Steamboat Living: Tom Ross Remembers – Of Howelsen & Boat Tows |

Steamboat Living: Tom Ross Remembers – Of Howelsen & Boat Tows

How great is it that Steamboat gets to celebrate two big anniversaries within a month of each other in January and February 2013?

To whomever was placed in charge of the timing of the 100th Winter Carnival and the 50th anniversary of Steamboat Ski Area, nice going! That's what I call long-range planning.

The ski area opened Jan. 12, 1963, and the first Winter Carnival was held Feb. 12 and 13, 1914. Reading into this remarkable coincidence, this means that people have been skiing Howelsen Hill for twice as long as Steamboat (the first Winter Carnival at Howelsen actually was the second annual event). The first Winter Carnival was held on Woodchuck Hill, where Colorado Mountain College stands today.

Here's how it all started. When Norwegian ski jumping champion Carl Howelsen arrived in Steamboat by train in 1913, it reminded him more of his home outside Oslo than any other place he had visited in Colorado. And that's a good thing for us — our prominence in the ski industry might have been far different had Howelsen not been so smitten with Steamboat.

The late Clarence Light, of F.M. Light & Sons fame, has a great tale of how the first ski jump for the first Winter Carnival came to be. Light recalled how Howelsen made his home on 10 acres in Strawberry Park and, owning neither bicycle nor horse, walked to town every morning to ply his trade as a stonemason, bricklayer and cement contractor. There, he often regaled his bricklaying co-workers with tales of the many ski jumping competitions he had won in Europe. "They were all greatly interested and one morning he came to work bringing a 10-pound lard bucket full of medals and ribbons," Light wrote. "The fellows were greatly excited about the new sport of ski jumping and Carl told them, 'If you can raise $50, we will build a ski jump and have jumping.'"

Clarence's father chipped in $5, and within a couple of hours, the $50 was in hand and the lumber was purchased.

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Standing at the top of the in-run on Woodchuck Hill and gazing straight into the hill that would soon bear his name, Howelsen realized there was the potential for a world record if the jump was relocated to the steeper hill on the other side of the Yampa River. The next summer, the community pitched in again and a new history on Howelsen was launched.

Only a few current Routt County residents remember the changes that took place on Howelsen's ski slopes during its first six decades. Local ski historian Bill Fetcher writes that Howelsen Hill essentially was a ski jumping facility through the 1920s, but in the 1930s, interest in slalom and downhill skiing emerged, giving rise to the first slalom events on the east flank of the hill.

One of the ski hill's most interesting eras began in 1934, when the first ski lift was built. Known as the Boat Tow, it was a sled pulled by a cable placed alongside the ski jumps to haul lumber and tools needed to maintain the jumps.

When its value to skiers was fully realized, it was moved and lengthened to run 440 vertical feet to the top of Howelsen Hill. It was outfitted with two, 10-passenger sleds and pulled by an electric winch from the bottom of the slope.

Aware of rising ski areas in Aspen and Winter Park, Steamboat's residents embraced a bigger ski hill that extended to the top of Emerald Mountain, increasing the vertical elevation to 1,440 feet. The lift comprised 120 T-bars and 60 single-seat chairs (two T-bars for every chair) that passed through 22 wooden portal towers. The muscle was supplied by a 75-horsepower motor.

The lift eventually proved to be too costly to maintain, and a new lift was constructed that ran only to the top of Howelsen.

Regardless, now we have a historic ski area in the heart of town — the oldest continually operating ski area in Colorado — as well as one of the best ski areas in the world on nearby Mount Werner. And what Howelsen recognized 100 years ago still holds true today: There aren't many ski towns like Steamboat Springs.