Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Crowd watches as a ski jumper attempts a jump. © Dorothy Ferguson

A ski meet gets athletes jumping at Peninsula State Park in 1939.
© Dorothy Ferguson

February 2014

Back in the day

A heyday for tobogganing and ski jumping.

Kathryn A. Kahler

Weíre hoping this new column — featuring images from the Department of Natural Resources' vast archive of black and white photos — will not only bring back good memories, but give perspective for the future. So take a trip with us back in time to the 1930s and 1940s, two decades when money was scarce and reckless abandon ran rampant — at least by todayís standards.

Two winter sports – tobogganing and ski jumping – were in their heyday and were so popular that the Wisconsin Conservation Department (Department of Natural Resources' predecessor) built slides in some state parks to accommodate enthusiasts. Early advocates of winter sports hoped to lift citizens out of the doldrums of the war years and the Great Depression by promoting the physical and mental health benefits of these thrilling activities. Of course, the economic benefits were a major appeal as well.

Peninsula State Park was home to the "Big Slide," a 70-foot ski jump with a 145-foot runway built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the spring of 1936 between Skyline Trail and Hidden Bluff Road, near Svenís Tower. The park hosted many tournaments and ski meets from 1937 through 1942, attracting hundreds of skiers and thousands of spectators who paid 50 cents (15 cents for children) to see young men and women fly gracefully through the air.

But attendance began to dwindle in the early 1940s and 1943 saw the last meet held at the park. In his book about the parkís history ("Door Countyís Emerald Treasure"), William H. Tishler said, "Sadly, it would be the last ski meet at the Big Slide, where so many grand jumping events had taken place. Because of safety concerns, shortly after the war the long slide was condemned and dismantled, and the sport began to decline in Door County," making way for modern activities like cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

Around the same time, toboggan slides were the rage across the nation and the Wisconsin Conservation Department built one in Peninsula, and another in Devilís Lake State Park at the end of the moraine at the north end of the lake. It was maintained by a group of young men from Sauk County hired by the National Youth Administration.

Park Naturalist Sue Johansen reports that "beginning in January 1939, the run was illuminated at night with the lights used by Baraboo during the holiday season around the courthouse square and along city streets. A park truck transported people who had used the run back to the top of the hill. It was enclosed with sideboards and iced. Speeds of up to 65 to 70 mph were clocked. One day in January 1940, when it was closed, several kids went down it; they hit a snowdrift near the bottom and were thrown. One of the riders – the daughter of a local chiropractor – was killed. The tragedy didnít cause the run to be abandoned, but it was closed about a year later."

So, thatís it for our trip back in time. Next issue, weíll take a look at some celebrities who visited our state and wet a line in Wisconsinís pristine waters.

Kathryn A. Kahler is an editorial writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.