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75 Year Celebration of
Snowsport History
in the
Far West region!

Photos Are Here!


History of Heavenly Valley, Tahoe, California & Nevada

The Heavenly Story courtesy of Ken Castle, SKI Magazine, Heavenly Dreams

From the footsteps of it's first skier, Snowshoe Thompson, Heavenly's history has been filled with many colorful memories. The Heavenly story from beginning to end is sure to bring a tear to your eye and smile to your face. Enjoy the story!

When you stand on the summit of Monument Peak, some 10,100 feet above sea level, and marvel at the sheer size of Heavenly with its grand vistas of two states, you may find it hard to believe that this place began as little more than a rope tow and a ski run.

But a handful of visionaries who dreamed of creating a world-class destination resort really did make a mountain out of a molehill. Their story is one of passion and pain, and of battling constant adversity.

Long before the 1960 Olympics made Lake Tahoe a household name, skiing existed on the South Shore, though it was hardly a thriving business.

Mom-and-pop ski operations sprung up after World War II, but they catered to a small and localized clientele. The reason? You couldn't get there very easily because the interstate wasn't plowed in winter. Even if you got through, you wouldn't find a place to stay because most hotels closed at the end of summer. In short, winter was a lonely experience.

Although there was great promise when the California Department of Highways built a new grade down the east flank of Echo Summit in 1947, it was still a few years before the state assumed the task of clearing snow between Twin Bridges and Meyers.

Mom-and-pop ski operations sprung up after World War II, but they catered to a small and localized clientele. The reason? You couldn't get there very easily because the interstate wasn't plowed in winter. Even if you got through, you wouldn't find a place to stay because most hotels closed at the end of summer. In short, winter was a lonely experience.

Although there was great promise when the California Department of Highways built a new grade down the east flank of Echo Summit in 1947, it was still a few years before the state assumed the task of clearing snow between Twin Bridges and Meyers.

In the old days, there was no such thing as a Sport Utility Vehicle. If you couldn't get to a ski area by train, you didn't get there at all.

Still, according to Dr. Lyndall B. Landauer, local historian and author of the book, "The Mountain Sea, A History of Lake Tahoe," a few ski hills opened in the post-war era. One was on Spooner Summit, which is northeast of Stateline; two were on Echo Summit; and two were situated west on Highway 50 at Strawberry and Camp Sacramento. Of these, the largest, called Edelweiss, was at Camp Sacramento. Drawing mostly from the Central Valley, Edelweiss offered a chairlift and three rope tows, and had sections located on each side of the highway.

On Spooner, William M. Bliss of Glenbrook built a T-bar, a ski jump and several runs in 1946, and ran the area as White Hills for five seasons. His location and timing were not exactly fortuitous, however. A windy spot a best, White Hills endured three or four seasons of paltry snowfall, then was literally buried under the heavy blizzards of 1952, when it shut down for good.

In the heart of South Lake Tahoe, Lee and Daisy Miller installed rope tows at the upper end of an unpaved road that was the predecessor of Ski Run Boulevard, probably in the late 1940s, although the natural slope was most likely used for skiing before then. The Bijou Park Skiway was a substantial operation, with a warming hut for rental gear, a few ski instructors, floodlights for night skiing, and a straight, groomed run about a thousand feet long. "As skiing became more popular, some wags suggested extending the run all the way down to the edge of the lake by building a ski bridge over Highway 50," said Landauer. Somehow, that never happened.

The Millers leased their operation to Chris Kuraisa of Oakland in 1954. Chris Kuraisa and his wife, Dorothy, had long dreamed of living at Lake Tahoe. As high school sweethearts in Oakland in 1924, Chris has told her, "Someday we're going to own a sporting goods store in Tahoe"

It took Chris thirty years to fulfill his promise. The Kuraisas moved to the small community of South Tahoe in early December 1953 with just enough money to make it to spring. But they hadn't counted on buying a ski area.

Kuraisa purchased Bijou Park's two rope tows and adjoining land in 1954, and immediately turned the small ski area into a success.

Remembers Chris Kuraisa, "A United Airlines pilot named Bill Sutherland was selling his two-rope-tow Bijou Ski Run for $1 ,950 and the property for another $3,750. We had $2,250. But I was excited. I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'll pay you cash for the rope tows and I'll give you $50 for an option on the property.' I called my wife, Dottie, and she started to cry. 'That's our eating money!' We had barely sold a pack of cigarettes in a week at the store. I said, 'Don't worry, it's gonna snow tonight.'

"It snowed two feet! We had a big, first three-day weekend- Dottie sold sandwiches and we took in $483, enough to get me off the hook." As Kuraisa watched his happy customers glide down the modest slope of Ski Run that first season, he would look up to the enormous flank of 10,067 foot Monument Peak and say to himself, "That is the future."

A year later, he formed a partnership with three local casino operators, bought the tows, moved the entire works higher up the hill, and renamed it Heavenly Valley. The group raised enough money to install a 4,000- foot Heron double chairlift, above Gunbarrel, to give the new ski area a respectable 1,650 feet of vertical. The 1955 season opened with this lift, several rope tows and The Pioneer Warming Hut. The following year, the company hired Olympic gold medalist Stein Ericksen to direct the new ski school, giving Heavenly a high profile with skiers and attracting a cadre of Norwegian and Finnish instructors.

Over the next four seasons, Kuraisa and an ever changing set of partners built two more double chairlifts, aligning them almost end-to-end above Lift #1. Together, the three lifts created a vertical rise of over 3,600 feet. Lift #3 topped out on a ridge at elevation 10,000 feet and accessed new intermediate runs that offered sweeping views of Lake Tahoe. In 1962, Heavenly reached another milestone when it constructed a 25-passenger Aerial Tramway - America's largest tram -- and opened the mountain to year-around sightseeing.

A new era began in 1964 when Kuraisa sold his 40 percent interest to a partnership headed by Hugh Killebrew, a San Francisco attorney who owned a string of successful tax consulting offices throughout Northern California. A dynamic man with a strong will, Killebrew and his group soon gained control of the company. From the outset, it was Killebrew's vision to expand Heavenly into the adjoining Nevada drainage, and three years later the Boulder and Big Dipper chairlifts were a reality. Now, in 1967, "Heavenly could boast that it was "America"s Largest Ski Area."

Under Killebrew's leadership, the resort created a lively and often whimsical skiing culture, with costumed events such as the Valentine Race, Easter Bash, Barrel Stave Races and Chinese Downhill. The decade of "Laugh-In", mini-skirts and the Beatles provided plenty of creative touches to generate publicity for the area and stimulate interest in skiing. It brought swimsuit contests, daredevil skiing stunts and a not-so-subtle sexuality to the sport. The era also saw the fruition of another of Hugh's strong beliefs: the importance of world-class ski racing. Heavenly was one of the first stops on the fledging professional circuit of 1962. From 1966 on, the resort had enjoyed national television coverage of its World Cup races. Heavenly's slalom and giant slalom courses were among the nation's best. But Killebrew also wanted a first- rate downhill course for the Nevada side; he figured he could get it with a new lift called Wells Fargo.

The lowest lift on the Nevada side, Wells Fargo would provide a stunning downhill course and a link toward a possible new Heavenly base area. Wells Fargo was operational by the fall of 1974, but there was no snow that low on the mountain. A pro race planned as the lift's coming-out party had to be re-scheduled to Hunter Mountain. When the lift finally opened in January of 1975, that same pro race was shown on national television "with a special segment devoted to Hunter's snowmaking system." From that moment on, Heavenly became committed to snowmaking.

All these developments added to the boom in Stateline casinos and high-voltage celebrity shows, and even the early skeptics could see that South Lake Tahoe was on a roll.

Tragedy struck in August, 1977, when Killebrew and three resort employees left Tahoe in the company plane for a meeting in San Francisco. The four were barely airborne from the South Lake Tahoe Airport when a second plane that took off immediately afterwards smashed into them. The midair collision rained debris on Highway 50, and authorities quickly closed the road. As it happened, Killebrew's 23-year-old son, Bill, had missed his father's flight -- Hugh waited for no one -- and chose to drive to the Bay Area in his car for a wedding rehearsal. When officers reopened the highway, young Killebrew was the first motorist to pass the wreckage and see the Heavenly logo on the tail section. In that terrible instant, Bill's world was suddenly turned upside down. He had lost a parent and, at the same time, had inherited, prematurely, a huge responsibility.

Taking over the reins of Heavenly was no easy task that year. Two back-to-back seasons of severe drought had left the resort millions of dollars in debt. On top of that, Hugh intended to muster what financial resources he had to build an extensive snowmaking system, his idea of hedging against a third year of low snow. Bill decided to stick with his father's plan, and by late fall crews had built a mountain reservoir and miles of pipeline on the upper side of California. By the middle of November, no storms had arrived, none were in sight, and the massive new snowmaking system was rendered useless by unseasonably warm temperatures.

Bill Killebrew recalls that traumatic time: "There was no snow and none was predicted for Thanksgiving. I had made the last payroll, and had laid off virtually the entire staff the preceding Friday. I had no money left in my personal checking account, and my credit card was to its limit. I had made an appointment to file bankruptcy papers on Monday and went down to see my girlfriend, Abby, in the Bay Area. I literally had to borrow money from her to drive back to Tahoe. But as I got on the road on Sunday night, it started to rain.

"By the time I got back to my stepmother's house, the stars were out. It didn't look good; I couldn't sleep thinking about all the things I had to do. So I went upstairs to my dad's study. There was an old leather chair that was his. I sat down in it and turned on the deck light. And as I sat there staring out on the deck, I saw the first snowflake come down. I was afraid to take a breath. I never went back to sleep, and by morning there was a foot of snow on the deck.

Overjoyed with his luck, Killebrew decided to take a daring gamble. He went straight to the South Tahoe newspaper and told them that Heavenly was celebrating the end of the drought with free skiing on Wednesday and Thursday. "It was a way to give thanks to the community for sticking with us," says Bill.

When he got up to the Heavenly offices, the staff was already gathering. Bill sent Nancy McCoy to pick up a case of champagne. Then he took those bankruptcy papers, put them in the Governor's Cup Trophy, and burned 'em! From that time on, he never looked back.

With his youthful energy, Killebrew ushered in a new era of prosperity, both for Heavenly and for South Lake Tahoe. Under his auspices, the resort began to reflect the mood and pop culture of the times. During the late 1970s, Heavenly became a magnet for Tinseltown celebrities. Country singer John Denver introduced his Celebrity Ski Classic, which was an instant crowd-pleaser and became an annual event for the next 10 years. Teams of actors, athletes, entertainers and pro ski racers tore up the slopes for thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers. Where else could you see Playboy cover girl Barbi Benton and Clint "Dirty Harry" Eastwood sharing the same slalom course? And don't forget George Hamilton, William Shatner, Sonny and Cher, Bill Cosby, Andy Williams, Kirstie Ally and the entire cast of TV cop show smash "Hill Street Blues."

Throughout the 1980s, Killebrew continually expanded the snowmaking system. He also plowed profits back into new chairlifts, new day lodges and far-ranging promotions designed to attract national and international business. By 1985, Bill Killebrew had been at the helm of Heavenly for eight years. Through a combination of luck and hard work, he had seen the business grow by 250 percent - the success story of the Sierra. By 1987, the resort had become so successful that it was debt- free.

"We were much more successful than I ever dreamed we could be," says Killebrew now. "But the effort took a lot of my youth." Three years later, Killebrew, physically and emotionally drained from 13 years of nurturing his father's vision, sold the resort to the Kamori Kanko Company of Sapporo, Japan, electing to spend more time with his wife, Abby, and their growing family.

Under Kimihito Kamori, the Japanese launched a comprehensive employee training and service program, fulfilled Killebrew's commitment to cover two-thirds of the resort with snowmaking, and painstakingly guided a master plan for future development through the gauntlet of government agencies and citizen reviews. Kamori's stewardship created an era of compromise, consensus and patience, in keeping with the Japanese style of management. All of that paid off when the plan cleared its final approvals in 1997, without incurring a single legal challenge. An unprecedented task for a ski resort master plan.

That same year, Heavenly was acquired by Les Otten, whose American Skiing Company was expanding from its East Coast headquarters to the western half of the country. Otten, the developer of Sunday River, Maine, bought Heavenly in a package deal that included Steamboat, Colorado. Not one to let moss grow under his feet, Otten immediately put the master plan on his priority list. And he went one step further, negotiating for control of land between Stateline and Park Avenue to build a gondola station, two hotels and a village.

The gondola from the town opened for the 2000-2001 season. The hotels and village will be built starting this summer.

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