Written by Carol Van Etten
Carol Van Etten is a Tahoe research historian who has been studying and writing about Lake Tahoe history for over 30 years. Her love of Tahoe and its history date to childhood summers spent at the family cabin in Rubicon Bay, where she first heard stories of the lake in earlier times. She is a 1970 graduate of UC Davis and attended University of Chicago graduate school in English Literature.
An important aspect of Van Etten’s research has been the collecting of oral history interviews. Since 1982 she has recorded over 100 conversations with Tahoe’s ‘old timers’, adding greatly to the information available through written records.
Van Etten has written 5 books on Lake Tahoe history subjects, including Meeks Bay Memories, Tahoe City Yesterdays (out of print), Prewar Wood, Lakers and Launches, and Lake Champions. More information can be found at her website, TahoeHistory.info.
Toboggan run built by D.L. bliss at Ski Canyon
Although the Sierra Nevada’s first snow sports activities can be traced to the late 19th Century, the Winter Sports Grounds of the Tahoe Tavern, a grand resort built by Duane L. Bliss near Lake Tahoe’s Outlet in 1901, are the ski area in longest continuous use of any in these mountains. Today this ski area is known as Granlibakken.
In December 1926, following the Tahoe Tavern’s sale to the D.M. Linnard hotel interests of Pasadena, Southern Pacific Railroad (Linnard’s parent company) converted the hotel’s 16-mile narrow-gauge line to Truckee to standard gauge, providing the all-weather access essential to a successful winter season.
A canyon southwest of the hotel was chosen as the Tavern’s Winter Sports Grounds, and Manager Jack T. Mathews hired local residents to build a toboggan slide and warming hut on its east slope. He hired international ski-jumping champion Lars Haugen to design and oversee construction of a ski “trajectory” farther up the canyon.
Mathews hired professional ski jumpers from the Chicago area to
Sleigh rides at Tahoe Tavern
perform exhibition jumps for weekend crowds who arrived at the Tavern via special SP trains and were delivered to the Sports Grounds aboard six-horse sleighs. The toboggan slide was iced nightly for speed, and sledders and skaters could thaw out with hot beverages in the warming hut.
Despite these attractions, the Tavern’s first Winter Season was a financial disappointment, and the next two seasons were shortened to several weeks at Christmas plus the weekend of Washington’s Birthday. Truckee’s annual Sierra Dog Derby, which debuted in February 1929, was the only significant winter event that year and the next.
Exhibition jumps performed on the “Tavern hill” inspired the local children to participate, and community enthusiasm grew, though the future of the Tavern Winter Season looked bleak. A bid by the newly-formed Lake Tahoe Ski Club to stage the 1932 Winter Olympics lost out to Lake Placid, New York. Snow in California? Preposterous!
Skiing at Ski Canyon
However, at a dinner at Tahoe Tavern in January 1931, Wilbur Maynard, Truckee resident and SP Winter Sports Manager, announced that the National Ski Association had selected Lake Tahoe as the site of the 1932 National Ski Tournament. With less than a year to prepare, the LTSC scheduled a State Championship meet for February 1931.
The 1932 meet at newly-christened Olympic Hill was a moment of glory for Tahoe ski-sport enthusiasts. Governor Rolph was on hand, as was popular actress Anita Page, Queen of the Meet. Early February storms threatened to cancel the event, but abated just in time for local residents to foot-pack the hill to perfection.
The successful staging of the Nationals brought confidence to the LTSC and Ski Canyon would be the scene of dozens of tournaments prior to the outbreak of WWII. The Tavern’s owners, however, sensed that their financial opportunities from local snowsports had peaked, and their Winter Sports Grounds, though still used by LTCS members for recreation and competition, would not see another Winter Season for 17 years.
As the world returned to peacetime following World War II, retired
Kjell "Rusty" Rustad, Granlibakken's founder
Norwegian Naval Officer Kjell “Rusty” Rustad was searching for a postwar enterprise to suit his two favorite pastimes: skiing and sailing. He was expert at both, and Lake Tahoe seemed to offer opportunities worth pursuing.
In 1947 Rustad leased the parcel once known as the Tahoe Tavern Winter Sports Grounds from the Forest Service and, working alone with an axe and handsaw, began to prepare the north-facing slope for use as a ski hill. The following year Rustad hired local carpenter Bert Brolund, and worked with him to build a log warming hut using the tall, straight red fir trees removed from the hill. A living quarters for the Rustads and two dormitory-style rentals followed.
Rusty was also working to revive the old Olympic Hill, site of the 1932 National Ski Jumping Championships, and on March 7, 1948 the LTSC held its first state-sanctioned meet there.
On January 22, 1949, Rustad, his wife Marion and daughter Binth held an Open House to introduce the community to their new ski venture, which they named ‘Granlibakken’ (a Norwegian phrase meaning “a hillside sheltered by fir trees”). Rusty arranged to teach the students of Tahoe Lake School to ski, extended the existing rope tow and added a second tow for beginners, while Marion took care of the business.
At that time, what is now Granlibakken Road was not plowed in
The weasel at Granlibakken Tahoe
winter, and access to the ski hill was by a military surplus Weasel, which could tow a sled carrying 12 passengers. About 1952 an auto bridge over the Truckee River was constructed on Tahoe Lumber Company property, briefly affording better access, but in the soggy winter of 1955-56, high water carried it downstream, and the Weasel was reinstated.
The hard work of Rustad and other volunteers to prepare a second, smaller ski jump for the use of local youngsters paid off on March 15 & 16, 1952, when the Junior National Ski Championships were staged at Granlibakken.
In 1953 Rusty and Marion divorced, and she and Binth left Tahoe, while Rusty continued to promote the ski venture alone. That year, Rusty sold acreage across the road from the ski hill to UC Berkeley’s International House, whose volunteers built a lodge there. In 1954 Rusty married Jeanette Gorham, who joined him in the operation of the business.
Cal Alumni Center
In December 1958, the Cal Alumni Association announced its purchase of the International House property, where it planned to build a ski lodge for the use of UC Alumni, including new kitchen facilities, a 150-person dining hall, a swimming pool and two buildings to provide sleeping accommodations for families. Built and staffed primarily by UC students, the Alumni Center was completed in 1960.
In 1968, the Alumni Center was sold to New York publisher M. Hughes Miller, who built the canyon’s first condos and developed The Four Seasons, a popular dinner house. In 1974, Miller would be riding the wake of his company’s huge best seller, The Joy of Cooking. However, his Tahoe venture did not fare so well, succumbing to bankruptcy in 1976.
Bill and Norma Parson purchased the resort in 1978, reviving it and
the original name. Today the Parson family continues to operate Granlibakken, hosting international conferences as well as the general public. Among the amenities still available to all is the ski hill with the marvelous pedigree.
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