How it all began: Grand County the birthplace of Colorado’s ski industry
December 21, 2017
It started with John Peyer.
Peyer was a Hot Sulphur Springs resident who worked as an agent for a development company based out of Denver. In 1911, he had an idea to help sell real estate: throw a winter carnival. The celebration would take place right in Hot Sulphur Springs, and would feature Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and bobsledding.
The idea wasn't completely novel. Recreational skiing had been at least a niche hobby since the 1880s and similar events had already been held in Grand Lake and Crested Butte. But Peyer had something else in mind for his carnival. He wanted to start an industry.
"There were several other kinds of events around Colorado in the 1880s, but it didn't go anywhere and died off," said Tim Nicklas, historian and director of the Pioneer Village Museum in Hot Sulphur Springs. "It wasn't for tourism. That's where Hot Sulphur Springs was different. It was specifically for creating winter tourism.
“It was the one that got skiing as a tourism industry going in Colorado. It set a precedent. It set a mark. It was what all other places in Colorado aspired to be.” - Tim Nicklas
"Before that 1911 event winter was dead in Hot Sulphur and all mountain towns. People either locked themselves up in their homes or they would leave the mountains in the winter."
And it begins
In October 1911, a group of Hot Sulphur citizens led by Peyer gathered for the express purpose of bringing tourism to the town during the winter months. The carnival was the what. The railroad was the how.
"Before having the railroad there was no way they could have done such a thing at that time," said Nicklas. "Nobody was driving to the mountains in the winter. Period."
Peyer spread the news, giving interviews and taking out ads in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News. On the last weekend of December, the Denver news media along with visitors from all over Colorado descended on the small mountain town to witness the first Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Carnival.
Patrons enjoyed the usual winter activities, and were thrilled with something new. Carl Howelson and Angell Schmidt, two Norwegian immigrants, introduced Colorado to ski jumping for the first time.
Howelson immigrated to the United States via Chicago in 1904, where he worked as a stonemason. Already a champion skier in Norway, Howelson was recruited by the Barnum and Bailey Circus as a ski jumper, billed as The Flying Norseman. He moved to Denver in 1908 where he continued working as a stonemason and began searching for skiing territory. He eventually landed in Hot Sulphur Springs, where he dazzled residents with his stunt.
Howelson's jump was the marquee event of the first carnival, and it was such a hit that the Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Sports Council decided to hold another carnival just six weeks later, and create a continuing event. On the weekend of Feb. 12, 1912 the first annual Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Carnival was held, and an industry was born.
Putting Grand County on the map
"It just took off from there," said Nicklas. "Hot Sulphur Springs became one of the centers of skiing in the western United States. … Howelson is credited as the grandfather of skiing in Colorado. Because he was a big time promoter of skiing. It was his passion, and it was under him that the Colorado ski industry really took off."
Nicklas also credits Howelson, at least in part, with the birth of Winter Park Resort.
"In 1913 there was a major snowstorm in Colorado that put feet upon feet of snow up here and everywhere in the mountains," he said. "George Cranmer, the founder of Winter Park, was out that day near Capitol Hill in Denver. He saw one person getting around really easily on the snow, and it was Carl Howelson on skis. Howelson hands him his skis and shows him how to ski, and that started Cranmer's interest in skiing right there."
While Peyer and Howelson are credited as the key figures in the creation of the Colorado ski industry, several other important figures came out of the winter carnival including Colorado Ski Hall of Fame inductee Barney McLean; the first winter Olympian from Colorado, Jim Harsh; and Thor Groswold, founder of the Groswold Ski Company.
The carnival continued to gain popularity, peaking on the 25th annual celebration when the town welcomed 8,000 guests a day over the three day event. The carnival began to fade by 1940, unable to compete with the resources of Winter Park Resort, and was ultimately crushed by the second World War.
"It was the opening of Winter Park that caused the collapse of Hot Sulphur Springs as a major ski center," said Nicklas. "It couldn't compete with location. Winter Park was right there when you came out of the Moffat Tunnel or coming over Berthoud Pass. And with the snow and terrain there was really no comparison."
Hot Sulphur Springs attempted to revive their ski industry in 1947 with the opening of the Snow King Valley ski area. While the opening day was a major event, bringing major faces from the skiing industry into town, including nearly the entire U.S. Olympic Ski Team, the new ski area lasted only three seasons.
While the Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Carnival would eventually fade into history, its mark on the town and the Colorado ski industry is undeniable and long lasting.
"This town never lost its ski culture," said Nicklas. "It was the one that got skiing as a tourism industry going in Colorado. It set a precedent. It set a mark. It was what all other places in Colorado aspired to be."
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