The 1930s was the breakout decade for alpine skiing in the United States.
Stiff leather boots, skis with metal edges, European ski instructor and, most importantly, the 1935 development of mechanical rope tows to pull skiers uphill attracted thousands to the sport. Before that, jumping and cross-country skiing dominated the industry. For the Tahoe Sierra, the bulk of ski facilities and rope tow operations were focused on Donner Summit.
It wasn’t long before these clubs shared a rope tow with an excellent ski school staffed by two young Austrian immigrants, brothers Wilhelm “Bill” and Frederick “Fred” Klein, owners of the popular Klein Ski School.
Other ski organizations, including the UC Berkeley’s Winter Sports Club Cal Lodge, the Oakland Ski Club and San Francisco’s Viking Ski Club would eventually establish their own footprints in the area.
Soda Springs Hotel
In 1922 entrepreneurial brothers Oscar and Herstle Jones arrived at Soda Springs. Five years later they opened the 20-room Soda Springs Hotel. At the time, this establishment was the only place on Donner Pass where travelers could obtain meals and rooms.
The Rainbow Tavern & Lodge
Increasing demand for additional accommodations in the area inspired Herstle Jones to convert an old stagecoach stop on the South Fork of the Yuba River into the Rainbow Tavern. The facility was a rustic, stone and timber restaurant and hotel with a sleeping capacity of 65. The Rainbow Tavern & Lodge is still in operation today as a private event venue available for rent.
More hotels and Up-Ski
During the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, Americans caught the ski bug. The following year, “Ma Vanderford” added to the mix of hotels on Donner Summit when she opened the House of Vanderford with beds for 25 guests. It was built across the road from the future site of Donner Ski Ranch and by 1941 had expanded to accommodate 180 visitors. When skiing ended for the day, après partying began with drinking, dancing and singing.
In 1936, Oscar Jones’ son Dennis designed the first mechanical ski conveyance on Donner Summit. He called it the Up-Ski. It consisted of two large sleds attached to a cable that passed through a pulley at the top of the hill. As one sled went up the other went down, the upward bound sled carrying several skiers. Unfortunately, Jones’ boat tow system was clunky, slow and didn’t work well.
Just above the Central Sierra Snow Lab on Bunny Hill Road in Soda Springs is the Hoyfjellet Lodge, built in stages starting in the 1930s. The charming rock-faced building contains 100 bunk beds and is still popular with large groups.
By 1940, the Oakland Ski Club had also built a lodge in the area, later joined by the Sacramento Ski Club, Stockton Ski Club and the Donner Trail Lodge among others.
During World War II activities came to a standstill due to gasoline rationing and the military’s shutdown of the train stations for national security. The new restrictions forced the discontinuation of Southern Pacific Railroad’s popular Snowball Specials that transported skiers from the Bay Area to the mountains.
After the war, Herstle Jones built the Nyack Lodge at Emigrant Gap, which included a rope tow and views of Bear Valley and Lake Spaulding. Several more inns opened along Highway 40, including the Sitzmark Lodge, Beacon Hill Lodge, Ice Lakes Chalet and the Donner Summit Lodge.
Today’s ski clubs
Today, there are a plethora of active San Francisco Bay Area ski club lodges in the Norden/Soda Springs area.
These community facilities are centrally located along Donner Pass Road near the summit close to Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, Donner Ski Ranch, Soda Springs Ski Resort and the Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort area, as well as unlimited backcountry skiing.
These affordable retreats offer group settings with shared spaces and encourage members and guests to recreate together, socialize and share stories near the fireplace after an exhilarating day outdoors. All these clubs boast long colorful histories and the comradery among its members continues to thrive.
San Francisco Viking Ski & Outdoor Club was started in 1938 by a group of ski-loving Scandinavian friends living in San Francisco. The life of the club centers around the cabin on Donner Pass Road that membership has maintained since 1948 with annual summertime work parties.
Oakland Ski Club has a lodge built by the founding members of the organization. In a nod to the early traditions of communal ski clubs, all guests at the OSC Donner Lodge must perform a chore during their stay and observe all club rules.
Peninsula Ski Club was founded in 1949 and is now a year-round social club with a focus on snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and many other outdoor activities. Members hail from the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and throughout northern California.
Alpineer Club at Donner Summit is a membership-run organization for fun loving families and singles. The club was formed in 1940 by a group of polka dancing outdoor enthusiasts. They built a mountain cabin near Lake Mary on Donner Pass for four-season recreation that same year.
Marin Ski Club was founded in 1938 as the Marin Ski and Skate Club for members in Marin County and the greater Bay Area. In 1958, it purchased land near Soda Springs and built a 3,300-square-foot lodge that opened for the 1960-61 ski season. The club had little money to build their mountain chalet but at that time Southern Pacific Railroad was removing old wooden snowsheds that protected the tracks from snow or avalanche. Many older buildings on Donner Summit were framed up with this old growth lumber. Club members got busy and today those same timbers support the Marin Ski Club’s cozy cabin.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at TheStormKing.com. Visit his blog at TahoeNuggets.com and read more at YourTahoeGuide.com/history.