A mountain transformed into a winter playground: lured by chairlifts and a striking lodge, skiers flock to Mount Ashland
September 30, 1999
By BILL KETTLER
Builders worked through the last days of 1963 to complete the Mount Ashland ski lodge before deep winter snows fell. (SOHS No. 13941)
Southern Oregon skiers had plenty to smile about when a downhill ski area opened on Mount Ashland in 1964.
The Mount Ashland Ski Area offered Rogue Valley skiers a convenient place to enjoy a sport that was gaining popularity across the United States in the 1960s. Rope tows hauled skiers to the top of the hills, sparing them the arduous work of climbing for each run.
And a striking new ski lodge near the summit of the highest mountain in the Siskiyous gave them a place to enjoy a hot meal and swap stories beside a warming fire.
The new ski area served a ski community that grew slowly during the 1950s, when a few dedicated skiers set up portable rope tows each weekend at Crater Lake National Park and near the Siskiyou Summit. Southern Oregon College offered ski classes every winter, turning out a fresh crop of eager young skiers every year.
“We’d set up (the portable rope tow) on different hills we could find,” said Dan Bulkley, a retired physical education instructor who taught ski classes at the college from 1952 to 1962.
One winter, Bulkley hauled the portable rope tow to a natural clearing on a saddle near the summit of Mount Ashland. Skiers enjoyed skiing there, and the views were spectacular. When talk began to surface about building a ski area in Southern Oregon, Bulkley and others suggested Mount Ashland would be the best site. The group that organized to fund the ski area included few skiers at first.
“In the beginning, it was simply businessmen who wanted to do something that was beneficial for Ashland,” said Cynthia Lord, of Ashland. “I was the only skier on the board and the only woman.”
The Mount Ashland Corporation raised enough money to put construction crews on the mountain during the summer of 1963. Lord recalled that Medford businessman Glenn Jackson provided more than half of the initial $120,000 to build the ski lodge.
Bulkley and others worked with chain saws and hand tools to clear trees and brush from the ski runs while construction crews labored over the four-story lodge.
Bulkley had an inspiration one day that helped name the ski runs.
“I thought we ought to tie the ski runs in with Ashland somehow,” he recalled. A ledge above him brought one of William Shakespeare’s plays to mind. “I saw it as a balcony and said ‘That’s Romeo,’ and the run beside it should be Juliet.”
Others also liked the idea of connecting the ski area to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Over the years new runs would take their name from some aspect of Shakespeare’s life or work.
Light snowfalls during November and December 1963 allowed construction crews to continue working on the lodge. Lord recalled that the building’s roof was built in sections on the ground and hoisted into place with a large crane.
The weight of the roof pieces proved too much for some of the equipment.
“We broke one crane,” Lord recalled, “because it was too cold. The steel was too brittle.”
The lodge and several ski trails were ready when a storm rolled in during the first days of 1964, and the ski area opened on Jan. 5. About 150 people christened the mountain.
“It was a beautiful day,” recalled Art Sideras, of Medford, who skied that opening day and has skied there every winter since.
“There was no big celebration,” said Lord. “People were so happy to ski that that was enough.”
Getting to the slopes required more effort that first winter than it does today. Skiers had to drive up Tolman Creek Road to Bull Gap along a narrow, one-lane unpaved road.
Traffic on the road was one-way — uphill in the morning and downhill in the afternoon.
“If you broke your leg,” said Sideras, “you didn’t come down until after one o’clock.”
Avid skiers got plenty of practice mounting tire chains that winter, Bulkley recalled putting on his tire chains — and taking them off — 82 times that winter.
By the following winter, construction crews had finished the road that skiers still use to reach the mountain. Money to build the road came from Jackson County’s share of profits from timber sales on forests managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
|Skiers were willing to mug for the camera from Mount Ashland’s earliest days.|
The ski area passed through several owners during the 1970s and ‘80s, always struggling to earn enough money to stay in business. In 1992 ownership passed to the Mount Ashland Association, a publicly-owned nonprofit corporation which still operates it.
Some families have put three generations of skiers on the mountain during its 35 years.
“It’s been a fun little mountain to come to,” said Sideras, now a grandfather. “It’s turned out some good skiers.”