Winter Carnival 2015: Howelsen Hill turns 100
Before Norwegian ski jumping champion Carl Howelsen arrived in Steamboat Springs in 1913, the bottom land across the Yampa River from the town was used as a casual wildlife refuge for a small herd of elk. But Howelsen had other plans for the steep hill that rose abruptly from the south end of the park.
He already had established a ski club in Denver early that year and organized a Winter Carnival in Hot Sulphur Springs in 1912. So it was natural that by early 1914, he was organizing competitive ski practices for local youths.
People in the Yampa Valley were not new to skis — intrepid rural mail carriers used them to make their rounds. But, as ski historian Sureva Towler noted in her book, “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs,” it was Howelsen who introduced skiing as a sport with skis that were grooved so they would track in a straight line.
In February 1914, Howelsen organized townsfolk to build a modest ski jump on Woodchuck Hill, where Colorado Mountain College stands today, and the first Winter Carnival was held with jumping competitions and cross country ski races.
Howelsen had been to the top of the ski jumping mountain in his native country, where he would ultimately win 14 prizes at the famed Holmenkollen venue outside Oslo, Norway. In Steamboat, he saw the potential for a jumping venue capable of producing records if a larger ski jump could be built on the steep north face across the river.
Local ski historian Bill Fetcher reports that trees and brush were cleared from the hill in fall 1914 in time to host Winter Carnival jumping in February 1915. Fetcher wrote that the 440-foot-tall hill was named after Howelsen by 1917.
It remained a Nordic venue through the 1920s when an Alpine slalom hill was cut on the east flank of the hill and the first of a series of early ski lifts were built, including a “boat tow” in which skiers rode to the top of the hill while seated with their skis in racks.
“The boat tow was originally just a sled used to haul supplies up to maintain the ski jumps. But it was found that skiers could ride it too, and it was re-built to go to the top of Howelsen,” Fetcher said. “It served until 1970, primarily during Winter Carnival.”
The wooden landing platform (no longer used) for the ski jumps mysteriously burned in 1972 — some theorized that people opposed to the 1976 Winter Olympics coming to Colorado did the deed — and a modernized jumping hill was finally dedicated in 1978.
The community could have chosen to let it go, Fetcher observed, and there were residents who objected to the expense of rebuilding the jumps, but the project even overcame a mudslide in the middle of the construction process, and the tradition of ski jumping endures in Steamboat Springs.
Howelsen likely could not have envisioned how the modest beginning he gave to Howelsen Hill would come to define the identity of Steamboat Springs.
More than 70 Olympic athletes have trained on its slopes — many of them local youngsters who rose to national and international prominence and others who were attracted to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club by the topnotch coaching available at Howelsen Hill.
The early success of those athletes gave rise to Steamboat’s other name — Ski Town USA. The hill has hosted NCAA college championships and Nordic combined World Cups attracting Olympians from Europe to Asia.
The city of Steamboat Springs assumed ownership of the 40-acre park that is Howelsen Hill in 1937, the same year that night skiing made its debut, expanding training opportunities for local youths. The city also facilitated snowmaking capabilities and expanded the lodge to make it a community gathering place.
Through the years, community members have rallied to modernize the ski jumps, rebuild the slalom hill after spring mudslides, install a modern chairlift and even build a summer ski jumping surface to allow year-round training.
The modern city park that is Howelsen Hill offers a winter tubing hill enjoyed by vacationers, an indoor ice skating rink and a mountain slide in summer.
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It was a love story that brought Jason Erwin to Steamboat Springs from Nashville, Tennessee.