By 1930, over one million people living in the United States were born in Norway or had Norwegian parents. “The Norwegians brought to their new country a passion for skiing” said Harold Anson in Jumping Through Time. “They organized ski competitions to strengthen their ethnic ties, showcase their abilities, and generate a new sense of belonging to their new country.”
From the teens through the 1940s, ski jumping was the most popular form of winter sport in the Northwest, thanks to the region’s many Nordic immigrants. Washington’s first jumping event occurred in February 1916, when Norwegian businessmen built a ski jump on Queen Anne Avenue to demonstrate the “popular Scandinavian sport” of ski jumping. Between 1917 and 1924, “genuine Norwegian ski jumping tournaments” were held over the July 4th holiday at Mount Rainier’s Paradise Valley.
From 1924 to 1933, the Cle Elum Ski Club held ski jumping tournaments that attracted competitors from all over the Northwest, watched by 3,000 to 5,000 spectators. In 1931, the club built a giant new ski jump, said by the Seattle Times to be “one of the most hazardous in the world, 6 percent steeper than any in Norway.” The Seattle Ski Club, organized by Norwegians immigrants in 1929, built a jump on Beaver Lake Hill at Snoqualmie Summit with “one of the steepest landings in the world, a hill three of four degrees steeper than the famous Holmenkollen Hill in Norway.” The Leavenworth Winter Sports Club formed in 1928, building its giant ski jump on Bakke Hill in 1932. Not to be outdone, Portland’s Cascade Ski Club formed in 1929, and built a ski jump on Mt. Hood.
Ski jumpers competed in a circuit of tournaments, traveling between Cle Elum, Snoqualmie Summit, Leavenworth, and Mt. Hood—often on successive weekends. Tournaments attracted thousands of hardy spectators—mostly Scandinavians—who traveled long distances, hiked up steep hills to reach the jumping sites, and stood outdoors for hours, often in snowstorms, to watch Norwegians fly off the jumps, fighting for distance records. “In 1938, Olav Ulland from Kongsberg moved to Seattle to coach ski jumping, after his brother Sigmund immigrated in 1928. Olav, the first to jump beyond 100 meters, was a mainstay of ski jumping in the Northwest for decades.”
In 1938, the famous Ruud brothers from Kongsberg, Birger and Sigmund, entered the Seattle Ski Club’s tournament at Snoqualmie Summit. Sigmund won an Olympic silver medal in 1928, and Birger won gold medals in in 1932 and 1936. Seven of the sixteen jumpers at the tournament were from Kongsberg: Birger and Sigmund Ruud, Olav and Sigurd Ulland, Rolf Syverrtsen, Tom Mobraaten, and Hjalmar Hvam. Birger Ruud won the tournament with a near perfect score, somersaulting to a stop at the bottom.
Sigurd Ulland won the 1938 US National Championships in Vermont, then won the 1938 Leavenworth tournament, beating Birger Ruud, his brother Olav, and two members of the 1936 US Olympic team. Sigurd won the 1939 Leavenworth tournament, setting a new national distance record that lasted only a few hours, as Alf Engen jumped further at Big Pine, California.
In anticipation of the National Four-Way Championships in spring, 1940, Milwaukee Railroad built a world class ski jump at its Milwaukee Ski Bowl on Snoqualmie Pass. In addition to Alf Engen, the jumping event featured Torger Tokle, a recent Norwegian immigrant and rising star, whom Engen had beaten to win the 1940 National Jumping Championship. Tokle had the longest jump, but Engen won the Ski Bowl’s jumping event on form points. Alf Engen won the Four-Way Competition, followed by his brother Sverre, Seattle’s Sigurd Hall, and Portland’s Hjalmar Hvan. Alf Engen won Leavenworth’s 1940 tournament, beating Sigurd Hall and nearly setting a new national distance record.
In February 1941, Alf Engen set a new North American distance record at Iron Mountain, Michigan, only to have it broken later in the month by Torger Tokle at Leavenworth. At the National Jumping Championships at the Milwaukee Ski Bowl in March 1941, Tokle set his second distance record in a month, beating Engen. Tokle set another distance record in 1942, but was killed in Italy in May 1945, fighting with the Tenth Mountain Division. Tokle had broken twenty-four jumping records and won forty-two of the forty-eight tournaments in which he competed.
In 1947, the U.S. jumping team for the 1948 Olympic Games at St. Moritz was selected at the Milwaukee Ski Bowl. The team was coached by Alf Engen and Walter Prager. Gustav Raaum, who had won Norway’s junior Holmenkollen tournament, stayed to attend the University of Washington and lead its jumping team, becoming a mainstay of Northwest ski jumping. Raaum listed 56 Norwegian students who competed for Northwest schools, 41 in Washington alone. “The Milwaukee Ski Bowl hosted the National Jumping Championships in 1948, and a new distance record was set there in 1949, by a Norwegian exchange student.”
A major blow to Northwest skiing came in December 1949, when fire destroyed the lodge and train depot at the Milwaukee Ski Bowl, and the Milwaukee Road decided not to rebuild in fall 1950. The loss of the Ski Bowl’s Olympic caliber jumps was the end of an era for Northwest ski jumping, although the sport continued at Leavenworth, Snoqualmie Pass and elsewhere. “Leavenworth hosted four National Jumping Championships through 1978, and three distance records were set there. In 1972, Leavenworth native Ron Steele became the second Washingtonian to be selected to the U.S. Olympic jumping team, joining Ragnar Ulland (Olav’s nephew) in 1956.”
In 1954, “a hardy group of Norwegian ski jumpers,” led by Olav Ulland, Gustav Raaum and others, formed the Kongsberger Ski Club. The club built a ski jump at Cabin Creek east of Snoqualmie Pass, held competitions, gave jumping instructions, and assisted with jumping competitions at Olympic Games and international competitions.
Interest in ski jumping in North America diminished in the 1960s and dropped further in the 1970s. The last Leavenworth tournament took place in 1978, which was a National Championship. In 1982, the New York Times published an article, “Ski Jumping Faces a Long Decline,” saying the popularity of ski jumping had nosedived and the sport was struggling.
Despite the ebbs and flows in popularity, Nordic ski jumping had a positive impact in the Northwest, serving as a way to continue Nordic traditions and values while sharing them with a broader community. National pride in American athletes of Nordic descent grew, with Alf Engen named skier of the century in 1950, and together with Torger Tokle was inducted into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1959. Northwesterners inducted into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame include Seattle’s Gustaav Raaum and Olav Ulland; Leavenworth’s Hermod Bakke, Magnus Bakke and Earl Little; and Portland’s Hjalmar Hvam and John Elvrum.
- Olav Ulland and Hjalmar Hvam entertain the crowd at the 1938 Silver Skis race on Mount Rainier by doing a side-by-side flip. The race was postponed due to bad weather.
- A 1932 advertisement for a ski jumping tournament in Cle Elum.
The National Nordic Museum hosts the exhibition Sublime Sights: Ski Jumping and Nordic America April 17–July 18, 2021. This exhibition is produced in partnership with the Washington State Ski & Snowboard Museum.
The Washington State Ski & Snowboard Museum on Snoqualmie Pass preserves and shares the history of ski jumping in Washington through a multi-media exhibition showcasing film clips, memorabilia and other collections pieces. Learn more at www.wsssm.org.
Author and ski historian John Lundin is a Seattle lawyer, a lifelong skier, and has written extensively on early skiing. His books include Early Skiing on Snoqualmie Falls (2017) and Ski Jumping in Washington State: A Nordic Tradition (2021), which was published in conjunction with the National Nordic Museum exhibit Sublime Sights: Ski Jumping and Nordic America. Lundin is one of the founders of the Washington State Ski & Snowboard Museum (WSSSM) which opened on Snoqualmie Pass in October 2015. This article previously appeared in Nordic Kultur 2020.
John Lundin will give the virtual lecture "Ski Jumping in Washington State—a Nordic Tradition" on April 24. This event is free for Members and $5 for the general public. Register for the lecture here; see nordicmuseum.org/calendar for more events.