Plumas County: Where Ski Racing Began

Old map of Johnsville Ski Bowl

The Lake Tahoe and Truckee area are famous for world-class skiing. Did you know that downhill ski racing began with the gold miners in the Lost Sierra? The Lost Sierra region of northern California extends north of Truckee into Sierra and Plumas Counties.

Similar to skis used in the Telemark region of Norway, miners concocted longboard skis that were 15 feet long. While the Norwegians were perfecting technical aspects of their skis, miners were pulling their floorboards up to use as skis.

They traveled through the 1850's backcountry of California on what was called Norwegian Snowshoes or Norwegian Skates. It was only a matter a time before mining camps began racing each other on these skis.

Longboard Skiing

Almost 25 years before ski racing became popular in the European Alps, the burly prospectors needed a way to explore the tributaries and mountains for gold. To get around the farthest reaches of the north Sierra, folks were using longboards to maneuver through the back-country snow.

People began trading their raw-hide webbed ‘trampers,’ or what we call snowshoes today, for these more practical longboards. They were more practical because they combined precision and speed with the ability to move over the snow. The longboard ski allowed one to race from the top of a mountain to the bottom in record time.

Historical Re-Enactments of the 1860s

Today, the spirit of longboard racing continues with the Plumas Ski Club at the Johnsonville Historic Ski Bowl. This group promotes community ski activities through historical re-enactments. They feature clothing and actual ski technology from the1860's of the Lost Sierra.

An article in the Quincy Plumas Argus from 1859 details the development of skiing in the Lost Sierra:

“It may be a matter of wonder to some of your readers how people get about where there is so much snow. It is the easiest thing in the mountains. Nearly all have Norwegian snowshoes. They are about nine feet long, four and one-half inches wide, shaved thin, and turned up in front like a sled runner. By fastening them to the feet about the middle of the shoe, and with a pole in the hands for balance, a person can run over the light and new fallen snow at railroad speed!”

Today, the Plumas Ski Club gathers to entertain with their downhill races and old-timey memorabilia. Guests can also enjoy blue-grass bands playing at the bottom of the hill. You can find them at the Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl, located near Graeagle, California. This is the birthplace of ski racing in the western hemisphere, and the earliest documented ski lifts in the world.

old article of ski races

Celebrating California Ski History

In the 1850’s, these races were held across the region and brought the many mining camps together to compete. They had names like Poker Flat, Whiskey Diggings and Poorman’s Creek. Spectators can enjoy a chance to witness how skiing began in California.

While in the 1860s of Norway, skiers were experimenting with bindings, and perfecting drop-knee turns, the folks in California were perfecting downhill ski technology driven by a love of speed. Flat-bottomed traveling shoes transformed into even longer boards. They used the word “dope” to describe how skis were tweaked to achieve optimal velocity. Using elements like pine pitch, oil of cedar, Venice turpentine, soapstone, sperm whale oil and camphor, Dopemakers, sold these elixirs.

Races in La Porte Ca from 1907

Skiers could purchase Frank Steward’s Old Black Dope or Johnie Williams’ Old No. 25 to grease their boards for greater speed. The first ski tournament in the western hemisphere was held in 1867 by the Alturas Snow Shoe Club of La Porte. Cornish Bob won the race that traversed over 1,230 feet. Later that evening, he was shot in a bar fight by a competitor skier!

The Sierra longboarders were known as the fastest men and women in the world for over a century. They would reach speeds of over 80 mph on a 1,700 foot descent from Eureka Lake. In La Porte in 1874, Tommy Todd traversed 1,804 feet in 14 seconds, and established the world speed record of 87.7 mph. He had used Bill Church’s magic "dope" concoction to win.

It took 73 years for this record to be broken by Zeno Colo of Italy. He set the speed record at 98.8 mph in 1947.

The longboard sport lost its appeal in 1917. Some attempted to revive the sport in the 1930s and 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Plumas Ski Club brought back respect for longboard racing. The group has been featured in articles in the Los Angeles Times and other large ski publications.

Yearly Longboard Races in Plumas County

Three longboard races are now held annually at the Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl at Johnsville. The racers must be dressed in period style clothing, and only ‘dope’ from authentic recipes and ingredients may be used on the skis.

Like the original races, they have mens and womens races. All participants must climb to the top of the hill to reach the starting line. Once a squad of three to four racers is lined up and poised, the gong is sounded and the race begins.

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I would love to show you why the Lost Sierra offers recreational opportunities that match what can be found in Lake Tahoe. If you prefer old world charm to crowded ski resorts, Plumas County is the place to be. Contact me today for a list of available homes for sale in Plumas and Sierra County or Truckee and Lake Tahoe.