By Amelie Trufant Dawson
When you think of Montana ski resorts, Butte may not be the first area that comes to mind.
But a lot of lives have been touched by a homegrown effort back in the 1930s to build Montana's first ski area. The Beef Trail ski area was the innovation of the Butte Ski Club, a group of ski enthusiasts with connections to the Anaconda Company in Butte. The ski area's history has been told in the documentary "The Beef Trail: A Pioneering Montana Ski Area," produced and directed by Terry Lonner of Media Works in Bozeman.
The ski area got going when mines were booming and cattle drives between Dillon and Butte brought cattle over a small pass south of Butte; hence the name "Beef Trail."
"This was Montana's first major ski area," Lonner said. "It was a major effort by the community."
The 960- acre parcel of land about five miles southwest of Butte was bought by the Butte Ski Club in 1937. After the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., ski jumping was becoming more popular and jumps began popping up around the country. Even Butte had a ski jump, but there were still no alpine ski areas in Montana. Butte had been a fast-growing community and immigrants were arriving daily to work in the mines. Norwegian immigrants, in particular, were bringing with them a love of skiing.
The Beef Trail is on a ridge between the Dillon and Butte valleys
It was Casper Oimoen who really put the Beef Trail on the map. Oimoen was captain of the U.S. Olympic team in 1936 and was putting on a exhibition in early 1930s when one of the Anaconda Co. officials asked him to come to anaconda. Oimoen agreed, and the official got him a job as a mason, Lonner said. Oimoen built a large ski jumping hill in Anaconda, and one south of Butte. "One thing led to another, and they bought this area south of Butte and turned it into quite a hill," Lonner said.
Oimoen had been the featured jumper at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair tournament. A story carried in The Chicago Herald and Examiner prior to the event reads: "The desire to dethrone Casper Oimoen, whose reign as champion of Chicago tournaments is becoming too despotic to suit his rivals, will make for some daring jumps for distance in the central championship duel. Oimoen, who has won six consecutive championships here, will find the entire field arrayed against him. But this daring fellow has won more titles throughout the country than any other skier and should be well able to defend his laurels."
In 1963, Oimoen was inducted into the United States Skiing Hall of Fame, credited for initiating the forward lean to ski jumping in America. Eric D. Hohman, archivist of early-day United States ski jumping, writes: "Over the course of Oimoen's career, which spanned from the late 1920s through the 1930s, he won 95 percent of all of the meets he entered.... When he jumped 255 feet at the Western U.S. Ski Jumping Championships at Big Pines, Calif., in 1935, he shattered the American distance record by 15 feet."
The pioneers who built the Beef Trail did so on an entirely volunteer basis.
It was a community project and the founders of the Butte Ski Club went to work moving rock, breaking trails and building structures and roads. They built a 900-foot rope tow powered by a Model A Ford engine and opened the ski hill to an excited crowd in 1939. the hill had about 1,500 feet of vertical drop.
The nonprofit organizational structure was so successful for the Beef Trail that Bridger Bowl ski area in Bozeman patterned its organization around it, Lonner said. The ski area was also instrumental in getting skiing to be recognized as a high school varsity sport in Montana. Beef Trail officials petitioned the Montana High School Association for skiing to become a varsity sport, and were successful. The ski area produced several state champions over the years, although skiing is no longer a sport sanctioned by the high school association.
The Beef Trail expanded through the years, adding more rope tows and a T-bar, lights for night skiing and a groomer - even snowmaking. Eventually, in the late 80s, however, the good things came to an inevitable end. After enjoying a great ascent in popularity over 50 years, the ski area suffered because of a few years' closings due to a lack of snow. The addition of nearby Discovery, Maverick Mountain and Bridger Bowl also contributed to the Beef Trail's demise, according to Lonner.
While the Beef Trail is now defunct, the Butte Ski Club continues to introduce the children of Butte to skiing. After the sale of the Beef Trail in 1990, the Butte Ski Club Charitable Foundation was formed and now pays for ski trips to nearby Discovery Basin for local school children, Lonner said.
"For a lot of those kids, that's the farthest they've ever been from Butte," Lonner said. "It was a community project to begin with, and it still is. It's encouraging people to ski."
The ski area went the way of the Columbia Gardens, a huge amusement park in Butte that was started in the early 1900s by William Clark of the Anaconda Co. Montana Power and the Anaconda Co. were major supporters in providing equipment and manpower to help build and maintain it, according to Lonner. The ski area, like Columbia Gardens, was a playground for officials of the Anaconda Co., but it faced the same demise, Lonner said. "The company giveth and the company taketh away," he said.
Lonner's one-hour documentary includes nostalgic, grainy black and white footage of men and women tied onto long wooden skis with single leather straps and huge smiles on their faces as they careen down the ungroomed hill and over 40-meter jumps. Interviews with original members of the Butte Ski Club are mixed with interviews with later generations whose lives were so clearly touched by learning to ski at the Beef Trail. Lonner follows the history not only of the Butte Ski Club and the Beef Trail, but also the history of skiing in Montana.
"The Beef Trail: A Pioneering Montana Ski Area" originally aired on Montana PBS on Nov. 20, 2003. Copies of the documentary are available on the web at www.butteskiclub.org.