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Sky Tavern In 1945: Running A Ski Resort Without Electricity

Photo by Jimmie Smith courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

Ski season is officially underway in Reno-Tahoe. Today, historian Alicia Barber looks back at the early days of the area’s ski industry in this episode of “Time and Place.”

It’s that time of year when a certain slice of the population dashes to the window every morning, hoping to be greeted by the sight of fresh flakes falling from the sky. That’s right, it’s ski season. And today’s resorts generally run like clockwork, every day whisking thousands of skiers high up the mountain in electric-powered chair lifts and sending them down slopes that are flattened and smoothed every night by massive grooming machines.

It’s no small task. But for sheer human effort, today’s preparations are nothing compared to what resort operators had to go through 70 or 80 years ago when the industry was just getting started.

Keston Ramsey opened the Sky Tavern Ski Area, just off the Mt. Rose Highway that runs between Reno and Lake Tahoe, in December of 1945. At the time, the resort had a couple of rope tows and a T-bar lift, where you wrapped one leg around an upside down metal T attached to a moving cable and let it pull you up the slope.

Credit Courtesy the Keston Ramsey collection
Keston Ramsey skiing Ramsey’s run at Mt. Rose, named after him, in the early 1970's.

Interviewed in 1983 by the University of Nevada Oral History Program, Ramsey explained that getting all that equipment up and running was a bit more complicated than just flipping a switch.

“We had no electricity; we had a generator, which generated our power, so all the ski lifts had to be operated with gasoline motors, which meant that we had to pack the gasoline up every morning. And we had no telephone for two years, so the conditions were pretty primitive there. It wasn’t until five years after we opened before we could convert the lifts over to electricity.”

And the job didn’t end with lugging gasoline up the hill. The next challenge was transforming a mountainside of fresh snow into a smooth run for skiers to glide down.

“We had no grooming equipment. Everything had to be done by hand. We’d have to round up a bunch of skiers and some of the ski patrol, take them up on the T-Bar and let them side-slip down the hill to pack the slope.”

Credit Courtesy the Keston Ramsey collection
Keston Ramsey (left), wife Carlisle Ramsey, and Sky Tavern partners Ruth and George Test at Christmas dinner, 1949.

Today’s resort operators may not consider those the good old days, but there’s one aspect of the early experience that today’s skiers would surely welcome. The price to ski both the T-bar and rope tows at Sky Tavern in 1945? A whopping one dollar and fifty cents. It’s a shame that some things don’t stay frozen.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. Keston Ramsey’s entire oral history, conducted by the University of Nevada Oral History Program in 1983, can be read here.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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