"We couldn't believe how much emphasis there was on ski jumping from the beginning: It was really the extreme sport of its day," says historian Caryn Boddie. She and her husband, Peter Boddie, wrote the book Lost Ski Areas of Colorado's Front Range and Northern Mountains, and they'll be sharing stories about what our state's nascent ski industry looked like a century ago at Tattered Cover Colfax tonight. "We found stories of as many as 20,000 people coming to see one of Carl Howelsen's ski-jumping demos in Denver," Boddie continues. "That one was promoted by the Denver Press Club."
The authors worked with small history museums in mountain towns across the state to piece together the legacy of forgotten and abandoned ski hills like Bungalow Hill in Hot Sulphur Springs -- where Howelsen and Angell Schmidt staged their first jump demos and hosted their first Winter Carnival events -- and Denver's own Inspiration Point, where Howelsen enthralled a massive crowd that included Boddie's grandmother.
Boddie says those early ski jump events, which Howelsen conducted with all the zeal of a three-ring circus ringmaster, inspired the first generation of Colorado skiers, just as events like the Dew Tour and X Games help attract today's skiers and snowboarders to winter sports.
"He really understood that you needed that spectacle to attract people to it, and that was how you'd get the kids and their families interested enough to build up a whole ski industry," Boddie says. "He was only here until about 1921, but he really shaped a lot of what the Colorado ski industry would become."
Other hills that Howelsen made famous were as close as Genesee: Look to your left as you're heading up I-70 towards Lookout Mountain and squint to imagine a Nordic ski jump there, circa 1914. And the authors found more abandoned ski areas in Grand County (still home to Winter Park, Mary Jane and Granby Ranch) than any other county in Colorado.
The ski area most associated with Howelsen isn't "lost" at all: Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs recently celebrated its 100th birthday, as did the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club he founded, and Nordic ski jumping is still the main attraction there.
"I grew up hearing about the 10th Mountain Division and that whole tradition around Vail around World War II -- I mean that's a great story and everything -- but I didn't know anything of this whole other story that began decades before all that," says Boddie, who was particularly drawn to Howelsen's background as a Norwegian immigrant who came to Colorado in search of bricklaying work. "We loved discovering that it was the tradesmen -- all these Norwegians who came here to work as loggers and brick layers and ranchers -- that brought the Nordic ski culture and built all the early ski hills. These were people who worked really hard and they wanted to play, too. It's just the same spirit as you see in Colorado today, only my sense is that they worked much, much harder."
Some of those old hills are still entirely skiable today, though Boddie wants to be clear that she's not encouraging it.
"Our book is not really about backcountry skiing, and some of the hills in our book are now on private land, or are prone to avalanches, or lead right into buildings," she says. "But at least 25 of them are still popular, and we've been referring people to Peter Bronki's 2008 book Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Runs in Colorado's Lost Ski Resorts."
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Lost Ski Areas of Colorado's Front Range and Northern Mountains is the first of two books the Boddies have planned (the next one will focus on Colorado's Eastern slope) and is part of an ongoing "Lost Ski Areas" series from History Press. The free talk at the Tattered Cover is at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, December 9. Find more information here.