History of Schweitzer Mountain and Skiing in North Idaho

History of Schweitzer Mountain and Skiing in North Idaho

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While the art of winter sports has now evolved to fantastic levels, early Indians in North Idaho were adept at ice fishing and certainly made snow shoes to facilitate the winter hunt and travel. Our area was settled much by German and Scandinavian stock, as well as the early French trappers, priests, and settlers. So, it was a natural that the descendants of these settlers followed with skiing the area. Snow skiing originated from two geographic groups: Alpine and Nordic, much like our ancestors. Nordic skiing is the oldest category and includes sport that evolved from skiing as done in Scandinavia. Nordic style ski bindings attach at the toes of the skier’s ski boots, but not at the heels. Alpine skiing includes sports that evolved from skiing as done in the Alps. Alpine bindings attach at both the toe and the heel of ski boots. These two categories overlap with some sports potentially fitting into both. However, binding style and history indicate that each skiing sport is more one than the other. Some skiing sports such as Telemark skiing have elements of both categories, but its history in Telemark, Norway and free-heel binding style place Telemark skiing firmly in the Nordic category.

Now, our area has much more to offer than just traditional skiing. There is cross country skiing, ice skating, hunting, sledding, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and a bevy of other winter sports. Still, Schweitzer Mountain has become one of the nation’s premier ski resorts, and that is the primary winter activity. However, Schweitzer Mountain was not the first ski area in Idaho. The first was in Ketchum, Idaho in 1936, and Sun Valley has the further distinction of having the very first chair lift.

Our area saw its first skiing in the Schweitzer basin in 1933, but those intrepid fans did so by hiking to a point, then sliding back to the foot of the mountain, often on wooden slats tied to their boots. In the 1950s, a group of friends, ski enthusiasts, and volunteers cleared the wooded hillside two miles west of Sandpoint around Pine Hill. They rigged up a rope tow powered by the wheel rim of a jacked up car, and the area’s first groomed ski slope became reality. Unfortunately, skiing conditions at Pine Hill were less than perfect. Even though the crude rope tow was soon replaced by a permanent two-chair lift powered by an old Dodge engine, the hill was not high enough in altitude to guarantee a season-long coating of snow, and a warmed-up car and thermos remained the only amenities skiers could expect following a run down the slope.

While many might have seen the bowl-shaped potential of Schweitzer as a possible ski haven, the idea of a ski resort came when Dr. Jack Fowler, a Spokane dentist, was returning from a ski outing at Big Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Montana. From Highway 200, Schweitzer looms up clearly, and displays the bowl during mile after mile of the drive. Awed by the beauty of Schweitzer Mountain’s snowy mountaintop, the picture of a premier ski resort came shortly after. In 2002, Jack Fowler celebrated his 80th birthday. As a tribute to Schweitzer’s founding father, a new run, “Jack’s Dream,” was built close to where the first handle tow was built some 40 years ago

Fowler’s companion on that skiing trip was Grant Groesbech, a Spokane architect. These two, along with Sandpoint businessman Jim Brown, and others, began developing Schweitzer in 1963. The partnership was formed, and they went on a mission to secure loans, investing their own money, and raising additional funds from the people of Sandpoint. Fowler generated support with ski enthusiasts, and Groesbeck went to other ski resorts gathering info and knowledge to help with the new Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort. They pooled their resources to buy the acreage encompassing the bowl, packed in equipment and provisions to establish a base camp at the foot of the basin, and began exploring the slopes to map out future runs. Construction on the mountain began in 1961 on the ski runs and road up the mountain. The tubular steel towers to support the mile-long double chair was constructed, and electricity was brought up the mountain for the lodge and lift motors. By the summer of 1963 before construction was finished, Canadian ski enthusiast Sam Wormington had been named as the first manager of the Schweitzer basin. He had built and managed the North Star ski area in Kimberly, British Columbia. It was through the knowledge and tireless efforts of Wormington that the foundation was laid for the Schweitzer of today. On November 30, 1963 the resort proudly opened with a day lodge and a mile long double chair lift. With the exception of one good year, the resort/area made no profit. It was supposed to be operated as a weekend resort, but ended up opening seven days a week.

By the end of 1963, over twelve hundred acres of the bowl were groomed and ready with three 2,000′ runs from timberline to the lodge, miles of trails, and parking for 500 cars. The Sandpoint News Bulletin devoted their entire weekly issue to the resort’s upcoming Thanksgiving Day grand opening. Renowned international ski racer Tammy Dix was set to christen the slopes with the first downhill run of the day. And, Idaho Governor Robert Smylie sent out invitations to dignitaries around the world, including two notables who shared the resort’s name, Pierre-Paul Schweitzer, then Chairman of the World Monetary Fund, and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who had won the Nobel Prize for his humanitarian endeavors in Africa. The latter being, of course, one of our great figures in history. And one might think, hearing the name ‘Schweitzer,’ that it is named after some royalty, or great person or family, but the truth is something else.

(The following in segment is taken from Sandpoint.com’s The History of Schweitzer Mountain)

An Encounter with a Strange Hermit

It was on a summer morning in 1893, while riding her well-mannered little filly, Nelly, to work, that Ella Mae first encountered a strange individual, dressed in some sort of well-worn military uniform, standing trailside at strict attention, musket at his side, as she passed. This went on for a few days, until one morning, he instead stepped out onto the trail, and taking Nelly by the reigns, led the pony about a half a mile along the path, before letting go and disappearing back into the woods.

When she told her husband and son Earl about this strange occurrence, young Earl said that it sounded a lot like a “friendly old hermit named Schweitzer” who lived alone in a small cabin near where he and his friend Harry Nesbit liked to fish. This took the edge off of Ella Mae’s concern, but she took to running Nelly through that section of woods anyway.

Then, not long thereafter, the man showed up at the railroad station during Ella Mae’s shift. Speaking in a thick Swiss accent, he informed her that he had come to seek her advice regarding his intention to kill a local settler, and take the settler’s wife as his own. Ella Mae made eloquent argument intended to dissuade the man from this plan, and after he had left, sent a warning to the settler that he was the target of a murder plot.

The next morning, Schweitzer came back to the station to tell Ella Mae that he had decided to take her advice and not follow through on his plan, and that because Ella Mae was both younger and prettier than his other intended bride, it was his intention to carry her off instead.

Unarmed and alone at the little station, and not a soul within earshot, Ella Mae decided to put on a front of bravado.

Standing up, she began loudly berating the man. “Schweitzer, you know I have a husband of my own, and am a respectable woman, and you cannot talk to me as you are doing!” she exclaimed. “Let me tell you my husband and the railroad company will fix you if you carry me off.” He stood there silently for what seemed an eternity. Then, tipping his hat to her, he politely answered. “Well, for the present, we will drop the matter.”

From that day forward Ella Mae kept a six-gun alongside her bible in the drawer next to the telegraph machine, and L.D. immediately contacted the nearest railway agent at the Spokane office who, accompanied by the County Sheriff and a doctor from Rathdrum, arrived the following day to look into the affair. Upon entering the recluse’s cabin, located near where Bronx Road now crosses Schweitzer Creek, they found the hides of numerous cats nailed to the walls, and a pot full of cats boiling on the stove for the man’s supper, thereby solving the mystery of the recent disappearances of numerous of the town’s pets. Schweitzer was taken into custody, remanded to the “county farm” for observation, and later committed to an “insane asylum” where, as Ella Mae put it, “He lived out the rest of his life a dangerous and raving lunatic.” And, to this day, Earl and Harry’s favorite fishing spot has been known as Schweitzer Creek, and the mountain above, Schweitzer Mountain.

The Jim Brown Years

Brown had long been aware of Schweitzer’s potential as a ski area. He had been skiing the area since the age of 16. As a young man he would hike the Schweitzer and Colburn bowls in the early 1930’s. He had few doubts about the potential of the area for skiing.

A few years after Schweitzer’s modest beginnings, Jim Brown bought out his partners and began to expand the resort, and Schweitzer became a family run business. Over time more lifts were added, and in 1971 the Colburn basin was developed. He added a double chairlift, built the Red Cricket apartment complex, and constructed a day lodge at the base of the mountain. Brown greatly increased the attraction of Schweitzer and the surrounding Sandpoint community. During his ownership, he was credited for starting Schweitzer summer lifts for mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts in 1985, and for hosting the first Festival at Sandpoint in 1986, our world-famous annual music festival showcasing international and local composers, as well as performing artists. Two years later the resort was offering hiking trains and mountain bike rentals.

Before Jim Brown died in 1989 he had spent three years training his daughter, Bobbie Huguenin, to take over the family business. While running the family business with her husband, Pierre and others, many additions and improvements were implemented at the resort. Her focus was on making Schweitzer a destination resort; she removed the old lodge and replaced it with a new three story Headquarters Day Lodge. The Great Escape detachable quad chair was installed in 1991, and lights were installed for night skiing. Huguenin also saw the construction of the 82 room Green Gables Lodge. Revenues never increased to levels anticipated by the Brown family, and the resort eventually was turned over to its institutional owners. Schweitzer didn’t have another private owner until two years later.

The Harbor Years

In November 1996 the resort was put into receivership, filing for bankruptcy the following year. On December 31, 1998, Harbor Properties purchased Schweitzer Mountain Resort from U.S. Bank for the sum of $18 million. The Seattle-based company, operators of Stevens Pass Ski Area and Mission Ridge (sold in 2003) ski areas in Washington, made immediate improvements by providing equipment for slope management. It spent the summer of 1999 remodeling Selkirk Lodge (formerly called the Green Gables Lodge), rebuilding and lighting the Terrain Park, installing two new handle lifts, improving local roads, and expanding the beginner ski area. A six-passenger chairlift (Stella) was installed in the summer of 2000 serving the base of Colburn Basin. The lift, housed by a 19th century cable carriage barn complete with steaming boilers and spinning gears, takes visitors back in time as they anticipate their ascent of Schweitzer’s summit. Stella greatly improves guest access to more than 150 acres of Schweitzer terrain called The Northwest Territory. More than that, it provides Schweitzer visitors a unique visual and emotional experience. The one-mile ride to the top climbs more than 1,500 feet in just five-and-a-half minutes. Along the way, visitors have plenty of time to take in the striking Idaho scenery. With the addition of Stella, Idaho’s only high-speed, 6-passenger chairlift, the resort totaled 2500 acres. Finally, for the 2005-06 season, Schweitzer added a T-bar to Little Blue Mountain, a locals’ favorite hike-out. The expansion added 400 acres and five new runs.

In May 2001, construction began on White Pine Lodge, formerly Headquarters Lodge at the resort. The 75,000-square-foot guest lodge, which opened in August 2002, features 50 luxury condominium units, various shops and restaurants, and two floors of underground guest parking.

Harbor made other improvements to Schweitzer’s facilities, and resort operations, service and amenities, and on-mountain food and beverage. They renovated the Chimney Rock Grill, a full-service restaurant in the heart of Schweitzer Village, then added the Schweitzer Activity Center, which offers year round mountain activities for younger children, and refuge, a new center for pre-teens and teens, as well as guided tours of Schweitzer’s backside, where an estimated 300 inches of powder fall each year.

Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort Today

A new group of Seattle investors took over the resort in 2006-07 season, bringing the resort to even greater prominence. That year Schweitzer had a record season in attendance and revenue, while worldwide ski resorts suffered from lack of snow and skiers.

Schweitzer’s village currently has two lodges: The Selkirk Lodge (owned by Red Lion Hotels) and The White Pine Lodge. There is one day lodge housing Guest Services, a Cafeteria, and a coffee shop. There are numerous condos, both privately owned and available for rent. There is a Chapel with a youth center available for groups that sleeps over 40, and a new restaurant by the chapel called St. Bernard.

On February 15, 2007, Schweitzer announced an ambitious expansion program. Included is a $6 Million lift expansion. This includes replacing the original lift, Chair One, with two lifts: A high speed detachable quad and a fixed grip triple lift. The names of the new lifts are Basin Express and Lakeview Triple. The Basin Express uses the old Chair 7 liftline. Also included is a Lakeview Lodge remodel, increases snowmaking and new grooming capacity, not to mention $2 Million in spending for future expansion to the resort.

So, what had been a small mountain above the ramshackle cabin of an old hermit named ‘Schweitzer,’ is now a world-class resort just named to the Top 25 Resorts in Ski Magazine. This largest and most highly rated resort in the Inland Northwest has over 2,900 acres, the new Little Blue Ridge run offering almost 2 miles of continuous downhill skiing, and nine different lifts including: a high-speed six-pack; a high-speed quad; four double chairlifts; one handle tow; a new T-Bar, and a new Magic Carpet that will gently whisk beginners up to a gradual learning slope, without ever having to take their feet off the ground. There is no shortage of skiing variety either, with 67 trails, open bowl skiing, and 32 kilometers of cross country ski trails maintained daily.

Plus, present-day Schweitzer offers year-round fun. There are miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, huckleberry picking, and scenic chairlift rides, Frisbee golf, paintball, as well as a variety of concerts and other events, not to mention superb cuisine ranging from gourmet pizza to world-class dining. Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort has become a year-round destination for locals and visitors alike.

More than that, the one constant that inspires and rules is the awesome lake view, with multiple ranges in the background. Skiing is great, the people are among the world’s friendliest, and life is good on Schweitzer Mountain, just above Sandpoint, the Best Small Town in the West, overlooking majestic Lake Pend Oreille.


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