Downhill Ski Racing Born in the Mining Camps of the Northern Sierra
By Pete Gauvin • Photos courtesy of Plumas County Museum
Winter enthusiasts might assume skiing for sport in North America got its start in the high peaks of the Rockies, or back east somewhere, in the woods of Vermont or the glades of the Adirondacks, perhaps with fur trappers or Western settlers stealing some leisure time having gotten fat and warm, or relatively so, from the bounty of the new land. Somewhere, you’d think, where a long tradition of skiing persists and to this day is celebrated by renowned ski resorts old enough and big enough to ring a bell with ski bums across the country.
‘Course, you’d be wrong. Unless, for some reason, you envision the moderate elevations of the northern Sierra Nevada and towns like La Porte and Johnsville, and other small mining camps in Plumas and Sierra counties, when you think of ski history.
But indeed the humble peaks and the less-than-famous, resort-free towns of the northern Sierra – sometimes referred to as the “Lost Sierra” for its long-vanished boom towns – can lay claim as the birthplace of ski racing, and skiing for pure entertainment’s sake, in the Western Hemisphere. Credit the hard-scrabble fortune seekers who poured into the region’s gold mining camps in the mid 1800s and found they had a little down time on their hands come winter, tough guys fed by beans and whiskey and more wild than Bode Miller in a Chamonix night club before a World Cup race.
Original California Longboarders
These miners are the original California longboarders. They didn’t surf. They did go fast, though, up to 80 miles per hour, on long planks of wood, vertical-grained Douglas fir usually, two and even three-times their height, secured by leather boots affixed with a couple leather straps.
There was nothing faster in the world of human experience then. Nothing else you could live to tell about anyhow.
“They were nuts,” says Jim Webster, a Quincy civil engineer and founder of the Plumas Ski Club who has strapped on the planks a few times since helping organize a series of longboard revival races. “They’d lay down a pair of tracks and just go for it. Tuck and go.”
A little whiskey in the bloodstream no doubt helped account for the brazen speeds. Competitions were sometimes referred to as “Skiing and Whiskying in the Sierra.”
“Usually the races would go on for several days,” Webster says. “They had dances at night and bars set up at the course and they had a good time. All the racers carried flasks.”
“That’s one of the traditions we try to uphold – tipping a flask at the top of our runs,” says modern-day longboard master Rob Russell, 55, a landscape architect from Quincy. Skiing on a pair of 14-foot longboards he made himself, Russell has won nearly half the 14 “world championships” held since the current revival began in 1990 at the ski hill in Johnsville.
Dope is King!
In addition to big fir planks and whiskey-fed courage –– there was one other key ingredient the miners needed for speed on the hill: Good dope.
“Dope” was the term used for the wax mixture applied to the base of their skis, a complex concoction derived from forestry and mining products, though the base ingredient came from an unlikely source – whaling.
“The recipes to create these substances were closely guarded by the dopemaker, and even today, though the recipes have been handed down, the cooking times were not,” writes Scott Lawson, director of the Plumas County Museum, in a history on longboarding.
“Materials used in the brewing of a batch of dope included spermaceti, a waxy substance from the brow of the sperm whale, oil of cedar, Venice turpentine, oil of tar, wintergreen, soapstone, balsam of fir, (and) pine pitch,” he writes. “The speeds the dope produced led to slogans such as ‘Sierra Lightning’ and ‘Dope is King!’”
Racers were so secretive of their dope, it is believed some of the ingredients were added only to mask the smell of the key substances. Or perhaps the odor of sperm whale headcheese was too much even for a miner’s nose to bear.
Today, Russell notes, revival racers use dope made from straight Paraffin candle wax, as spermaceti is a little difficult to come by and its use would likely set off a Green Peace alert that would be poor publicity, one can imagine, for longboard revivalists.
Like all historic skiing cultures, skiing in the northern Sierra was initially employed for purely practical transportation purposes. Called snowshoes or “Norway skates,” the first skis were introduced to the mining camps around 1853. These traveling skis were generally 8-10 feet long.
It wasn’t long before miners idled by deep winter snows began to entertain themselves on these skis with informal races at camps such as Onion Valley, La Porte, Saw Pit, Howland Flat, Gibsonville and Port Wine. The competitions grew more serious and industrious miners began to make their own skis for these competitions, adding length for greater speed.
Wooden ski construction became an art in the region. Carefully selected tight-grained fir was shaped with special planes. The tips were bent by steaming and the bases featured a long groove running down the ski to improve tracking, helping to keep the hell-bent, whiskey-swilling miners on course.
“With the wooden skis you don’t have much camber. If you’ve got real flat skis they tend to wander,” notes Webster, having had first-hand experience at the revival races.
When the current revival got underway in the 1990s, Russell helped start a longboard construction class at Feather River College in Quincy. The class produced a hundred pairs of longboards that skiers continue to use for the revival races.
High Stakes Racing
In 1866, the “Alturas Snowshoe Club” was founded in La Porte and the next year the group organized what is believed to be the first organized ski race in North America, giving birth to the sport of downhill ski racing. In fact, it wasn’t until 10 years later that the first such ski races were held in Norway.
Winners were generally those who had the strongest start, chose the straightest line, had the best dope, and, of course, stayed on their feet. Wipeouts were apparently rare, but one imagines not unheard of.
Rules specified, “No spittin’ or cheatin!”
The races continued through the late 1800s, up until the last recorded race in 1911. Racers represented their town and followed a winter circuit: La Porte, Johnsville, Jamison City, Poker Flat, Sierra City, Monte Cristo, and other smaller outposts.
During their heyday, organized competitions could draw 50 or more racers, 500 spectators and purses of $500 to $1000, according to Lawson’s history. Can you imagine how much money that was back then? No wonder dope was king!
“They could win easily a year’s worth of wages and they’d usually split it between the skier and the dope maker,” Webster says. “Those recipes were a big deal.”
The legendary John “Snowshoe” Thompson, the most famous skier in the West, reportedly came up and raced against the miners, and apparently he got soundly beat by “the Plumas boys,” Russell notes. “That’s when he realized dope was king.”
No Turning Necessary
With unwieldly 10-15 foot boards underfoot, there wasn’t much if any turning involved – or possible – in a longboard race. It was pure straight-line speed skiing.
At the start, racers used a single six-foot long pole, similar to a Norwegian-style lurk but with the addition a block of wood on the end, to get them underway with a few strong lunging thrusts. To slow down, they dragged it behind them like a brake rudder, actually putting it between their legs and sitting on the pole to apply pressure, often creating a spectacular rooster tail of snow in the process. Since, as you might imagine, the braking affect was less than immediate, race hills featured long run-outs at the bottom.
Some of the runs these daredevil miners screamed down would still be impressive by today’s standards. According to the Plumas Ski Club’s history, by 1863, Gold Mountain (so called because after gold was discovered there in 1851, more than 30 miles of mineshafts were built and it eventually supported three stamp mills), now known as Eureka Peak (7,447 ft.), had a downhill run of 2600 feet.
One early longboarder reputedly reached a speed of 90 mph on the Gold Mountain run, which rises a couple thousand feet behind the then-thriving town of Johnsville (elev. 5,180; current pop. 21).
In fact, the mining ore buckets going up Gold Mountain in the late 1800s are believed to have been used by longboarders as the world’s first ski lift.
Revivals May Help Revive Local Ski Hill, Too
Today’s longboard revival skiers should be so fortunate. They must walk to the top of their race hill, even if it is a much shorter course.
Up behind Johnsville near the bottom of the historic Gold Mountain run, the present-day Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl, a 600-foot vertical rope-tow and poma-lift operation established in the 1950s, sits idle.
Although its current two poma lifts (including one from the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley) haven’t been open to the public in more than five years, since a local housing developer backed out of running the operation, the ski hill is still home to the longboard revival races and “world championships” hosted by the Plumas Ski Club.
Over the years, longboard racing in the area has gone in and out with the tide of generations. There was a small revival in the 1930s and a larger one in the 1950s. After a long ebb, the present revival started in 1990.
“It was a way to promote the history and the uniqueness of the ski hill,” says Webster. “We needed a way to draw people in from outside because there are maybe 300 skiers in Plumas County.”
Despite many challenges, it’s stuck around due to the enthusiasm of ski club members. The ski club hosts three longboard races annually, snow permitting.
“We’re still trying to resurrect our little ski area but we’ve kept up the longboard races,” Russell says. “Last year we expected to have our 15th annual race but we didn’t have enough snow. This year we removed some brush from the run so we can race even if the snowpack is thin.”
The races generally draw around 35 men and 15 women, all wearing historic attire. “We’ve had women racers in their 70s,” Russell says.
Locals like Russell and Webster are pushing to get the ski hill, which is part of Plumas Eureka State Park, operating again. “We’re working aggressively with California State Parks,” Russell says. “We’re putting in for some grants this spring to run it as a non-profit through the Plumas Ski Club.”
The thread through history the longboard races provide may help them do that.
“We started doing it as a promotion for the hill and it fits in with the history of the state park there,” says Webster.
Now 65, Webster has given up racing. But his wife, Sue Jackson, was women’s world champion in 2004. “All of us who started doing it are getting older and so we’re looking for some new blood,” he says.
Time will tell if longboarding fades back into the history books or lives on in the birthplace of downhill ski racing, the humble hills of the Lost Sierra.
For more on the history of longboarding, find a copy of “Lost Sierra: Gold, Ghosts & Skis: The Legendary Days of Skiing in the California Mining Camps” by William Berry (1992).