Revelstoke

Revelstoke Museum & Archives: the history of stoke in Revy

Ski jumping, Nels Nelson, and Suicide Hill

RICK MACDONNELL


1,000+ spectators take in the Tournament of Champions competition at Revelstoke's Suicide Hill
Photo courtesy of Revelstoke Museum and Archives (image 1458)

REVELSTOKE, BC – If Revelstoke is known for anything, it's a long, storied history of ski culture. Revelstoke Mountain Resort is just the cherry on top of one of Western Canada's most interesting ski towns, so I headed to the Revelstoke Museum & Archives to sit down with local historian, and curator of the Museum, Cathy English, to learn more about Revy's story.

"The history of skiing in Revelstoke goes back to the 1890s. At that time, people were using it as a method of transportation. A man named Ole Sandberg started using skis to travel into town and to his mining claims in Albert Canyon. The people used to call them 'Norwegian snowshoes', and they were about 8 1/2 feet long," English said.

Famously, the Kootenay Star reported in its November 28, 1891 edition that "a young man mounted on a pair of Norweigian snowshoes essayed the task of skimming over the snow-covered surface of Main Street, but owing to its being cut up considerably by the traffic he did not make much headway."

Revelstoke gains an identity

In 1892, a man named F. B. Wells started selling skis in his clothing store, and that's when skiing really started to take hold. But it wasn't until 1914 that the first formal ski club was formed by an influx of Scandinavian settlers. It was this club that organized the first Winter Sports Carnival in 1915, held at the base of Mount Revelstoke, and it featured ski jumping, distance races, downhill races, and skating events. About 1,000 spectators took in the event. It was at this inaugural Winter Carnival that Nels Nelson, who'd later become the greatest ski jumper in the world, began his career as a competitive jumper. He won the jump event with a jump of 99 feet. 

The next year, in 1916, the club was granted permission to build a ski jump within the park boundaries. "There were jumping events almost every year until 1975. During the second World War there were a few years where there weren't any events, but the tournament stayed strong for 60 years."

The Tournament of Champions (as it was called) drew competitors from around the world, with jumpers from Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and more making the trip to Revelstoke every year.

"It was considered a difficult jump because it was one of the very few ski jumps that actually followed the terrain of the mountain. It wasn't a built jump. It was one of the very few natural jumps in the world."


World champion jumper Nels Nelson, circa 1925
Photo courtesy of Revelstoke Museum and Archives (image 914)

The best of the best

Among the initial Norwegian settlers who formed the ski club was international jumping superstar Nels Nelson. Nelson amazingly held the Canadian record for ski jumping from 1916 to 1932, breaking his own record five times. In 1925, he took the world title with a jump of 240 feet on the Mount Revelstoke jump. 

Revelstoke also had one of the first world-class female jumpers as well, Isobel Coursier, who came to fame In the 1920s by jumping alongside the men at Revelstoke while the other women jumped off of smaller, less dangerous jumps.

Because of the uncertain nature of the jump at Revelstoke, it soon gained the name "Suicide Hill". No deaths actually occurred, but the most infamous injury occurred to local Bob Lymbourne, the champion ski jumper who took over for Nelson as Canada's premier jumper. He claimed the Canadian and World titles in 1932 and '33, with his longest jump being a remarkable 283 feet. 

But one day, in the 1950s, Lymbourne injured his head during a crash and suffered brain damage. During the years after Lymbourne become something of a loner, and then one day he walked out of town with his dog and was never seen again. 

"His body was never found."

An incredible legacy

Ski jumping defined Revelstoke until the Tournament of Champions ended in 1975. 

"The club was having a hard time sustaining its numbers, and by that time the jumpers were spending more time grooming the hill than actually jumping. The popularity of ski jumping was also waning, and downhill skiing was really taking off on Mount MacKenzie."

The Revelstoke Museum & Archives is an absolutely amazing place. There's an incredible collection of not only ski memorabilia, but farming, mining, hunting, and railroading as well. It makes for a pretty incredible afternoon, but with the publishing of the Museum's first coffee table book, Reflections, you can take Revelstoke's history with you when you leave.

Reflections is a selection of photographs from locals Earle and Estelle Dickey that spans four decades. It's a beautiful time capsule of Revelstoke's history, including its ski jumping legacy and Suicide Hill. To inquire about the book or to order a copy, please call the Revelstoke Museum & Archives at 250-837-3067.

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