Jumping into the future: Keeping the jumps at Howelsen Hill launching jumpers
Scott Berry is one of only a few people who have experienced the feeling that comes from speeding down the long, steep in-run of the Graham jump and soaring into history as part of the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival.
The jump, which burned to the ground in 1972, has long since been replaced, and for the most part, forgotten. The large crowds at the Winter Carnival ski jumping events, at least those who the event saw back in the 1960s and early 1970s, have also fallen into the pages of history.
But the jump and the heritage it leaves behind are woven into the fabric of our mountain town.
“It was amazing standing on top of the jump,” Berry said. “Thousands of people would line the landing areas … the crowds would be as big as the ones we see for the fireworks these days. It would take your breath away looking out over town and seeing all those people.”
Berry is a native of South Dakota, but like so many of the other athletes who have followed him, he landed in Steamboat Springs when he was a young man to train and compete. He was a member of the 1972 United States Olympic Special Jumping Team and was a member of the U.S. National Team from 1967 to 1972.
“It was the only large hill between Iron Mountain (Michigan) and Leavenworth, Washington,” Berry said. “It was really the only 90-meter jump at the time, because the rest were 40-meter or 50-meter jumps. I just remember it was huge.”
Like the jumps found on Howelsen Hill today, the Graham jump was located in the heart of downtown, and during the winter, it offered jumpers the same view. At the time, ski jumping was one of only a few extreme sports, and for many people, the chance to see these young men take flight was as good as watching Evel Knievel soar over parked school buses on their TVs.
But these athletes were not only drawn to the sport for the adrenalin rush but for a chance to represent their country on the international stage.
By the end of his career, Berry, as well as many other athletes with ties to Colorado, were captivated by the possibility that Denver would host the 1976 Olympic Games and bring even more attention to their sport. When the games were awarded to Denver on May 12, 1970, there seemed plenty of reason to celebrate.
Olympic dreams go up in flames
When readers picked up the May, 18, 1972, issue of the Steamboat Pilot, the impact of the Olympics were plastered across the front page with a three-column drawing by Steamboat Springs architect Robert Ralston anchoring the story, which was titled “Jump plans aired at public hearing,” by reporter Bob Piggott.
The drawing showed the state-of-the-art facility that the Steamboat Olympic Planning Committee had proposed to the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee. John Fetcher reported that the proposal had gotten a favorable response from Olympic technical official Miloslav Belonoznick.
But the jumps, and the whole idea of bringing the Olympics to Colorado, were not as well received across the state, and even in Steamboat.
Viewed as too expensive by some and an environmental threat by others, the Games met a growing resistance across the state.
While the DOC had won the hearts of the International Olympic Committee, the overwhelming cost was a concern Colorado taxpayers. The $5 million price tag was a huge hurdle for many.
Steamboat was not immune to the undertow of those who opposed the games, and
on May 19, 1972, the 90-meter jump, the same jump Berry has enjoyed flying off of at the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival, burned to the ground.
“It was clear what the meaning was,” Berry said. “I don’t think there was ever really a question of why the jump was destroyed.”
The fire broke out just before noon and, by the time crews arrived on scene and extinguished the fire, more than two hours later, the upper two-thirds of the wooden structure of the Graham jump had been damaged beyond repair.
The cause remained a mystery, but most people in Steamboat believed it was the work of protesters who were unhappy with the idea of Colorado hosting the games.
Still others pointed to vagrants, or hippies, who were believed to be living under the scaffolding for the jump, which had recently been treated with a flammable paint.
But in the days leading up to the fire, protesters had painted graffiti on the structure in letters large enough to be seen from downtown. City crews were quick to paint over the protesters’ message, only to have the words reappear a day later.
Fire officials also claimed to have found a handkerchief and a hay bale soaked in diesel fuel near where the fire started. Despite the evidence, no arrests were ever made, and the fire that destroyed the Graham jump remains a mystery to this day.
“That’s what we all thought … We thought it was part of the protest,” said Gary Crawford, who grew up in Steamboat Springs and competed as part of the 1980 and 1988 Olympic teams.
His father Marvin Crawford, along with John Fetcher and Gordon Wren, were all part of the Denver Olympic Committee and had hoped to make Steamboat a part of the 1976 events.
The group had helped secure Nordic events in Steamboat Springs, which would have included Nordic combined at Howelsen and cross-country skiing at Strawberry Park. There was an outside shot at ski jumping, but the folks from Denver had hoped to hold those events closer to the hubs in the Evergreen area.
But the dreams of bringing the Games to Colorado ended when voters elected not to provide funding for the Olympics in a hotly contested November election. Without the financial backing of the state, there was no way for the Denver Games to move forward. Denver pulled out Nov. 14, 1972, and the 1976 Winter Games ended up in Innsbruck, Austria.
“I was still pretty young,” Gary Crawford said. “But if the jump had not burned down, I might have made a push for the 1976 Olympics.”
Berry said he was intrigued by the chance to compete at the Olympics in Colorado, but he admits that getting to the 1976 Olympics would have been a long shot.
He had recently graduated from Dartmouth and had borrowed the money to compete at the international level. The loans were coming due, so he was already thinking about going to work, and his career came to an end that spring after he suffered major injuries in a crash at the World Ski Flying Championships in Planica, Slovenia.
The thrill and fear of jumping
Crawford never got the opportunity to fly off the infamous Graham jump, which he said may not have been all that bad.
“I still remember watching guys kick off the top,” Crawford said. “It was a scary ride. There was about 20 feet that was so steep that you would not see the skier’s tracks. It was so steep that the ski jumper really didn’t have any weight on the snow, but when you reached the bottom of that pitch, it would shoot the skier back onto the takeoff. I remember my brother telling me about his first time on that jump. Sometimes, I think, for me, it was a blessing that the jump burned down.”
Crawford’s fear of actually taking his first jump off Howelsen’s big hill was overshadowed by what he lost after the jump burned down. He thinks the amount of time it took to rebuild the jumps after the fire slowed his development as an athlete.
There was no question that the Graham jump, and the entire complex at Howelsen Hill needed to be rebuilt even before Steamboat made an Olympic push. The jumps were outdated, and local jump enthusiast hoped money spent to build Olympic venues would lead to improvements at Howelsen Hill.
According to most accounts, the jump at Howelsen had to be rebuilt nearly every year in the beginning, with most of the adjustments made to increase distance. Those efforts continued through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, as residents and town officials continued to grapple with landslides, increasing costs and efforts to make Howelsen Hill a community center.
Douglas Graham’s efforts to build a lasting jump on the hill, which were completed in 1949, may not have been perfect, but the Graham jump became one of the most popular hills in the United States, as jumpers came from across the country hoping to clear 300 feet.
Berry explained that the knoll of the jump was a manmade wooden platform that was held up by scaffolding. Those watching could see the skiers start down a steep takeoff, before they disappeared for a few seconds and then came back into view just before takeoff. Once in the air, they still needed to fly over a gap between the takeoff and the manmade knoll before landing on the wooden platform that provided a safe transition to the out-run and landing area.
The problem was that the wood platform was angled at the top but didn’t quite meet the ground, leaving a wall that jumpers needed to clear each time. Not a huge task for the experienced jumpers but a true test for younger athletes.
“If you didn’t clear that gap, you would end up hitting a wall,” Berry said. “I doubt that the old jump would pass by today’s standards.”
However, for more than 20 years, the big hill was a place for jumpers from across the country and world to test their skills. The Graham jump was one of six in the nation where jumps of more than 300 feet were possible.
In 1950, the jump’s first year, Gordon Wren jumped 301 feet, Merrill Barber went 305 and Art Devlin soared 307 feet in the jump’s first year. Ansten Samuelstuen shattered the record the next year with a flight of 316 feet — a mark that stood until 1963 when Gene Kotlarek set the final record at 322 feet.
From the ashes
David Wren, who coached the ski jumping programs at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club from 1979 to 1980 and from 1985 to 1991, still remembers the day the Graham jump burned. He was working on the foundation for the Rockies condominiums with Pete Wither when the two noticed smoke billowing from Howselsen Hill.
“We didn’t know what it was at the time, but when we found out later we were shocked and horrified,” Wren recalls.
Wren never doubted that the jumps had been burned down by protesters. He pointed to the timing and the events leading up to that day for his belief, and he was not alone in his feelings.
“It was tragic,” local architect Robert Ralston said. “It was a real shame. It was our chance to host one of the biggest international events in our area. We had great places for the cross-country races, and our jumps were perfect for the Nordic combined events. It was a huge blow.”
Engineering the sport
But despite that blow, the spirits of those who understood Steamboat’s long-standing ski jumping tradition could not be dampened.
An effort to rekindle those passions was sparked by a somewhat unlikely person, John Fetcher.
Fetcher was not a ski jumper but had fallen in love with the sport for other reasons.
“He loved the engineering of the sport,” his son, Jay Fetcher, said. “He designed jumps all over the place and was always interested in how a ski jumper could take off from the top of the hill and land safely at the bottom.”
John Fetcher designed jumps in Crested Butte, Purgatory, Winter Park, Aspen, Park City, Leadville, Gunnison and Meadow Mountain. Without him, many in the sport question where Steamboat would be today.
He was also heavily involved with efforts to bring the Olympics to Colorado and Steamboat Springs. After those efforts failed, Fetcher took it upon himself to raise money, and even roll up his sleeves to start doing the manual labor that would help ski jumping and Howelsen Hill survive.
His idea wasn’t just to re-build the Graham jump but to make Howelsen Hill a world-class facility.
“There was a group of people who felt it was important to get the jumps going again,” Ralston said. “But John was kind of the guiding light in all of this.”
Fetcher managed to get a $100,000 grant from the State Legislature and raised another $100,000 from the community in the form of a bond issue. He also continued to find grants and private donations to reach the estimated $300,000 it was going to take to build the new complex.
By the time the jumps were finished in 1978, the price tag had ballooned to $1.1 million.
“Though the project has taken the time and money of many. It’s not unfair to single out the efforts of one man as making the international ski facility a dream come true,” a reporter wrote in the pages of the Steamboat Pilot on Jan. 26, 1978. “John Fetcher will have a special gleam in his eyes as he watches jumpers from the United States, Europe and Canada soar from the 90, 70 and 50 meters …”
Holding onto the past, looking to the future
When finished, the new jump complex looked much as it does today. But as Fetcher and many of those involved with jumping in Steamboat understand, the sport of ski jumping is constantly evolving, and if Steamboat wants to carry on its longstanding tradition, those jumps are the key.
“There have been a lot of configurations of that jump hill over the years, but large jump has always been very important to me,” said Wren, who was the first jumping coach to oversee the facility that Fetcher created.
“I think that if we have a city manager evaluating the ski jumps in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, by asking the question, ‘How many people actually use the jumps?’ It shows that he has not really done his homework …,” Wren continued. “How many towns this size have a tradition that is this strong, contributes that much to American prestige in sport and contributes to the prestige of Colorado and its only a little tiny town. How many towns have the audacity to create and maintain something like that? I just want to know why all the sudden it’s being questioned?”
Todd Wilson has been coaching Nordic combined and ski jumpers since arriving in Steamboat in 1991. But as a member of the U.S. Nordic Combined Team and a life-long competitor, he understood the history and importance of the jumps long before he arrived in the Yampa Valley.
“It was really the starting point of recreation in the community,” Wilson said about Steamboat’s ski jumping heritage. “When Carl Howelsen first came here in 1913 this was a farming and ranching community. In the winter people went inside and nobody did anything (recreationally) in the wintertime.
“This is Ski Town USA in great part because he came here and started ski jumping,” Wilson explained. “It was the catalyst for the community’s drive to get outside, no matter what time of year, and do things.”
For Wilson, the way the jumps were built by a grassroots effort of people, like Howelsen, Graham and Fetcher, is one of the reasons the downtown ski jumps are so important to the community. He can’t image Steamboat Springs without ski jumping, and he can’t picture Howelsen Hill without a state-of-the-art jumping complex.
Last month, after a meeting with Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club officials, the city had the jump inspected, and the inspector described the deck and railing for Steamboat’s biggest jump hill as life threatening. Rather than condemning the jump and closing it down for the season, the City Council approved funds that allowed contractors to start fixing the problems before the start of the season.
The jump is expected to undergo non-emergency repairs next summer when working conditions are better.
“These are great programs for young kids,” Wilson said. “Sure, we’ve had a lot of successful competitive athletes over the years, but it is also a great thing for kids who don’t reach the Olympics. These kids start on the smaller jumps and have to work their way up to the big hill.
“While they are growing up, they look over and think there is no way they can ski off that jump, but as they get older, they realize it’s possible. Then someday, they will finally push out on that bar and speed down the in-run and take flight. When they land at the bottom, they realize that they can do anything.”
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