Winter ice and snow are uncommon in Berkeley’s temperate climate. Every several years there might be a brief hard freeze, and once in a while Grizzly Peak is dusted with white and those yearning to scrape up a local snowball or two head up for a look.
Three quarters of a century ago, however, Berkeley momentarily hosted a marquee winter sports event that attracted tens of thousands and featured nationally known skiers flying down a local, snow-covered, hillside.
Sunday, Jan. 14, 1934 and again in January 1935, the Auburn Ski Club built a temporary ski jump at the top of Hearst Avenue and shipped tons of snow to town to stage a ski jumping extravaganza for the locals.
“Snow arrived in Berkeley late yesterday, not from the heavens, but in gondola freight cars from the high Sierras, and today a snowy carpet is being spread on the hill at the head of Hearst Avenue where the first ski jumping events ever held in the California lowlands will be staged,” the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported Jan. 13, 1934.
Temperatures hovered in the 40s, and the next day, “fifty thousand or more persons saw several of the Nation’s greatest ski jumpers give an exhibition ... It was apparent that the sight and feel of snow have the same effect on Central Californians as sprigs of catnip on alley cats, and thousands of the spectators rolled over in the snow and even in the mud, while cleaners and pressers in the crowd looked on enjoying it immensely…,” the Gazette observed.
The in-town ski events were apparently unique in winter sports history at the time.
“The Berkeley jumps were the first in California,” says Sierra and weather writer and historian Mark McLaughlin who researched and wrote about the events some years ago. “Other jumps were built outside of cities in the upper Midwest, but I suspect the Berkeley exhibition was the first in a large urban location.”
While tens of thousands gathered, “less than 5,000 of them paid the 50 cent and dollar admission fees,” the Gazette said the next day.
“The Depression may be on the run and money may be more plentiful but a great throng from all over the Bay District saw no reason for expending money to see ski jumpers when by swarming up the sides of the hills on University property one could get a better view for nothing than those who parted with a dollar to stand in melting snow beside the ski course,” the paper added.
“Thousands of persons who groan every time they have to park their automobile more than 50 yards from a motion picture theater puffed their way for a quarter of a mile up the steep hillside, slipping backwards ten inches almost every time they took a step forward,” the Gazette said. “Those who circled the lower hill just to the right of the ski slide, found it convenient to travel on all fours for several yards” then “stood for two hours posed like mountain sheep with one foot wedged in mud a whole foot lower than the other foot.”
Crowds gathered by mid-day for the 2 p.m. event. “Several hundreds who didn’t leave their homes viewed it from rooftops and half a mile away, down Hearst Avenue, below Oxford Street, an automobile load of folks enjoyed the tournament with the aid of opera glasses, field glasses and one lone small telescope.”
An estimated 200 to 300 people came to town via train from Auburn the day of the event.
The jumpers launched down a 60-foot wooden slide that ended ten feet above ground level, took flight, landed, and careened around a curve before stopping.
“How the ski jumpers themselves were able to escape injury after executing a sharp curve on a narrow path of sticky snow, spread like cake frosting, over a layer of straw, was a miracle,” the Gazette reporter concluded.
Three jumpers did lose control, and crash into spectators at 60 miles an hour, the paper said. The crowd “acted as back stops and men, women, and children rolled down the grassy slopes with them while other spectators screamed with delight.”
Hearst Avenue today connects to a busy roadway going up into the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and many of the buildings along and above Hearst today weren’t there in 1934.
In 1934 there was no Lab in the hills, and one guesses that the skiers came down the then undeveloped slope and ran onto the extremely steep upper block of Hearst past Highland Place.
The Class A event was won by Roy Mikkelson of Auburn with 222.4 points; Halvor Mikkelson, also of Auburn, won the Class B with 216.2 points.
Roy Mikkelson, “national ski champion” who had supervised the laying out of the course and predicted jumps of as much as 150 feet, “jumped 104 feet, less than half the distance he can easily make on a proper ski course, but if he had done 200 feet yesterday he would have landed among crowds which lined the roofs and even the pitched ridge poles of neighboring fraternity and apartment houses.”
As the event ended, the snow “disappeared in snow barrages, which brought to a climax Berkeley’s first ski tournament,” the Gazette said that afternoon.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of local children and Cal students swarmed onto the muddy course to scrape up the remnants. “Today, young and old pointed proudly to black eyes and boasted they had been hit by snowballs,” the paper said the next day.
Berkeley firemen made their way with water hoses to the wooden jump to clear it of snow, just in time to keep spectators from sliding down on what the paper called “what they generally sit on.”
Auburn Ski Club representatives initially “scored the police for not giving more protection” but later expressed more moderate public views. The Berkeley police argued that they had no jurisdiction over the University-owned hillside where many unpaid spectators gathered, and that they were overwhelmed with managing the press of automobile traffic trying to crowd into the hilly corner of town.
The contest had the strong encouragement of State officials. “The previous year California’s governor, James Rolph, Jr., had proclaimed the first week of January 1934 as “Winter Sports Week for California,” ” McLaughlin has written about the event.
Governor Rolph proclaimed, “In recent years the people of California have come to realize the value of this winter recreation to the point that winters sports are being developed in this state to a higher degree than in any other part of the world. In the promotion of this new industry for California, it is my sincere wish that all the people of the state participate in this healthful recreation during this week and throughout the winter.”
“The sports novelty in Berkeley is made possible through cooperation of the State Chamber of Commerce, the San Francisco Winter Sports Club, and the Oakland and Berkeley Junior Chambers of Commerce with the Auburn Ski Club,” the Gazette reported January 13, 1934. “It is a feature of the statewide program for this season with the aim of popularizing winter sports in the high Sierra regions.”
Why Berkeley? The town had its own homegrown winter sports enthusiasts with long connections to the Auburn Ski Club and other organizations, and several Berkeleyans took part in the officiating at the 1934 jump.
By the 1920s many local Sierra Club members were learning to ski. Members of the McDuffie and Ratcliff families and Cal professors such as Charles Noble of Mathematics and Thomas Buck became avid winter mountaineers. Chemistry professor Joel Hildebrand was not only president of the Sierra Club in the late 1930s but also an expert skier who would coach the 1936 U.S. Olympic Ski Team.
Hildebrand and his wife were encouraged to learn skiing by the Ratcliffs, who had learned it from PG & E company line workers in the Sierra, men who went out in the winter on ten foot wooden skis to inspect the power lines. The Hildebrands later took a European sabbatical where, amongst other pursuits, they studying skiing with European experts.
There were also the Hutchison brothers, Lincoln and James—the former also a UC professor—who were instrumental in organizing the Berkeley-centered Sierra Ski Club in the early 1920s. The group built a winter lodge at Norden in 1924/25, which was later given to the Sierra Club and remains one of that organization’s mountain lodges today.
In 1935 Hildebrand was praising the glories of winter mountain sports in a Sierra Club bulletin article titled “Ski Heil!”
“The Sierra Club is in the process of making a number of notable discoveries,” he wrote, “that its beloved Sierra is the Sierra Nevada, or snowy range, and must be sought by devoted pilgrims not only in July, but also in January, to be known in the fullness of its glory…that twelve feet of snow affords a smoother path than even a national park trail, and runs anywhere you wish to go… that the smooth folds of sparkling virgin snow, the glitter of icicles, and the living green of firs showing beneath their heavy white mantles—all constitute an enchanted world which can be entered by the magic of the ski.”
Paeans like that were parts of a trend, McLaughlin says. “There was a big push in California during the 1930s to develop a new winter economy based on winter sports. In the late 1920s Lake Tahoe established a jump outside of Tahoe City and called it Olympic Hill. Los Angeles had secured the 1932 Summer Olympics so Tahoe and another ski area in the Southern Sierra bid for the 1932 winter games,” which went to Lake Placid, New York, instead.
Although the Berkeley ski jumps are obscure today, except among historians like McLaughlin, Berkeley continued its interest in winter sports.
A few years after the ski jumping, community leaders, including many winter sports enthusiasts would organize themselves and raise sufficient money to build Berkeley Iceland, the massive indoor skating arena that later became a home not only to community groups, skating and hockey teams and internationally known skiers, but also served as a site for national figure skating championships.
And nowadays hundreds, if not thousands, of Berkeleyans regularly depart each winter for weekend or longer skiing and snowboarding excursions in the mountains. They have long imbibed the advice Professor Hildebrand offered in 1935.
“Come to the mountains! To the Sierra Nevada, where the air is crisp and the sun is bright, where the only depressions are those that one takes with a flourish and whoop!”
But in 1934, the mountains had come to Berkeley, at least for a brief afternoon.
FOR FUTHER DETAILS
Mike McLaughlin’s “Ski Berkeley” article with photos of the 1935 Berkeley jumping is at: http://thestormking.com/Sierra_Stories/Ski_Berkeley/ski_berkeley.html.
Professor Hildebrand’s full 1935 article on Sierra skiing can be found at: http://angeles.sierraclub.org/skimt/text/skiheil.htm.