The lost winter playground of the Skyliners
Last updated 4/18/2023 at 6:16pm
The idea took shape during a mountain tragedy.
An early snowstorm in the fall of 1927 surprised two young climbers in the Three Sisters Wilderness. When their Model T was found days later, a rescue was organized which drew Oregon's finest skiers and mountaineers to remote Frog Camp, off the summit of McKenzie Pass, near Sisters.
Among the best were four recent immigrants, lumber mill workers from Bend: Norwegians Chris Kostol, Nels Skjersaa, and Nils Wulfsberg, and Swede Emil Nordeen. They came from Scandinavian cultures that valued winter sports and outdoor living. They joined the rescue mission and searched the mountains in the worst conditions, earning praise for their skill and strength. Nights around the campfires at Frog Camp were brainstorming sessions on how to grow winter sports in the area.
The search for the two young men was fruitless and the rescuers disbanded.
As they left Frog Camp on their way back to Bend, the group, later called "The Four Musketeers of the Mountains," would have crossed the toe slopes of the shield volcano called Black Crater, northwest of Sisters.
When they returned to Bend, they decided to form "The Skyliners Club," and three months later, it became one of the first organized winter sports clubs in the region.
The Skyliners built on a trend starting in the 1920s and '30s in areas of the West where the timber industry and snowy winter landscapes overlapped and where Scandinavian loggers and mill workers enjoyed winter sports. The Bend Chamber of Commerce quickly realized the benefit of a longer tourist season and supported the club.
Three "winter playgrounds" were planned, the first on McKenzie Pass, eight miles west of Sisters on the slopes of Black Crater. Amazingly, when it opened in December 1928, it was the first developed ski area in Central Oregon. The McKenzie site included a thrilling ski jump and a wild 900-foot toboggan run in a snow-covered wooden trough. Under good conditions, toboggan speeds could reach over 35 miles per hour. It was very popular with non-skiers, and a second, milder run was soon built near the lodge.
The Shevlin-Hickson and Brooks-Scanlon mills took a special interest in the club, where many of their workers and staff socialized across social divides. The mills supplied lumber for a ski jump and a cozy lodge, with a fireplace where you could warm up after a toboggan run through the woods or a cross-country ski up the road toward Windy Point.
The Skyliners held a "Winter Carnival" in January of 1930. It was widely advertised to other ski clubs across the region and 2,000 people gathered to watch the first big ski tournament ever held in Central Oregon. Archival films show ski jumpers sailing through the air, sometimes over 100 feet, to cheering crowds, and steep toboggan runs through the woods.
In September 1930, the Brooks-Scanlon newsletter, the "Deschutes Pine Echoes," reported a new ski jump being built and work being done to improve the safety of the toboggan run. Another room was being added to the lodge.
More details come from historian Steve Stenkamp, who specializes in lost things: ski areas, tree lookouts, trappers' and miners' cabins, and other traces of the past. He knows of 43 other ski areas in Oregon that no longer exist, four on the Willamette side of the McKenzie Highway. Stenkamp knows the McKenzie site well and explained, "The lodge was actually built in two phases. The first lodge was too small so they added on an L-shaped wing."
The Skyliners McKenzie Playground was active for about seven years, but lost popularity as the Great Depression hit because of the cost to travel from Bend. To add to the challenge, the roads were not always plowed and the snowpack was inconsistent at 4,200 feet elevation. By 1934 the Skyliners were looking for a new spot closer to Bend, and by 1935 they had abandoned the McKenzie Pass location and used work-relief monies from the Federal Government's Works Progress Administration to build the rustic lodge that stands to this day on Tumalo Creek. The U.S. Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps also helped build the site.
The Tumalo Playground had an ice-skating rink, warming hut, two ski jumps, night skiing, cross-country trails, and two rope tows. Then Pearl Harbor happened in 1941, and everything went on a long pause for World War II.
After about six years, soldiers trickled back. The Tumalo site remained popular until 1958 when Mt. Bachelor opened and became the ultimate winter playground under guidance of 10th Mountain Division veteran Bill Healy. The Skyliners helped train ski champions for years and finally merged with Mount Bachelor Ski Education Foundation in 1986, and no longer exist as a separate entity.
The developments on the McKenzie appear to have been dismantled or recycled long ago. And burned over. Unfortunately, the Milli Fire of 2017 swept across the ridge and consumed many wooden traces. Wildland-fire-qualified archeologists surveyed the site to document what they could as the fire was heading toward it. They found traces of milled lumber and a few bolts.
Despite the loss of its structures, Sisters Ranger District Archeologist Mike Boero believes it's an important place.
"I think it holds significance for the community as far as its role in the beginnings of winter sport culture here in Sisters Country and Central Oregon," he said. "The setting and the location are still there. It holds a special place in what it means for skiing history."