Were gold miners the first competitive downhill skiers in the Western Hemisphere? Although it seems hard to believe that gold miners could also be fiercely competitive skiers, they definitely were, according to the Plumas Ski Club.
Charles Nelson, a Norwegian skier introduced longboard (7-12 feet) skis to the miners in 1853. He taught them how to make their own boards and gave them ski lessons. The skis were originally intended for the miners to use for crossing the snowy mountain terrain of Plumas and Sierra counties. The areas were high and remote. Crossing the mountains on skis was a much easier and faster way to travel.
In January 1856, the legendary John A. “Snowshoe Thompson” began his first cross country ski trip from Placerville, California to Genoa, Nevada – a distance of 118 miles round trip. Thompson faithfully delivered the mail on the same route two times a month for 20 years, often carrying an 80lb pack on his back in Sierra blizzards. His eastward trip took three days. Returning west he was home in two days. The epic deeds of Snowshoe Thompson contributed to the continuing increase in the popularity of skiing.
As a result of the miners’ longing for something to do during winters with 25-foot snow packs, they created downhill skiing competitions beginning in 1861. These were the first races to occur in the Western Hemisphere. The site of the first race was in Onion Valley, located between the town of Quincy and LaPorte. To make the competitions more interesting, the miners set up complex courses and rewards for the winners ranging from $500 to $1,000 per race.
In February 1867, “Cornish Bob” set a downhill ski record, racing down a 1,804 foot track on his wooden longboard in fourteen seconds, at a speed of 80 miles per hour. By the 1870s, traveling at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour was common. Given the popularity of skiing, the Alturas Snowshoe Club formed in 1867 to give the sport some respectability.
As the miners wanted to improve their speed, they created the original version of ski wax so their skis would not stick to the snow. To this day, the formula for creating ski wax remains a highly guarded secret.
The demand for skiing continued to increase. By the 1920s and 1930s, the Sierra Nevada was attracting visitors from around the world. Today, Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe are considered world class ski resorts. In 2010 Squaw Valley celebrated its 50 year anniversary since hosting the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.
The Plumas Ski Club continues to hold longboard races three times a year at the Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl in Johnsville. In the spirit of the 19th century racers, the skiers must dress in period attire. For more information about the longboard events, contact the Plumas County Museum.
The historical marker is located in front of the Museum located inside Plumas-Eureka State Park.
El Rio de las Plumas, “The river of feathers,” lends its name to Plumas County. Captain Luis Arguello named the river, having been impressed by the many floating feathers on the water. Plumas County also contains Beckwourth Pass, the lowest summit of the High Sierra, which quickly became a favorite route of wagon trains.