The History of Squaw Valley
Olympic Valley, Calif.] In 1946, Alex Cushing traveled from the East Coast to the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a ski vacation that changed his life forever. Cushing, then a lawyer on Wall Street, has served in the Navy during World War II with wide authority and latitude and was ready for a change. "The war turned the world upside down and I was having a hard time adjusting", he recalls. The strain of duty left him with solid impressions of life's fragility and of the importance of living life to the fullest.
During his 1946 trip west, Alex broke his ankle while skiing at Sugar Bowl. As the fourth in the groups game of Bridge, his friends demanded that he stay. Always optimistic, Cushing contented himself relaxing on the sundeck and watching other skiers. While there, he heard a young man named Wayne Poulsen speak of a nearby place with the best skiing in the country. Intrigued by the claim, Cushing asked to see this place. The group, with Alex on crutches, made their way to the Valley where Alex watched his friends hike and ski the Squaw’s unparalleled peaks.
Returning to New York, Cushing could not shake his vision of Squaw Valley or the urge towards a life of greater meaning. “I realized that being a lawyer was alright, but you get into something you really like, and well, I saw how interesting work really could be.” Poulsen supplied the land and Cushing sought the financing. With a powerful dream and relentless determination, Cushing raised $400,000 from friends and family and set about the task that would change California’s history and the world’s ski industry.
On November 24, 1949, less than three years after his first visit, Alex Cushing opened Squaw Valley. Skiers could ride the world's largest double chairlift, Squaw One, and had a choice of two rope tows, including one known as "Little KT." At day's end, an unfinished Squaw Valley Lodge offered respite for those too weary to brave the rough-hewn roads.
"When we opened on Thanksgiving Day, the building was only 90% done" says Cushing. "It didn't have any water for example. Well, it is very hard to run a restaurant without water." Four days after Squaw Valley’s grand opening, a flood further complicated matters. Squaw Valley closed until Christmas and, in what would become typical fashion for the company, Cushing and his close-knit crew worked 18 hour days to re-open in time for the holidays. Cushing recalls his 1949 Christmas gift, when his accountant, Harold Ditmore, told him "You know, you are absolutely flat broke." Cushing's reply? "We'll manage."
As Squaw Valley was built, served by the two-lane Highway 40, the on dit in San Francisco was that no one would cross over Donner Pass just to ski. But cross they would, usually staying for a week, a month or the whole season. “They” would come to include legendary stars such as Norma Shearer, Clark Cable, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Ann Miller, Danny Kaye, Art Linkletter and other popular movie stars of the time. Hysterica skis were produced and presented by guests and employees at Bar One—sometimes accompanied by Alex on the piano.
But Squaw Valley’s beginnings were not all fun and games. In the first year, after already enduring a flood, the critical Squaw One chairlift was destroyed by an avalanche. Avalanches continue to wipe out the chair in both the mountain’s second and third year. During the fourth year, no avalanche destroyed the lift, but rather a devastating flood destroyed the road, bridge and access to the area. Finally, in the fifth year, the lodge burned down. For many these setbacks would have signaled the time to sell out. Instead, Cushing persevered and surprised millions that same year with his biggest coup ever—winning the bid for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.
The VIII Olympic Winter Games
Alex Cushing’s bid to host the 1960 Olympic Winter Games originally began as a plan to gain publicity for the resort. However, the announcement of the bid stirred so much excitement that Cushing saw the real potential of hosting the Olympic Games. What began as an impulsive idea quickly materialized into a feasible plan, and Squaw Valley, with only one chairlift and lodging for fifty, became a forerunner in run for the Olympic bid.
Cushing won over the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) with the idea of a California valley with an annual snowfall of 450 inches and downhill terrain that had never been successfully schussed, yet International Olympic Committee (IOC) members continued to remind Cushing that his case was hopeless. The European-dominated Federation Internationale du Ski (FIS) highly favored Innsbruck and remained committed to the Alps’ glory. However, Joe Marillac, a French resistance fighter turned Squaw Valley Ski School Director, convinced the FIS that Squaw Valley was an exciting and technically-challenging mountain rivaling even the steepest terrain the Alps had to offer.
Ultimately, Cushing’s campaign succeeded through the power of an idea—a return to the Olympic ideas of simplicity with a focus on athleticism, sportsmanship and diversity. Cushing’s bid, written in English, French and Spanish, noted Europe’s monopoly of the Winter Games and declared that “the Olympics belong to the world. Not just one continent.”
During the next four years, the Squaw Valley team, the California Organizing Committee, the state of California, Place County and thousands of others worked to build a venue worthy of the Olympics. Access roads, bridges, chair lifts, lodging, an ice rink, a speed skating oval and a ski jump all sprang from the Valley floor. Several original structures including the current Far East Center, Member’s Locker Room and Ski Rental Shop still remain today. In addition, the Olympic Village Lodge, where the athletes all dined together during the 1960 Games, still stands today as Squaw Valley’s corporate offices and conference center. The Squaw Valley Olympics was the first and only time in history when all the competitors lived and dined together under one roof.
The 1960 Winter Olympics were the first Olympics to be fully televised and the world’s eyes turned to Squaw Valley to witness America’s first Gold Medal in hockey as the young team went on to defeat first the Russians and then Czechoslovakia in the midst of the Cold War. That year, spectators also witnessed the first Olympic female speed skaters, the first artificially refrigerated ice surface and the first computer used to tabulate results.
The 1960 Olympic Winter Games brought commerce and infrastructure to the Lake Tahoe Area, turning a former summer vacation town into a renowned winter destination and transforming Squaw Valley, a small ski mountain with one chairlift and lodging for fifty, into a world-class ski resort. Since 1960, Squaw Valley has continued to thrive and is consistently ranked among the world’s top resorts. With 3,600 skiable acres across six peaks, North America’s most advanced lift network and some of the best lift accessed terrain in the world, Squaw Valley continues to inspire all of those who happen upon her majestic peaks—just as she once inspired one man to do the impossible.
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