Skiing at Birch Hill in Fairbanks dates back to the 1930s
With skiing’s long history in Nordic countries, it is not surprising the Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Finns entering Alaska at the turn of the 20th century brought their skiing traditions with them. According to Elizabeth Tower’s book, “Skiing in Alaska,” the 1899 Nome Gold Rush brought hundreds of Nordic prospectors (and their skis) to the Seward Peninsula. Cross-country skiing and ski jumping became popular winter recreation there. Leonhard Seppala, who later re-located to the Fairbanks area, was one of Nome’s early ski jumping champions.
After Seward Peninsula gold fever died down, many Nordic gold-seekers settled in Fairbanks. Skiing events were held sporadically, but the sport did not take off until the 1930s.
Tower states that part of skiing’s rising popularity in Fairbanks was because of the arrival of Ivar Skarland at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in 1931. Skarland came as a student, graduating in 1935. An excellent skier, he taught fellow students the sport and helped develop ski trails on campus.
Another factor was the 1932 Winter Olympic Games held at Lake Placid, New York. The first Winter Olympics held in North America, it helped popularize winter sports across the nation.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner articles from the early 1930s mention ski races from downtown Fairbanks to the college and back during the annual Fairbanks Ice Festival. At some point in the mid-1930s, however, the Ice Festival race course changed, making Birch Hill the mid-way point.
This probably coincided with the organization of the Fairbanks Ski Club in the winter 1935-36, with Leonhard Seppala as its first president. The club blazed ski trails on 10 acres of gentle slope on the southwestern edge of Birch Hill and erected a 24-foot by 24-foot ski hut constructed of round logs with saddle-notched corners, topped with a steeply-pitched hipped roof. A 1930s photograph shows the cabin with about two-dozen pairs of skis stuck in the snow outside.
By winter 1936-37, skiers were avidly ski jumping and traversing trails at Birch Hill. A Feb. 1, 1937, editorial in the News-Miner boasted of 250 skiers who had frolicked at Birch Hill the day before.
Those early Birch Hill trails were located on what used to be the northeast corner of Melvin Sabin’s homestead. Melvin died in 1930, and Tony Zimmerman bought 47 acres of the former homestead (including the ski area) in 1937—transforming it into Birch Hill Cemetery a year later.
Zimmerman acknowledged that the ski trails and cabin would have to move. However, he planned to move the cabin to a nearby location and said there was plenty of room to the east for ski trails.
The ski trails did indeed move eastward — to sections of Birch Hill that eventually became part of Fort Wainwright. Many of the new trails were cut by volunteers while others were cut by Civilian Conservation Corps crews. A rope-tow and ski jump were also constructed. Some of the original ski trails are now part of the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Birch Hill Recreation Area.
The ski club’s cabin was still at Birch Hill in 1939, but according to Terrence Cole’s book “Historic Resources of the Minnie Street Corridor,” Joe Reynolds then moved it to its present location at the east end of Well Street in Slaterville, next to Noyes Slough. In 1942 or ‘43 Ted and Alberta Matthews bought the cabin, adding a 14-foot by 24-foot two-bedroom addition to the left side of the structure. The addition and changes to the roof mirrored the original construction. The cabin has remained virtually unchanged since then.
The cabin was owned for a time by Chugach School District, which also owned the two-story building next to it. The old cabin is once again a private residence. With wooded borough property behind it, it’s like having a little bit of Birch Hill in downtown Fairbanks
- “Birch Hill Ski Jump.” From Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project website. No date
- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner articles – 1933, 1934,1937, 1938, 1939, 1940
- Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
- “Historic Resources of the Minnie Street Corridor. Terrence Cole. Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. 1989
- “Skiing in Fairbanks, 1937.” Jim Ducker. Alaska Historical Society webpage. No date
- “Umbrella Guide to Skiing in Alaska, Downhill & Cross-country.” Elizabeth Tower. Epicenter Press. 1997