Seattle Indoor Ski Tournaments, 1939 and 1940: Highlights of Northwest Skiing

  • By John W. Lundin
  • Posted 8/06/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20833

In 1939 and 1940, local ski clubs hosted indoor ski tournaments at Seattle's Civic Ice Arena (later Mercer Arena) that were sanctioned by the Pacific Northwestern Ski Association, making them a formal part of competitive Northwest skiing. Although indoor ski exhibitions were held elsewhere in the area to promote skiing, only these Seattle tournaments included official competitions -- in both slalom and ski jumping in 1939, and in ski jumping in 1940. This People's History is by Seattle attorney and author John W. Lundin, who helped start the Washington State Ski and Snowboard Museum and has written two books on Northwest ski history -- Early Skiing on Snoqualmie Pass (2017) and Skiing Sun Valley: A History from the Union Pacific to the Holdings (forthcoming, fall 2019).

Growing Popularity

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Alpine skiing began to appear in several areas of the country, particularly the Northeast and Northwest, and the sport grew in popularity in the 1930s despite the Great Depression. With no lifts, one had to be physically fit enough to hike, herringbone, or use skins to climb up hills before skiing down. Equipment was rudimentary, there were few formal ski lessons, and the sport involved more backcountry mountaineering than downhill skiing. In 1933, there were from 2,000 to 4,000 Seattle area skiers, and a Seattle store sold 2,000 pairs of skis in one month. In 1934, the first rope tow in the U.S. began operating at Woodstock, Vermont. The Seattle Times noted a growing interest in winter sports around Seattle, with 2,500 skiers in local ski clubs, 3,000 to 5,000 spectators at ski-jumping events, and 10,000 people participating in some form of winter sports every weekend. In 1935, the first overhead cable lift in the U.S. (a J-bar) was installed in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 1936, the federal government reported there were some 100,000 skiers in the country, of whom 25,000-30,000 were in the Pacific Northwest.

The opening of the Sun Valley Ski Resort in Idaho by the Union Pacific Railroad in December 1936 dramatically changed American skiing. The resort, developed by Union Pacific Board Chair Averell Harriman (later a U.S. diplomat and governor of New York), to restore passenger traffic decimated by the Depression, offered chair lifts invented by Union Pacific engineers, Austrian ski instructors, a luxurious lodge, and an international atmosphere. Beginning in 1937, Sun Valley hosted international ski tournaments that attracted the top skiers in the world, including the best Northwest racers.

By 1938, The Seattle Times said there were 65,000 skiers in Washington, the manufacture and sale of ski equipment was a $3 million industry, and every weekend 20,000 people went to local ski areas. The first ski lifts in Washington were rope tows installed at Mount Spokane in 1937, and at Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Snoqualmie Pass in 1938. The Milwaukee Railroad opened the Milwaukee Ski Bowl, Washington's first modern ski area, in 1938 at Hyak, the eastern portal of its tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass. Washington skiing was well known throughout the country in the 1930s. The National Downhill and Slalom Championships were held on Mount Rainier in spring 1935, where the U.S. Olympic ski teams were selected for the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, and five Northwest skiers went to Europe as part of the U.S. Ski Team.

Skiing Indoors

In the late 1930s, ski-equipment manufacturers and ski areas began to hold indoor ski meets around the country to promote the sport. In early December 1937, the North American Winter Sports and International Ski Meet, with ski jumping and slalom competitions, was held at Madison Square Garden in New York, where a 152-foot indoor slide that reached the top of the arena was erected. Well-known ski instructors were there, and The New York Times reported that many similar events were planned in the Middle West and Pacific Northwest for 1938.

In Seattle, local ski clubs decided to take advantage of the interest in indoor ski events and in 1939 and 1940 indoor ski tournaments, sanctioned by the Pacific Northwestern Ski Association as accredited events, were held at the city's Civic Ice Arena. (The arena, located at Mercer Street and Fourth Avenue N, had opened in 1928. It later served as the World's Fair Arena during the 1962 Century 21 fair, and was then incorporated into Seattle Center and eventually called Mercer Arena. It was demolished in 2017.) Averell Harriman sent some of Sun Valley's best skiers to participate in the Seattle events: star Austrian ski racer Friedl Pfeifer, director of the Sun Valley Ski School; John Litchfield, a former Dartmouth ski star and a Sun Valley instructor; and Alf Engen, the most famous ski jumper and racer in the country at the time, who played a role in Sun Valley's early days and competed under Sun Valley's banner. These Sun Valley representatives added luster to the Seattle events, and attracted many of the Northwest's best racers to compete and spectators to watch.

1939: Indoor Slalom and Ski Jumping

The Washington and Seattle ski clubs sponsored the first Northwest Indoor Ski Jumping and Slalom Championship Tournament in November 1939, offering matinee and evening shows on Saturday and Sunday, November 10 and 11, at the Ice Arena.

"For the first time in Western ski history, a sanctioned ski meet will be held within the confines of a building -- though that is stretching the truth a bit. Because of the size of the jumping hill, the competition must, perforce, start outside and then come popping through a window" ("Three-Day Indoor Ski Meet ...").

The tournament included ski jumping and slalom competitions; a giant display by ski wholesalers, retailers, and clubs; ice skating by the Northwest's best-known skaters; and demonstrations of instruction techniques by local ski schools. The Seattle Times dramatically described the two competitive events -- ski jumping and slalom racing:

"To jump is to hurl oneself, in perfect balance, down a steep hillside; arrive at a take-off; take off; arch forward in the air, fighting for distance while remaining in fluent form; land with the purity a bull-fighter displays in evading the charge of a maddened bull; and ride out to a swinging, Christiania stop. To slalom is to curvette through devilishly contrived flag-gates, designed to pull from the skier every ounce of skill in high-speed turning, while getting from the start to the finish of an all-downhill race in the shortest possible time" ("Friedl Pfeifer to Jump Here").

The entry list in 1939 was headed by Sun Valley's Pfeifer and Litchfield. Pfeifer had taught in the Hannes Schneider Ski School in St. Anton, Austria, where modern skiing was developed, and won many famous European races. While teaching at Sun Valley, he won the U.S. National (Open) Slalom title in 1939, which he would repeat in 1940. Litchfield, who had been a ski star at Dartmouth, became Sun Valley's Sports Director in late 1939, and would become the first American-born director of its ski school in 1949. Pfeifer was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1980, and Litchfield in 2002.

The two competed in both jumping and slalom events at the 1939 Seattle tournament, typical of the top ski racers who participated in four-way competitions in those days -- downhill, slalom, cross-country, and jumping. They competed against some of the best local skiers, including Hjalmar Hvam of Portland, the Northwest's best four-way competitor; Sigurd Hall, who would finish third in the National Four-Way Championships held in Washington in 1940 (and was tragically killed in the 1940 Silver Skis Race on Mount Rainier); top Canadian racers Tom Mobraaten and Nordal Kaldhal; Hans Gage, who narrowly missed being on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team; Don Amick, who would be on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team; top racers from the University of Washington (one of the dominant ski teams in the country) including Bill Redlin, John Woodward, Carl Neu, Bob Barto, and others; and local ski instructors.

Two local Norwegian ski jumpers, Seattle's Olav Ulland and Canada's Nordal Kaldahl, led the jumping competition. Ulland, a one-time holder of the world's distance-jumping record at 339 feet, had in two years taught more than 200 youngsters to ski jump for the Seattle Ski Club and the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club. Kaldahl, from Wells, B.C., was a former Canadian and Northwest jumping champion. Other top local jumpers included Ole Tverdal, Leif Flak, and Howard Dalsbo, along with a number of skiers who competed in the slalom. Ski vendors exhibited ski equipment and apparel and skating exhibitions were given.

More than 11,000 spectators attended the two-day event. Early arrivals the first night saw skiers push 100-pound blocks of ice up the hill, where ice crushers converted them into corn snow that blowers sprayed on the ski hills, where it was packed. Ken Syverson, head of the Seattle Times Ski School, demonstrated the fundamentals of skiing, and the national double pair champion ice skaters gave an exhibition on what ice was left after the snow was laid. Friedl Pfeifer gave a brilliant performance to win the first night's slalom competition. Seattle's Sigurd Hall finished second by 1.3 seconds behind Pfeifer, a large margin on a hill of that length. To no one's surprise, Pfeifer won the aggregate slalom honors at the end of the tournament, with Max Sarchette of the Washington Ski Club taking second, Carl Neu of the University of Washington third, and Hall placing eighth.

Olav Ulland of the Seattle Ski Club dominated the jumping competition. Nordal Kaldahl of Wells, B.C. was second, and Ole Tverson of the Seattle Ski Club was third. Ulland said the jumping hill designed by Seattle engineer Peter Hostmark "is splendid...We all like it" ("Ulland, Pfeifer Leading ...). A hockey player who watched the jumping said the "skiers must be nuts. ... Me, I wouldn't do that for a five-year contract" ("Ski-jumpers ...").

After the competition Ulland, wearing his jumping skis, did a somersault off the ski jump, saying "I'll do a somersault if you'll buy me a new pair of skis every time I break one" ("This Is Good ..."). Ulland "performed veritable miracles" with his somersault off the high jump in front of a projecting girder 18 inches above his head, which his ski hit every time he jumped, a Seattle Times columnist wrote, noting that "Olav Ulland came so close to hitting the rafters Thursday night when he did an exhibition somersault off the indoor jump, that the steel will shine for weeks" ("The Timer ...).

1940: Three Nights of Indoor Ski-Jumping

In the 1940 tournament, the only competitive event was a jumping contest sponsored by the Washington Ski Club. Between November 14 and 16, the Second Annual Pacific Northwest Amateur Indoor Ski-Jumping Tournament was held at the Civic Ice Arena. There was no slalom race, but Friedl Pfeifer attended to demonstrate slalom skiing.

Excitement was intense after it was announced that Alf Engen would compete. The Seattle Times said Engen was "master of the nation's ski jumpers" and more:

"Not only is Engen the top ski jumper of the nation today, but he rates as one of the greatest sportsmen ever to flash across the ski-jumping firmament. At the close of the 1939 ski season he was awarded the Bass Ski Shoe by a special National Ski Association committee, the most prized ski award of all in that it represents 'outstanding sportsmanship and greatest contribution to the sport of skiing'" ("Alf Engen Will Jump ...").

Engen was already well-known to Washington skiers, having won the National Four-Way Championships held at Mount Baker and Snoqualmie Pass in spring 1940, defeating the famous Norwegian ski jumper Torger Tokle in the jumping event at the Milwaukee Ski Bowl.

After immigrating to the United States in 1929, Engen became the National Professional Jumping Champion. Returning to the amateur ranks in 1937, he won the Canadian, National, and North American Jumping Championships. In 1939, he was second in the Four-Way Championships, before winning the next year. Engen set several national distance records in his career. In 1940, he was also the National Jumping Champion and was awarded the American ski trophy as the outstanding man in the country for promoting skiing. As a Forest Service employee, he helped design and lay out a number of ski areas, including Sun Valley. He later was the co-coach of the 1948 U.S. Olympic team. In 1950, he received the Skier of the Century award. Engen was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1959.

The 1940 indoor tournament in Seattle attracted 15 Class A jumpers and another 15 Class B jumpers. Engen's primary competitors were Olav Ulland, defending champion and claimant of one of the world's longest jumps; Harold Jansen, youthful member of the Norge Ski Club of Chicago; and Karl Baadsvik, twice Canadian combined champion and member of the 1936 Canadian Olympic team. Other top local jumpers included Portland's Hjalmar Hvam, Leavenworth's Hermod Bakke, and Seattle's Howard Dalsbo and Ole Tverdal, showing the domination of the sport by Norwegians.

The jumpers would "pour down the seventy feet of icy inrun from a high tower outside the arena's south wall, through a twelve-foot window, and 'umph' from the takeoff to soar out over the slope" ("Brilliant Indoor ..."). Some 10,000 feet of tubular steel and 30,000 feet of lumber were used to build the 75-foot-high jumping tower, which was covered with a blanket of snow, outside the south wall of the ice arena.

Olav Ulland won the first night's competition with two powerful leaps -- he "evidently didn't come all the way from Portland just to play second fiddle to Alf Engen," The Seattle Times said ("Ulland Tops Engen ..."). . Engen was close behind, as was Karl Baadsvik from Canada, making it a three-way duel. A number of jumpers fell due to the composition of the artificial snow. Ulland explained that "crushed ice is slick as all get out. Unless they're over their jump, hitting her forward just right, their boards will shoosh ahead on them and they'll land on the back of their necks" ("Ulland Tops Engen ...").

On the second night, Ulland did what he warned the others not to do on the slick artificial snow -- on his first jump of the evening, "his skis 'slipped out' on the crushed-ice dip of the indoor hill, and his chances of defeating Engen in the three-night, six-jump competition kerplopped as he sprawled on the outrun" ("Alf Engen Takes ...").  Although Ulland had a second jump of 63 feet, Engen matched that mark, and on the third night Engen jumped 64 feet. Although he had never jumped indoors before, Engen won the tournament, with Howard Dalsbo, a seasoned veteran from Seattle, in second place, and Portland's Olaf Rodegaard in third. Adolph Dahl won the Class B championship.

The jumping competition was not the only entertainment at the tournament. On the second evening, competitors did a series of multiple jumps to entertain the crowd. Hank Seidelhuber, Jim Murphy, and Jack Schneider did a perfect triple jump. Double jumps were performed by Ulland and Engen and later by Ulland and Friedl Pfeifer, who also demonstrated his slalom style, of which The Seattle Times said: "Pfeifer's slalom running was beautiful to behold, the payoff coming when he kick-turned up the slope to waltz music time" ("Alf Engen Takes ..."). On the final night, Ulland pleased the crowd "with two of his hair-raising somersaults from the takeoff of the indoor hill" ("Alf Engen Wins ...").

Indoor and Outdoor Ski Exhibitions in Later Years

No more indoor tournaments took place in Seattle before the U.S. entered World War II at the end of 1941. After the war, several indoor ski jumping exhibitions were held to promote skiing. An indoor ski-jumping meet organized by the Seattle Ski Club was part of the Pacific Northwest Sports and Outdoor Show at the Seattle Civic Auditorium in March 1946. A steep, 60-foot run made of canvas-covered wood was treated with a special powder to simulate outdoor conditions. In November 1955 an International Ski Jumping Tournament, which attracted a number of Norwegian ski jumpers attending local colleges and universities, was held as part of the Seattle Winter Carnival at the Civic Ice Arena sponsored by the Seattle Junior Chamber of Commerce.

In 1959 one of the biggest indoor ski hills ever built was erected at the National Guard Armory in Seattle for the Pacific Northwest Winter Sports and Travel Show. The three-story hill was used for slalom races and demonstration of ski techniques and mountain-rescue work. In October 1965 the Seattle Ski Fair featured an indoor ski ramp at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall where a number of well-known skiers performed, including Norway's Stein Eriksen, France's Emile Allais, Austria's Toni Sailer, and Canada's Ernie McCulloch. Mountaineer Jim Whittaker of Seattle demonstrated the equipment he used to climb Mount Everest and ski schools presented skiing demonstrations.

Earlier in 1965, an outdoor ski-jumping exhibition was part of the Fourth Annual Nordic Festival on August 22, 1965, at the Seattle Center. A ski jump was built off the Seattle Center Coliseum roof using pipe and clamps, plywood decking, chicken wire, hay, and 40-50 tons of crushed ice, topped by a two-to-one mixture of ammonium chloride and salt to create a consistency like corn snow. The jump ran "from the top of the Coliseum, down the roof and onto the ground on the building's east side between the Flag Plaza and the International Fountain" and was designed to be good for jumps of 40 to 45 feet, so Seattleites could see "what this sport is all about" ("There'll Be Skiers ..."). Norwegian fiddler Audun Toven played his fiddle while going off the jump and skiing down the outrun. A Seattle banker was the leadoff jumper, followed by a number of boy jumpers under the age of 14, including Dave and Chris Raaum (13 and 11 respectively), sons of Coach Gustav Raaum. The youngest jumper was 8-year-old Pete Arcese, who assured a reporter that he was not scared.


Sources:

Mort Lund, "Timeline of Important Ski History Dates," International Skiing History Association website accessed July 28, 2019 (https://skiinghistory.org/history/timeline-important-ski-history-dates); John W. Lundin, Early Skiing on Snoqualmie Pass (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2017); John W. Lundin, "Sigurd Hall: Ski Racer & Mountaineer," The Alpenglow Gallery website accessed July 28, 2019 (http://alpenglow.org/climbing/sigurd-hall-2006/JLundin-paper-on-Sigurd-Hall-20160821.pdf); "Ski Show to be Held Indoors," The Seattle Times, October 1, 1939; "Three-Day Indoor Ski Meet Starts Here Thursday, "Ibid., November 5, 1939; "Three Day Show Will Get Under Way Tomorrow," Ibid., November 8, 1939; "Friedl Pfeifer to Jump Here," Ibid., November 8, 1939; "Ski-jumpers 'Nuts,' Say Fans," Ibid., November 10, 1939; "Ulland, Pfeifer Leading in Indoor Ski Meet," Ibid., November 11, 1939; "This Is Good off Chandelier," Ibid., November 12, 1939; "The Timer ... Has the Last Word," Ibid., November 13, 1939; Ulland Leads Indoor Skiers," Ibid., November 13, 1939; "Skiers Sign For Indoor Jumping Go," Ibid., October 20, 1940; "Alf Engen Will Jump in Indoor Tourney Here," Ibid., November 2, 1940; "Rodegaard Will Leap as No. 1 in Indoor Ski Meet," Ibid., November 10, 1940; "Brilliant Indoor Ski Field Ready," Ibid., November 13, 1940; "Alf Engen Heads List of Jumpers for Ski Tournament," Ibid., November 14, 1940; "Ulland Tops Engen in Jumping Opener," Ibid., November 15, 1940; "Alf Engen Takes Command," Ibid., November 16, 1940; "Alf Engen Wins Indoor Jumping," Ibid., November 17, 1940; Ibid., March 10, 1946; "Idaho Student Leads Indoor Ski-Jumpers," Ibid., November 4, 1955; "Big Indoor Ski Hill Nears Readiness for Sports Show," Ibid., October 22, 1959; "There'll Be Skiers on Coliseum," Ibid., August 12, 1965; "Scared? Nope! Skier, 8, to Jump off Coliseum Roof," Ibid., August 17, 1965; "French Star, Whittaker to Appear at Ski Fair," Ibid., October 14, 1965.


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