Hear Tracy Briggs narrate this story:
FARGO — In the category of strange but true, Fargo, North Dakota — with some of the flattest land on the planet — was once the place to go to feel on top of the world. In the first part of the 20th century, Fargo, with a population of about 30,000, boasted of having the tallest ski jump structure in the nation.
Perhaps it’s not that strange when you consider the origin of ski jumping. The sport was believed to have been born in Norway in 1809, so it follows that when Norwegian immigrants immigrated to the United States over the next century, they’d attempt to recreate their favorite sport in their new land.
The Dovre Ski Club
Fargo-Moorhead wasn’t home to just one ski jump, but three. The first ski jump, sometimes called a “ski slide”, was constructed by the newly formed Dovre Ski Club in 1922. It was built in north Moorhead right across the river from Fargo’s Trefoil Park (1321 Elm Street) and about 600 yards downstream from the former toll bridge between the two cities.
Clay County Archivist Mark Peihl said the top of the scaffold originally stood 66 feet above the bank and 120 feet above the frozen river. Another 25 feet was added making jumps of over 100 feet possible.
“Ski riders from Winnipeg to Minneapolis attended the Dovre Club’s annual tournaments at the slide well into the 1930s, drawing crowds of nearly 1,000,” Peihl said.
However by 1935, the Moorhead ski jump was dismantled and the lumber used to build an even bigger ski jump in Fargo east of Broadway at what is now Trollwood Park.
Other materials were donated by local merchants and labor was provided by the Cass County Federal Emergency Relief Administration.
Hans Rosenberg designed the hill and supervised construction of the ski jump with a cost of about $7,000 — an impressive amount in the midst of The Great Depression. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to about $134,000 today.
Reaching new heights
Fargo’s new, bigger ski jump was made entirely of wood and stood 140 feet above the ground with a 200 foot slide. The ski jump is just a few feet shorter than MSUM's Nelson Hall.
“It was the largest jump of its kind in the country,” Peihl said. “Skiers hit nearly 70 miles per hour before launching into space for jumps of 150 feet or more.”
And it was interstate travel. They’d take off from the structure in Fargo, fly into the air and land on a hill below, where they’d glide across the river and into Minnesota. The hill was made of dirt left from the construction of the sewage plant near Trollwood Park.
A smaller ski jump was built to the west of the big ski jump for training jumps.
Peihl says the equipment skiers used at that time was pretty primitive.
“Long, wide, heavy skis were easier to control in the air. Beartrap bindings featured clamps that held the edges of the 'Yoompers’' boots to the boards. With no mechanisms for release, it was imperative to avoid rolling if one fell,” Peihl said.
Also different was the technique skiers used. While today skiers lean forward, nearly touching their nose to their skis, in the early 20th century, the athletes jumped upright and flapped their arms. This clip from YouTube is from the 1930s.
Those running the ski jump had hoped to attract some big tournaments to town, but they didn’t have much luck. And Mother Nature wasn’t helping. Bitterly cold temperatures in the late 1930s kept attendance low at the events they did host. Stories in The Fargo Forum hinted that the club was having financial difficulties.
Then, World War II started. Young men in the area who might have wanted to spend winter days skiing instead were sent to the frontlines.
The war was ultimately the reason given for the ski jump to be torn down. In a September, 1942 story from The Fargo Forum, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Authority requested that the Fargo slide be torn down as it was a hazard to planes coming and going from Hector Field.
But Peihl said there might have been more to the story.
“Perhaps not coincidentally, a couple of months earlier, a young Fargo man died when he fell from the slide,” he said.
A Fargo Forum story from Sunday, June 7, 1942 said on Friday night, 20-year-old Mickey Herrick and three friends climbed to the top of the structure and were descending when Herrick somehow stumbled and slipped, falling to his death off the east side of the slide. The coroner ruled it an accident. Just a few hours after this story was published in the paper, someone attempted to burn the ski jump to the ground.
The story said, “Fred Eiken, Edgewood golf course watchman saw flames and rushed to the scene, beating out the fire. Sheriff Frank McKenzie and Deputy H.H. Vowles rushed to the slide and found that kerosene had been poured over the landing about 30 feet from the ground and ignited.”
While the fire was unsuccessful in destroying the ski jump, just two months later, The Fargo Forum reported that the ski jump would be torn down due to the potential hazard for planes landing at Hector Airport, two miles away.
Fargo-Moorhead’s time as home of the country’s tallest ski jump had come to an end.
While ski jumping might not be an option during Frostival, check out the other activities planned for this weekend and beyond at the Frostival website.
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