Sixty years ago, a former president of the Spokane Ski Club came up with a harebrained idea.
Why not make a ski resort within city limits?
So in 1958, Don Katke started work on the City Ski Acres Resort. It was located just north of the current-day Joe Albi Stadium and was inside city limits.
Katke installed a 700-foot rope tow powered by a Cadillac engine, bought snowmaking equipment, leased land that is now the Fairmount Memorial Park and set up lights for night skiing.
He was in business, claiming that his modest resort was perfect for slalom racers and beginners. Plus, as he was proud to point out, it was the only resort west of the Mississippi within city limits and capable of making its own snow.
Two years later, Katke died and the resort closed.
This is just one of the many stories that fill a new book examining the surprisingly rich, and relatively unknown, history of Spokane-area skiing.
The 247-page “Spokane’s History of Skiing” is a meticulously researched examination of the history of skiing in the Inland Northwest.
“I wanted to show how Spokane’s history of skiing is significant both at the state and national as well as the international levels,” author Cris Currie said.
Currie, who has been the president of the Friends of Mt. Spokane State Park group since 1998, spent three years researching and writing the book.
Although often considered a backwater in the ski world, Currie points out that Mount Spokane, and the Spokane area, saw a number of skiing firsts. Those included the first ski jump in Washington, one of the nation’s largest all-volunteer ski patrols and, for many years, the longest lighted ski runs in the country.
But that’s the story of skiing in Spokane. Fast starts followed by mishap.
“We had this great start, but a lot of things didn’t work out very well,” he said.
On Mount Spokane itself, hopes for the area’s skiing future were never higher than in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A double chairlift started operation in 1947. But the lift was placed on the southern side of the mountain and was plagued with problems. Constant winds and snows buried the lift and destroyed aboveground power lines. The double lift, one of the first in the nation, was only operational for three seasons.
At roughly the same time the doomed lift closed, a magnificent expansion to the Grand Lodge was underway. The lodge, and its expansion, boasted a three-story, glassed-in stairwell and a knotty cedar interior reminiscent of famed National Parks lodges, and was “destined to make Mount Spokane a nationally known ski area.”
But disaster struck again when in 1952, the night before the lodge’s grand opening, a spark ignited leaking gasoline, sending flames 50 feet into the air.
The entire structure burned to the ground.
“The double whammy of losing the chairlift and losing the lodge right after it was just a huge blow, and we’ve never recovered from that, really,” Currie said. “The enthusiasm that both of those things generated just dissipated.”
Aside from the history, Currie had another reason for writing the book.
“I wanted to try and heal some of this ugly divisiveness that the Chair 6 expansion created in the Spokane community,” he said.
That of course was the decades long back-and-forth between the nonprofit Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, Washington State Parks and conservation organizations, regarding expanding the ski area onto the north side of Mount Spokane.
Currie said he didn’t support the expansion, but the process was fair, and he believes that understanding how the new runs came to be would go a long way in healing any residual anger about the outcome.
“It was as fair a process as I think it could have been,” Currie said.
The tension between recreation and resource protection is an important one to maintain. He said the government plays an integral role in that balance.
“Through all of that, I’ve come to feel really strongly that we can’t afford to get too frustrated with government,” he said, “because government is really essential to balance in all aspects of our society.”
Currie is hopeful that the story of Spokane skiing is only growing. He points to the increased popularity of Nordic skiing as a hopeful sign.
That, he said, shows the power of volunteers working with the government and nonprofits. He hopes that what momentum skiing has gained in the area will only grow.
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