Historicist: "All Ski Jumpers Are Not Intent on Suicide"
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Historicist: “All Ski Jumpers Are Not Intent on Suicide”

Torontonians tackle the Thorncliffe Ski Jump.

The Toronto Telegram. February 12, 1934.

Toronto’s many hills and ravines made skiing a popular pastime in the early 20th century. Although most of the local skiing has been cross-country or downhill, Torontonians have experimented with ski jumping since the Toronto Ski Club‘s official incorporation in 1924.

In the Toronto Ski Club’s official history from 1974, editor Fred Hall writes that the Club leased several buildings in the 1920s, including one from Home Smith near the Humber River and a building in High Park near the streetcar loop. At High Park, Hall writes, a small ski jump was built near the popular toboggan slides; however, “instead of placing it part way down the hill so that the landing would be on a reasonable slope, it was built at the bottom of the hill and the landing was smacko on the level.”

In the same Club history, contributor Ross Wilson writes that the maximum jumps possible in High Park were about 30 feet, but some modifications to the jump soon doubled this figure to about 60 feet. Wilson claims one jumper once managed 70 feet, thereby “outjumping the hill and landing on the semi-flat. It didn’t seem to bother him but it would have driven lesser men’s knees through their chests.”

An early ski jump in High Park, February 14, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 564.

The dangerous nature of these early jumps reflect the high spirits which seem to have pervaded the early years of the Toronto Ski Club. The Club’s official history presents the early members as daredevils who delighted in trying hazardous new courses and activities, often with little to no formal instruction. Following a hell-for-leather day on the slopes, members were also known for their spirited social gatherings.

These early ski jumps became popular with skiers and spectators alike, and the sport soon grew popular across southern Ontario. The newspapers of the late 1930s reported on several municipalities erecting new jumps, including Ottawa, Huntsville, Midland, and Peterborough, and Toronto skiers arranged successful trips to most of these venues during the winter months, often arranging for special train or bus service. The Toronto Ski Club erected their own jump in January of 1934 at a site on the west side of the Don Valley, near the present location of the Ontario Science Centre, in what was then the town of Leaside. Its construction was spurred not only by the growing popularity of ski jumping, but by the Toronto group’s successful bid to host the provincial skiing championships on February 10.

Skiers, unknown location. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 6952.

On January 25, the Star reported on the progress of the $2,500 jump’s construction, showing an unsturdy-looking wooden structure nearing completion. The plans show a 65-foot high tower believed capable of yielding jumps over 150 feet; one article claimed that “the dimensions of the Leaside jump compare with those of the best competitive structures in the world.” It was also noted that a plan was already in place to truck in snow from the north, as unpredictable Toronto weather might melt most of the snow by the time of the championships.

The weather did indeed prove too balmy to adequately cover the jump, but the plan to import snow was soon abandoned for a more local solution: snow would be artificially manufactured downtown and trucked up to Leaside. On February 1, the Star reported on “Toronto’s first snow factory,” as 100 tons of ice were scraped off the surface of the Varsity Stadium rink and loaded onto trucks, so that the Thorncliffe Ski Jump might be tested prior to the championships. These 100 tons reportedly amounted to a mere quarter-of-an-inch of the rink’s ice surface.

The Thorncliffe jump was first tried the weekend before the championships, and a small crowd of 600 people turned out to see their first glimpse of the latest sport to come to the Toronto area. They were not disappointed. Wrote the Telegram: “There was a gasp as the first jumper left the top of the 70 foot tower and swept down the in-run, an awed silence as he shot into space and dropped like a plummet for more than 90 feet and then a roar of approval as he landed … From the spectators’ point of view he had flirted outrageously with death and escaped by a hairbreadth.”

Falls were frequent on the trial day. Many of the 20 jumpers had never jumped on a hill this high before, and some had reportedly never jumped at all. The Telegram reported that one skier “dropped through the air off-balance, nosed over on the landing and turned several complete somersaults down the steep descent. [He] was unconscious when picked up, and both heavy jumping skis were broken.” Aside from some cuts to his face, however, he appeared to suffer no injuries.

The Daily Mail and Empire. February 5, 1934.

The Star deemed the jump to be a success, and reported that “all jumpers … were unanimous in their declaration that the erection of the giant slide was the best break they’ve had in Toronto’s history.” The Telegram presented a less positive view, citing complaints that the jump was too small and significantly too slow. The Telegram also said the jumpers believed the landing zone unsafe, observing that “apparently all ski jumpers are not intent on suicide.”

The high number of spills on the first day led to some alterations prior to the championship weekend. The landing slope was made steeper, and the lip of the jump was raised so as to grant jumpers more time in the air. A further change was made to the landing zone. Initially concerned that the momentum from jumping would carry skiers into the Don, organizers had lined the end of the landing strip with straw during the trials. This reportedly led to damaged skis when the jumpers would come to a sudden halt. Thus, a bridge and runway were reportedly added to extend the landing area, providing jumpers with a safer way to come to a stop.

With these final improvements made, Toronto proceeded to host the Ontario Championships on the weekend of February 10 to 11. Canadian Pacific ran a special train to the site from North Toronto station, as at least 10,000 spectators took in the event. “It was a pretty picture,” wrote the Mail and Empire. “Sunlight splashed on snow-clad flats and glittered on the ice of the tower’s runway. Pine trees, clothing the hillside, made a green frame for the snow-white slide, and people, clad in bright winter sports clothes formed two strips down either side … and swept out in a huge U-shaped mass in the valley beneath.”

How ski jumping works. The Daily Mail and Empire. January 31, 1934.

The jumping events took place on Saturday, where Ottawa skier Jack Landry won the main competition with two jumps over 120 feet. Finishing second was a Montreal skier, Punch Bott, who managed two jumps at 115 feet, despite being only 14 years old. One Toronto Ski Club member, Celius Skavaas, finished a respectable sixth, and won a special prize for having the best combined scores in the jumping and cross-country events. Another highlight was the reported “tandem jump” at the end of the day, as Ross Wilson and Merritt Putman descended the slope simultaneously, both executing perfect landings.

The jump was pressed into action again the following weekend, when the Toronto Ski Club held a city championship. Celius Skavaas was crowned jumping champion, with Ross Wilson finishing second. A Star reporter noted that “although spills were quite frequent, there were none of a serious nature. The jumpers are becoming accustomed to the steeply sloped chute and slide and it no longer holds terror for them.”

The first jump at Thorncliffe was short-lived. It collapsed during a high wind in August, necessitating a completely new structure. Fortunately, the Club had made significant revenue from charging admission to the February events and funds were available to rebuild it. The new tower was 15 feet taller. A loudspeaker system was installed and, according to the Globe, accommodations were made for as many as 25,000 people. In her 1999 book Leaside, Jane Pitfield notes that unlike the first jump, the second jump at Thorncliffe had the additional structural advantage of being “secured into the ground.”

The 1935 incarnation of the Thorncliffe Ski Jump. The Globe, January 24, 1935.

For ski-mad Toronto, winter couldn’t come fast enough. In October of 1934, the Star reported that the Toronto Ski Club was now considering skiing as a summer sport. Cliff Shorney, one of the Club’s members, spoke to the Star enthusiastically not only of skiing on grass and sand, but also on the possibility of using stairs. “Of course a man is an ass to try it,” Shorney said of stair-skiing, “unless he’s pretty good skier, because the risk is so great.”

It would be reasonable to assume that the ski jump was not included in the warm-weather skiing activities. Reasonable, but wrong. On October 11, the Star reported that Club officials “are seriously considering sodding their Thorncliffe ski hill and putting hay on their lofty jumping tower for regular summer meets.” The next day, the Star ran photos of Toronto Ski Club member Al Willson making use of the jump, although the captions indicate that he only achieved speeds of 30 miles per hour, as opposed to the usual 75.

Over the next few years, Thorncliffe continued to host ski meets, including multiple international competitions. By 1937, however, the Toronto Ski Club had mostly moved on to other sites. Although a December 1939 publication from the Club described the Thorncliffe jump as being “usually in good condition nearly all winter,” the Club’s primary activities were by then at the Summit Golf Club in Richmond Hill, and more northerly sites such as Huntsville and Dagmar, which were more reliably covered in snow without recourse to ice shaving.

The former site of the Thorncliffe Ski Jump, seen in 1955. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

During the Second World War, the Thorncliffe jump was again pressed into service. In February 1941, the Canadian Amateur Ski Association joined forces with the Norwegian Air Force, who had a training camp on the Toronto islands during the war, to raise funds for the Canadian Red Cross and the Norwegian War Aid Fund. The program featured a variety of skiing events, with the Norwegians taking a particular interest in the jumping portion. The Star reported that Colonel Ole Reistad, the commanding Norwegian officer in Toronto (and a former Olympian), officially opened the jump in a ceremony which included bugle players and a flyby from the Norwegian Air Force. Stein Sem took first place with jumps of 130 and 125 feet, and only one serious injury took place when Rolf Berg had a bad landing and broke his collarbone.

The Thorncliffe Ski Jump appears to have been disassembled a short time after the 1941 event, although this was hardly the end of skiing in the area. In the late 1950s the Don Valley Ski Centre opened a bit north of the old Thorncliffe site, closer to Lawrence, and remained operational into the 1970s. By this time, however, the wild days of the Toronto Ski Club were no more. With better instructors available and a heightened awareness of public safety, the new facility appears not to have emphasized jumping, while also taking a more serious attitude toward safety. And like its Thorncliffe predecessor, the Don Valley Ski Centre also rejected a plan to truck in snow—the plan was to use snow from the Don Mills Centre parking lot—in favour of artificial snow-making equipment, by now a more refined technology and familiar to local skiers.

Additional material from: Don Mills Mirror (November 21, 1957; December 21, 1963; January 15, 1964); the Globe (February 5, February 8, February 12, February 19, 1934; January 15, January 19, January 24, January 28, 1935; February 3, February 24, November 21, 1936; December 22, 1937; February 22, 1941); Fred Hall, ed., Fifty Years of Skiing in Southern Ontario with the Toronto Ski Club (1974: Toronto); the Mail and Empire (January 31, February 5, February 10, February 12, 1934); Jane Pitfield, ed., Leaside (Natural Heritage, 1999: Toronto); Charles Sauriol, Tales of the Don (Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1984: Toronto); the Ski Runner (December 15, 1938; January 26, February 9, February 16, December 1, 1939); the Toronto Star (October 18, October 30, 1933; January 4, January 25, February 1, February 2, February 3, February 5, February 7, February 12, February 19, March 5, August 23, October 11, October 12, 1934; January 14, January 17, January 19, January 21, January 23, January 28, 1935; January 10, January 31, February 19, February 21, February 24, 1936; December 18, 1937; February 20, February 21, February 24, 1941; February 17, 1982); the Toronto Telegram (February 1, February 3, February 4, February 8, February 12, 1934).

CORRECTION: February 2, 2014, 7:20 PM This post originally stated that The Toronto Ski Club erected their own jump in January of 1934 at a site on the east side of the Don Valley; in fact, that site was on the west side of the Don Valley.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.