UTAH SKI ARCHIVES
in the Marriott Library Special Collections
For many baseball enthusiasts, making the journey to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York is more than just an opportunity to see a few dusty old uniforms and wooden bats — it’s a way to experience the history of baseball by peering into another era to see how the heroes of the past created the game of today. For Utah ski enthusiasts, it’s a much easier journey — the skiing equivalent of the Hall of Fame is only a snowball’s throw away at the Utah Ski Archives in the Marriott Library.
“What’s interesting and valuable about skiing is that it’s one of those things that a lot of people do but never really think about its past or heritage, but that’s what we have done,” says Roy Webb, Multimedia Archivist for the Utah Ski Archives. “We have thought about those stories and actively went out to collect that kind of history and to make sure it’s in place and preserved for future generations.”
The Utah Ski Archives were started in 1989. The original idea was to construct an oral history of people who pioneered the ski industry in Utah by developing resorts, starting ski schools, and instituting ski patrols and avalanche safety. The archive covers the Intermountain West, including Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. It includes just about every aspect of the sport, including backcountry skiing, snow safety, ski jumping, and the development of resorts. Since its inception, it has grown to be one of the most comprehensive and best supported archives on ski history in the country.
“In our less humble moments we think it’s the best in the world,” Webb says. “It’s a great way to learn the ski heritage here and the impact that Utah has had on the ski industry, which has been immense. That’s one of the major reasons that people should come see the ski archives.”
Another reason to visit the ski archives is the hands-on opportunity to see, hear, and read about the daring and hardworking visionaries who pioneered the ski industry and put Utah on the map. The archives go into great detail about the contributions of legendary skiers such as the Engen brothers — Alf, Sverre, and Corey — who were largely responsible for planting the seeds of skiing in Utah in the 1930s and 1940s. The Engen brothers emigrated from Norway, with Sverre and Alf arriving in Utah in 1931. They both became national ski jumping champions, and all three of the brothers were inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame.
Visitors to the ski archives can also learn about the efforts of Edward LaChapelle and Montgomery Atwater, who worked as forest rangers in Alta and together established the first avalanche research center. They developed the idea of shooting down avalanches in Little Cottonwood Canyon using a borrowed Howitzer from the National Guard, which literally helped pave the way for skiers to traverse the canyons and ski the slopes safely.
It’s one thing to read about the heroics of the early ski pioneers in Utah, but there is nothing like having these stories come to life through photographs and grainy black and white video from another time. The Ski Archives has close to half a million images in its diverse collection, with the earliest ones being from as far back as the 1890s.
“We have photographs of people in the 1890s wearing what they used to call snow shoes — it was two words back then,” Webb says. “They were nearly 10 feet long and were used by the guys who delivered mail up at Alta, and people started using them for recreation. By the early 1900s, there was a ski jumping club where they would jump in one of the canyons above the Capitol.”
Webb says one of the major reasons skiing in Utah took off was because of the influx of Scandinavian immigrants to Utah. The conversion movement to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brought over boatloads of Scandinavian and northern European converts, many of whom were skilled skiers and who brought their love and passion of the sport with them.
“By the 1920s the Wasatch Mountain Club was formed, and they did a lot of early back-country skiing,” continues Webb. “They skied all over the Wasatch, they would go from Park City over Guardsmen Pass down into Brighton where they built their cabin in the 1930s, and we have all their records.”
The Ski Archives also provides access to the Western Americana, which is part of the Special Collections department and specializes in collecting books on skiing. They have rare books from Europe about skiing that date back to the 1920s. Anytime a publication comes out with something about skiing, the Ski Archives will purchase it and add it to their ever-growing collection. They also subscribe to various magazines and newsletters, which make it one of the most comprehensive research libraries on the history of skiing in the world.
“Skiing is definitely a major industry in Utah, and we wanted to capture that while it was still there, because a lot of these things are an oral tradition that are stories that have been told on ski lifts, and now it’s been documented,” says Webb. “We have been able to get these stories on tape of people who have long since passed on about how they got started and what kind of obstacles they ran into and overcame. A lot of the time people are surprised that we are interested in this and want to collect their photographs or films, but they are always really grateful when we do.”
The Ski Archives provide more than just a glimpse into the past — they also have pictures and video of more modern ski activities. They are the repository for the 2002 Winter Olympics and have tens of thousands of digital images. They have everything the International Olympic Committee received from NBC — who filmed the entire Olympics — including all the still images and weeks’ worth of video they are still going through eleven years later. Additionally they received all the institutional records from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee from their bid and the games themselves.
“We work with people from all over the world. During the Olympics we gave out many photographs to people who were looking for pictures of Utah skiing,” says Webb. “Every time the subject of skiing in Utah comes up, we get a call from organizations like the BBC and European magazines. We have become the place where people come to when they think about skiing in Utah, especially in the past, we are the place people turn to.”
Similar to the ways in which baseball’s Hall of Fame has allowed fans to experience our national pastime, the Utah Ski Archives provides an opportunity for those who love skiing to truly connect with the history of the sport through words, pictures, and video as well an gain a understanding and appreciation for those who paved the way for skiing in Utah. The Utah pioneers may have discovered the Salt Lake Valley, but it was the hard work and vision of Utah’s skiing pioneers that have brought the attention of the world to Salt Lake’s doorstep.
(Photos courtesy Marriott Library Special Collections.)