The story of historic Howelsen Hill |

The story of historic Howelsen Hill

Thousands gather at Howelsen Hill to celebrate the night show of the Winter Carnival, circa 1960.
Tread of Pioneers Museum/Courtesy

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Winter Carnival special section published on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

We often hear Steamboat Springs being referred to as Ski Town, U.S.A. But where does that come from? And why did Steamboat earn the fabled nickname?

It all starts with the most legendary figure in Steamboat’s history: Carl Howelsen. 

Moving to the U.S. in 1905 from Norway, Howelsen was a circus star known as the “Flying Norseman” working for Barnum and Bailey’s circus. Eight years later, he arrived in Steamboat Springs and changed the way locals thought about skiing. 

At that time, skis were used primarily in town as a means of daily transportation instead of recreation, according to the Tread of Pioneers Museum. It was the only way for the people of Steamboat to get from place to place in the snowy months. 

Within just one year of living in Steamboat, Howelsen had the opportunity to show Yampa Valley residents the pleasures of skiing. In particular, he presented the joys of European ski jumping to his new home. 

As a way to introduce winter sport competitions to town and give locals a break from the stubborn winter cold, Howelsen created the Winter Carnival which was celebrated for the first time in February 1914. 

That first Winter Carnival saw around 2,000 people gather to watch a ski jumping competition at Woodchuck Hill, which, according to the Steamboat Springs Chamber, is now where Colorado Mountain College sits.

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Though the first Winter Carnival was successful, Howelsen wanted more. His solution for the next celebration was to build a more permanent ski jump on a steeper hill in an attempt to break ski jumping records.

The location he chose was Elk Park, which would later be named Howelsen Hill for the Winter Carnival in 1917.

The 1915 Winter Carnival turned out to be the first of countless events and competitions held at Howelsen Hill. 

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Howelsen’s hopes for world-wide recognition paid-off when Norwegian ski jumper Ragnar Omtvedt broke the international ski jumping record at the 1916 Winter Carnival with a 58.8 meter jump, according to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. 

Suddenly, Steamboat was given so much attention and the record was broken the following year at Howelsen Hill with a 61.9 meter jump from American Henry Hall.

Hall’s record remained for three years.

Along with the new ski area, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club was organized in the same year. The club is still active today and recently celebrated its 100th Olympic athlete with ties to the club at the 2022 Beijing Games. 

A ski jumper takes off from the brand new ski jump at Howelsen Hill during the 1915 Winter Carnival. The ski jump was built by Carl Howelsen in an effort to break international ski jumping records.
Tread of Pioneers Museum/Courtesy photo

Executive Director Sarah Floyd takes pride in the history of her beloved Howelsen Hill and has enjoyed watching it evolve over time as she spent three decades with the club. 

“Howelsen Hill is reflective of our community,” Floyd said. “When it first started, our community was obviously much smaller and jumping was the sport that was on the forefront at the time. As new sports have evolved, as our community has grown and become more diverse, as our interests have grown with additional sports on snow, Howelsen reflects that.”

Though originally being a massive ski jump on a hill, it did not take long for Howelsen Hill to upgrade and change, and improvements have continued through the park’s 108 years of existence. 

The earliest additions came in 1920 with the construction of a 150-seat grandstand, an ice skating rink and a toboggan slide, according to the Colorado Encyclopedia. The Alpine slalom hill was added at the end of the decade. 

The next big change came in 1934 when a boat tow that was being used to pull construction materials up the hill was instead used as a ski lift. The Encyclopedia also states that until then, all skiers had to hike up to the top, but could now get inside a large sled and be pulled up the slope thanks to the engine of a Ford Model T. 

Three years later, that engine was replaced with an electric motor.

Night skiing was implemented in 1937 thanks to the addition of a spotlight aimed at Howelsen Hill’s ski runs. This remains a favorite of athletes and community members today.

Born in 1944, local legend Jim ‘Moose’ Barrows remembers what Howelsen Hill was like growing up. At that time, the park was a state asset and meant so much to all of Colorado. 

“Howelsen Hill, at that time, went all the way to the top of Emerald [mountain] and that’s what you could do,” Barrows said. “We didn’t have television, we didn’t have anything else, but it was great. We had four guys on the ‘68 Olympic team that all went through the same process on the same hill.”

Barrows remembers Howelsen Hill being a huge attraction for previously holding the international ski jumping record and says it was always the spectacle of town. 

One of Barrows’ favorite memories growing up in Steamboat happened when he was just 12 years old. 

“In 1957, we had the gold and [silver] medalist jumpers from Finland show up for the Winter Carnival,” Barrows said. “Those two guys showed up and they were the first and second best jumpers in the world from the year before. 13 cars on the train would show up and drop all the people that came up from Denver to watch those guys jump.”

It was not just the foreign jumpers people would come to see. Steamboat had grown its reputation for producing some of the best Olympic athletes in the world. 

Because of local athletes like Gordon Wren, John Steele and Barrows, for which the Howelsen Hill ski lift is named after, Steamboat got Olympic attention. When Denver was being considered as the host city for the 1976 Games, it was proposed that Nordic skiing events would be held at Howelsen Hill. 

In light of potentially hosting Olympic events, the K90 ski jump at Howelsen Hill burned to the ground in 1972, an alleged act of arson committed by people against participation in the Games, according to the Encyclopedia. 

Denver ultimately dropped out from Olympic consideration, meaning Howelsen Hill had one less ski jump and no Olympic funding to construct a new one. 

It was Steamboat resident John Fetcher who turned things around and began plans to build an international-regulation jumping facility at Howelsen Hill. The project cost $1.1 million and was funded through donations from local people and foundations. 

The upgrade led to the town hosting the 1978 North American Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined Championships. 

Norwegian ski jumper Ragnar Omtvedt poses for a picture at the base of Howelsen Hill after breaking the international ski jumping record with a 58.8 meter jump in 1916.
Tread of Pioneers Museum/Courtesy photo

Since the 1980s, Howelsen Hill became a year-round community area with the addition of biking trails, the rodeo arena, a skate park, baseball fields, tennis courts and more. Two of the area’s ski jumps have even been converted to year-round jumps for use in the summertime. 

Growing up in Steamboat with these additions, former SSWSC ski jumper Logan Sankey was in awe of Howelsen Hill as a child. She describes it as the center of the Steamboat community. 

“Howelsen is such an amazing space where everything comes together in one spot,” Sankey said. “I started as an Alpine racer and I truly can say I would not have a ski jumping career if it were not for Howelsen. Not only is it one of the only places in the U.S. that has a full ski jumping facility, the coaches at the winter sports club and the city staff that work to keep the lifts running are really awesome about making sure you can try it out.”

Along with the evolution of Howelsen Hill, the Winter Carnival has changed and become more extraordinary with time. 

Sankey was the Winter Carnival queen in 2016 and participated in countless carnivals as a child. It was as much a part of her as anything else. 

“My favorite memory from Winter Carnival was getting to do the ring of fire,” Sankey said. “When I was younger I got to do the flares on the face but as I got older and more experienced, I was able to jump through the ring of fire. Where else does that happen?”

Howelsen Hill is what has made all these things happen and more. It takes children at a young age and inspires them to pursue their winter sport dreams. It is the focal point of town and acts as a hub for locals and visitors to meet, play and stay active. 

While the park has continued to expand over time, the sentiment and the tradition behind it remains the same as it was over 100 years ago. The facilities, the community and the passion are what led Steamboat Springs to producing the most Olympic athletes of any town in the country.

That is what makes Steamboat Ski Town, U.S.A. Carl Howelsen laid the groundwork and the community has kept his dream alive. 

“It’s important we maintain the history and heritage of this unique community park,” Floyd said. “It’s important we never lose the flavor of Howelsen Hill.”

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