rainier; it became one of the classic races in the Northwest. The race began at Camp Muir at 10,000 feet with a mass start, and the winner was the first racer down to the finish line at Paradise Inn at 5,400 feet. Seattle skier Don Fraser (a member of the1936 U.S. Olympic ski team) won the first race in a time of 10 minutes and 49 seconds, finishing just inches ahead of Carleton Wiegel, with 64 racers starting and 43 finishing. The race, which was held from 1934 to 1942, and again from 1946 to 1948, attracted competitors from all over the country.
On April 13 and 14, 1935, the U.S. National Championships and Olympic tryouts in downhill and slalom were held at Paradise, a major event in Northwest skiing history. In 1937, Otto Lang started the first official Hannes Schneider Ski School in the country on Mount Rainier, bringing the latest ski techniques from Europe to the Northwest. In 1937, Ski Lifts, Inc. built rope tows at Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Snoqualmie Pass. In the late 1930s, skiers lobbied to build a funicular at Mount Rainier, and in 1941 there were plans to build a J-bar ski lift there. After World War II, Park Service policies changed and organized skiing at Mount Rainier was phased out.
Royals at Rainier
The Seattle Times of May 25, 1939, had extensive coverage of the royal couple's visit to Mount Rainier the previous day, including several pictures showing them on the snow. They were accompanied by a group of their Norwegian American hosts, officials, and local skiers. The party included Gretchen Kunigk, a local ski star from Tacoma who later won gold and silver medals in skiing at the 1948 Olympic Games in Switzerland, and Orville Borgersen, a Seattle skier and ski photographer.
According to the Times, the Prince and Princess "lost little time in trying the skiing facilities at Mount Rainier." Immediately after a formal lunch at Paradise Inn, they started the hike up toward Alta Vista. The prince, wearing "an old, gray pair of knickers, a cap that had seen better days, and a slightly battered jacket," was given "a pair of shiny, new, steel-edged skis" waxed for him by Orville Borgersen. The Times said there was a "certain horrible fascination about the idea of a Crown Prince landing on his neck in a snowbank at any speed over fifteen miles an hour," and there was collective concern when the prince put on skis "to take his chances with gravity." But Olav had skied since he was 2 years old:
"The prince started off with the mile-eating Norwegian langlauf stride. The princess and the group accompanying her did not climb so fast, and pretty soon the prince and his group were a quarter mile ahead.
"Nobody talked at first. But the prince stopped on the first rise, peeled off his jacket, and mopped his brow, and said it felt pretty good to get some exercise again. In five minutes he and everybody with him were puffing and talking like youngsters playing hookey from school.
"By the time he was smoking a cigarette on the summit of Alta Vista ... the people beside him were beginning to realize that the prince had a sense of humor and liked to use it.
"When someone asked him when he thought a war would begin in Europe, he answered, dryly: 'They needn't start it for me'" (The Seattle Times, May 25, 1939, "Olav's Democracy Wins Him American Title: Swell Guy").
When the party returned to the lodge, the prince and princess "were enthused over the mountain, the surrounding scenery and the skiing. Prince Olav said it was all much different from Norway, but just as good." A banquet was given at the lodge, where they were served crab cocktail, steak, asparagus, potatoes, hot rolls and fresh strawberry pie, with each guest getting one glass of beer. The couple left the next day for Seattle with the ninety pieces of luggage they brought with them. Princess Martha said she bought two additional trunks in Tacoma, made necessary by her shopping tour there. After a festival at the Seattle Civic Auditorium, the couple left for Vancouver, B.C. The Great Northern Railroad offered a special fare of $3 for the "Royal Visit Trip," for those wanting to accompany them to our neighbor to the north.
National Symbol, Egalitarian Monarch
World War II broke out shortly after the couple returned to Norway. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Olav became "a national symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany's occupation of his country" (Flint). When Hitler's army invaded Norway in 1941, Prince Olav, his father the king, and other government leaders "held out for two months in the north woods against nightly air raids and advancing German troops" (Flint). When the leaders evacuated to England, Olav offered to stay in Norway to organize resistance but the offer was refused as too dangerous. Olav "became the top envoy to the United States" for Norway's government in exile (Flint), making a number of secret trips to America, where he became friends with President Franklin Roosevelt. Princess Martha and their children spent the war in Washington, D.C.
The Crown Prince became King Olav V in 1957, and ruled as a constitutional monarch until his death in 1991. He lived a simple, frugal life and was much loved as a father figure. According to his obituary, "Olav's egalitarian geniality was epitomized in a popular photograph of him in the early 1970s, carrying skis aboard a local train in the way from the royal palace in Oslo to a nearby slope" (Flint).
Olav visited the Seattle area several times after 1939. During a 1942 trip, he described Norway's position as an occupied country. In 1968, among other stops, he visited the Norse Home and the Norway Center, attended a ceremony at the Leif Erickson statue, and made a return trip to the Cascades, visiting the Crystal Mountain ski area and riding a chair lift up to views of nearby Mount Rainier where he had skied 29 years earlier. In 1975, he visited Poulsbo, known as "Little Norway," to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Norwegian immigration to America. When King Olav V died in 1991, he was the oldest monarch in Europe.