Skiing in the Northwest got a boost in 1921 when the Summit Ski Club (later the Cle Elum Ski Club, Inc.) was formed. Under the leadership of John "Syke" Bresko (1895-1987), the Cle Elum Ski Club flourished during the 1920s and early 1930s, when it operated one of the first organized ski areas west of Colorado. The club initially used a course south of the town of Cle Elum in the eastern Cascade foothills of Kittitas County, and then developed the Summit, a ski jump and course on the ridge between Cle Elum and the Teanaway Valley to the north. This People's History was written by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin. Much of the information comes from materials provided by Cecelia Maybo, a Cle Elum native and former President of the Cle Elum Historical Society, who obtained John Bresko's collection of papers and pictures from his estate sale, preserving them for future use.
Skiing at Snoqualmie Pass dates back to the first few decades of the 1900s, and was centered around ski lodges built by private clubs. In 1914, The Mountaineers built a lodge just west of the summit above Rockdale, the stop on the Milwaukee Railroad at the western end of its tunnel under the pass. The Mountaineers sponsored ski touring for years throughout the Snoqualmie Pass area.
Some 25 miles east of the pass in Cle Elum, John "Syke" Bresko, Russell Connell, and John Koester organized a ski club in 1921 to teach area young people how to ski and to "promote the wonderland of sports that surrounds the community." Initially named the Summit Ski Club, the organization became the Cle Elum Ski Club, Inc., when it incorporated in 1928. Club members had to make their own skis because in those days no local stores, including those in Seattle, carried ski equipment.
For 10 years, the club's ski area was known as a "skiers' paradise," and the club inspired many locals to try the sport. Starting in 1921, the ski area attracted 100 to 400 people every weekend to its ski hills. Its first ski area, located south of the town and known as the Kiwanis course, had a ski jump and a toboggan course. However the club wanted a jump that would attract other skiers to the area, so it developed the Summit course two miles north of town on the ridge between Cle Elum and the Teanaway Valley, on 40 acres of timber land leased from the Northern Pacific Railroad. The Summit course had runs called Rocky Run, Camel's Hump, Devil's Dive, and Hell's Dive. Devil's Dive and Hell's Dive were the difficult runs that "only those of great experience dare attempt." In 1923, the Cle Elum paper said "there are now hundreds of ski riders in this district." The ski club eventually had three ski jumps.
Jumping was the premier ski event in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1924, the Cle Elum Ski Club held its first annual ski tournament, attracting 11 competitors. This was touted as the first organized ski competition west of Denver, although ski tournaments took place at Paradise on Mount Rainier beginning in 1917. The Cle Elum Ski Club hosted tournaments from 1924 to 1933, attracting skiers from all over the Northwest and thousands of spectators. The tournaments included an elected royal court with a queen, ski races, ski jumps, dances, banquets, and trophy presentations. Cle Elum merchants supported the ski club's activities by donating money and merchandise for the winners of the ski jumping competitions and by financing the building of the jumps.
Carnivals and Clubhouses
The ski club also sponsored annual Carnivals which included less serious and more fun events, including gliding races, cross country races, obstacle courses, races in costume, and a "goose fashion glide," causing some to accuse the Cle Elum Ski club of conducting a freak tournament. At one carnival, reported the Miner Echo, a male skier appeared on the "ladies' gliding course" dressed as "Mysterious Miss Hanson of Alaska ... fully ten feet tall, wearing yellow rolled stockings, bedaubed with cosmetics and well gifted in the pursuits of flapperism, but all to no avail so far as the judges were concerned."
Bresko had grand visions of expanding local skiing. In 1924, he attempted to purchase federal land at the summit of Snoqualmie Pass for a winter sports area. The price was only $2.85 an acre, but Bresko's bank would not loan the money on the ground that inadequate transportation would prevent the area from being profitable. Four very popular ski areas were eventually developed at the pass.
A two-story, 22-by-40-foot clubhouse was built on the Summit course in 1926, to replace a smaller cabin built in there in 1923. Eight-foot-long windows provided a commanding view of the ski area. The lower floor was one large room with a huge rustic fireplace on one side, and windows on the other walls. The upstairs was divided into two dormitories, one for men and the other for women. The Cle Elum Miner Echo said the club had 150 members and "new recruits are being added rapidly." It reported that skiing "is claimed to be one of most fascinating of sports," and the course at Cle Elum is "almost perfect in its possibilities." The area offered many possibilities, including courses for the beginner, and others ranging upward in length and steepness and difficulty so that even the most expert runners admit that they "get thrills aplenty" out of them, according to the paper.
The Northern Pacific Railroad offered access to Cle Elum from Seattle and Yakima, initially by regular trains and then, from 1931 to 1933, by specials for tournament spectators. Its advertisements said, "Go by rail -- safe, warm, comfortable." The round trip from Seattle cost $3.50.
The jumping contests at the club's 1930 tournament, which attracted 3,000 spectators, was particularly exciting and helped to put the ski area on the map. In a special exhibition, Olaf Locken of Conway leaped 165 feet, reported as "the longest standing jump executed in the United States this year." However, the event was won by Howard Dalsbo with a jump of 119 feet, due to points given in jumping for both distance and form.
In November 1930, Bresko helped organize the Pacific Northwest Ski Association with representatives of six clubs, including the Cle Elum Ski Club, the Seattle Ski Club, and the Leavenworth Ski Club, to sponsor regional jumping and cross-country competitions, coordinate calendars, and keep competition at a high quality. The Pacific Northwest Ski Association pioneered the establishment of standards for and testing of ski instructors, and promoted sanctioned ski competitions in the Northwest under national and international rules.
Given the success of the 1930 tournament, the organizers of the 1931 tournament realized they had to provide better access to the jumping site and, as the Northern Kittitas County Tribune described in a 2012 retrospective titled "When the World Came to Cle Elum," they devised a clever solution:
"Working with General Superintendent of the Mines, Thomas Murphy, they crafted a route through [Roslyn Coal Mine] No. 7's one and three-quarter mile mine tunnel up the mountainside. Spectators would load into the mine cars and then onto tractor-pulled sleds for the last half mile up to the hill.
"There was an obvious risk pulling civilians through the low clearance mine tunnel, so the club purchased a $100 insurance policy (just in case) and billed the tournament as a two-for-one event. 'Here's your chance to ride through a real mine and see world class ski jumping,' they said, and the hype worked."
After the 1931 tournament, which drew more than 5,000 spectators, Bresko vowed to make the Cle Elum jump bigger and better. By the fall of 1931, Cle Elum Ski Club members were working hard on the ski hill because the Cle Elum Ski Club was hosting the Pacific Northwest National Ski Tournament there in 1932. Dynamite was used to blast away a huge amount of rock on the course, and a new 75-foot tower was erected with 292 feet of vertical drop and a 46-degree ramp. The upper portion of the landing was on an elevated scaffolding using timber from the site, and contoured to match the flight of the jumpers. The jump was on the ridge between Cle Elum and Teanaway, with its incline dropping into a canyon leading down into the Teanaway Valley. The new jump and recontoured ski hill cost $5,000, donated by Cle Elum merchants. Ski jumps built later at Spokane and at the Milwaukee Bowl (later Hyak) at Snoqualmie Pass were patterned on the "big" Cle Elum jump.
In 1932, Ken Binns, sportswriter for The Seattle Times, described the"stupendous jumping hill" and the first jump taken on it:
"You never saw such a hill. They took the old hill and buried it under a convincing mass of lumber. They shafted a jumping tower far into the stratosphere, at an almost inconceivable pitch. The tower jerked up into the heavens at a 46-degree angle, 117.5 feet above the comparative level of the takeoff. The landing dropped at a 46-degree pitch, 194.5 feet from the takeoff to the flat.
"It exceeded in ferocity even the Seattle Ski Club's precipice. It was covered with loose snow. But Olaf Locken, member of the Cle Elum club, tested it. He tried it from the tower at first, but the snow impeded him. He failed to clear the nose of the landing and spilled. Then he went to the very peak of the great tower. He sifted down like a galloping ghost, left the takeoff with the singing whine of a diving plane, cleared the nose, but spilled again, though comfortably.
"His was the premier jump -- the first. It showed a condition soon to be remedied, the takeoff, for all its speed, needed 16 more feet of nose. 'That,' said Olaf when the test was over, 'was the fastest takeoff speed I ever made. With 16 feet more on the nose of the takeoff, a 200-foot jump won't be at all impossible.'"
As part of the Pacific Northwest Championships, cross country races were held on the course for the first time along with the jumping contests. Awards were given for the best combined skier in both disciplines, the best jumper, and the best cross country skier. Three quarters of the cross-country course was visible, although spectators were urged to carry binoculars.
Forty-one contestants competed at the 1932 tournament in front of 3,500 spectators. John Elvrum of Portland had the longest jump -- 202 feet, a new Northwest record -- but lost the jumping contest to Ole Tverdal of Seattle by falling on the landing. Portland's Hjalmar Hvam gained the combined jumping and cross-country title.
The next tournament, held in 1933, was a bust, thanks to high winds and blizzard-like conditions. The big takeoff was judged too dangerous because of the wind and snow, so a make-shift takeoff was constructed on the hillside. The meet was a huge disappointment for national ski stars who participated, and for locals who built a practice jump tower on Hillcrest to prepare for the event.
The 1933 Cle Elum Ski Club tournament was the last event the club sponsored. Competition for the skiing public increased as new ski areas opened elsewhere, and other ski clubs on Snoqualmie Pass, closer to Seattle's skiers, expanded. Cle Elum, with its more remote location and difficult-to-access ski hill, could not compete with areas that offered skiing and jumping hills that were easier to get to, particularly after the Snoqualmie Pass highway was kept open through the winter beginning with the 1931-1932 season.
The difficulty of getting from Cle Elum to the Summit course two miles north of town turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle. The "Two in One Solution" used in 1931, consisting of a ride on the electric tramway through two long tunnels of the coal mine, still left spectators with a half-hour walk to the ski course. In other years, trucks or snow cats transported spectators to within a 40-minute walk of the ski course, but that walk was an arduous uphill climb. Said the Miner Echo, "The unwillingness of spectators to make the hard trek to the Summit was the reason the ski club abandoned the hill."
However, John Bresko did not give up hopes for his beloved Cle Elum Ski Club. He had grand plans to develop a new ski area close to Cle Elum that would provide a bigger, better, and more accessible location. In late 1934, Bresko obtained 40 acres of land on the Cle Elum River above the Bull Frog Bridge, and planned a jump tower and runway close enough to the highway so spectators could drive to within 100 feet of the jump and watch the events from their automobiles, instead of trudging up the steep hillside above Cle Elum. Much work and preparation was done on the site, and the project received a $10,000 WPA grant from the Roosevelt administration. Bresko said the new hill, planned to be the largest jumping course in the Northwest, would make jumps of 250 feet possible, at a time when the world's record jump was 265 feet. A 50-foot tower and a take-off were to be erected, and the hill graded to the correct contour. The old jump at the Summit, on which skiers leaped 200 feet, measured 360 feet. The new hill would be 460 feet from the takeoff to the bottom of the Bull Frog bridge hill, giving plenty of reserve after a long jump.
Bresko planned to install an aerial tram at the new ski hill, and the Northwest Improvement Company, owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad, expressed interest in installing the tram and developing the ski area, hoping to increase passenger travel on the railroad. If Bresko's plans had worked out, this would have been the first ski area in the country to offer an aerial tram enabling skiers to get from the bottom to the top of the hill without walking. Having a railroad develop the ski area could have made it a national destination resort, and may even have preempted the development of Sun Valley, Idaho, by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1936. However, due to lack of funds and interest, and the growing influence of the Depression, Bresko's dream never became a reality and the plan for a new ski area was dropped.
Cle Elum Ski Club members continued to compete in Northwest ski events and to participate in the Pacific Northwest Ski Association. Team members returned to competition in 1936, in the new sports of downhill and slalom racing which were beginning to replace jumping and cross-country as the premier skiing events. That was the swan song for the Cle Elum Ski Club, however, and the club and ski area faded away after 1936, leaving a grand tradition and much history, most of which has been long since forgotten.