Squaw Valley and the 1960 Winter Olympic Games
Olympic Valley, historically known as Squaw Valley, is located just 10 minutes from Tahoe City along Highway 89. Nestled among the Sierra Nevada, it contains 4,700 acres and mountain peaks of over 9,000 feet in elevation.
For 12 days in February of 1960, the world had its eyes on this previously little-known valley as it hosted the VIII Winter Olympic Games which were a culmination of years of planning, millions of dollars, and the determination of those who had a vision for what Squaw Valley could be.
Background Image: Squaw Valley, undated. PCM Collection.
Early Use of the Valley
In an 1856 report from the Placer County Surveyor’s Office, Squaw Valley was described as: “...the most beautiful valley the eye ever beheld. It is covered with luxuriant grass, and the soil is of the most productive in nature. The valley is completely surrounded by mountains, with the exception of the east end, at which point a most magnificent stream of water that flows through the entire length of the valley, empties into Truckee River."
The earliest inhabitants of the valley were the Washoe people, who used it and nearby Lake Tahoe during the summer months. For years different stories have been told about the origins of the name Squaw Valley. Some believed that it was named by white settlers, who met female members of the Washoe tribe in the valley and then used their term for indigenous women, "squaw," to name it.
Another story from the Iowa Hill Weekly Patriot in 1859 claimed that it was named after an event where a traveling man killed a "squaw" while in the valley. However, these stories simply amount to legends. No matter the origin of the name, it was the arrival of white settlement in the valley that quickly depleted the natural resources and irreparably changed the lives of the Washoe people.
Squaw Valley was known as a stopover along the Emigrant Road when in 1863, a silver discovery in the valley caused a rush of miners to flock there. Newspapers reported that the miners found the area pleasurable in the summer and the winters mild.
After the silver diggings had been worked, some settlers stayed and pursued ranching, dairy farming, and a shingle mill once operated there. In 1907, the United States Forest Service established a ranger station in Squaw Valley for education and preservation of the forest.
Background Image: Squaw Valley, undated. PCM Collection.
A Vision for the Valley
In 1929, a group of men founded the Auburn Ski Club and began a movement of skiing in Placer County and Northern California. They organized ski meets, planned competitions, and advocated for snow service to keep roads open and accessible for skiing. The skiing boom brought people from all over the country to Placer County and the Tahoe region.
One of these people was Wayne Poulsen, a championship skier from the University of Nevada.
In 1931, Poulsen’s friend Marti Arrouge had brought him to Squaw Valley, where Arrouge’s family had grazed sheep. Poulsen fell in love with the valley and had a vision for the area as a ski destination. In 1943, Poulsen and his wife Sandy purchased 640 acres at the head of the valley, and in 1948 bought 1,200 more. They began seeking investors to bring their dream of the resort to life.
Wayne Poulsen met Alex Cushing, an east coast lawyer who had been interested in real estate in California. After giving Cushing a tour of Squaw Valley, Cushing gathered $400,000 in support for the endeavor. With Poulsen’s contribution of the land, the Squaw Valley Development Corporation was officially formed. In 1948, construction began on an Alpine ski structure, parking areas, a chair lift, and roads.
It wasn’t long, however, before Alex Cushing and Wayne Poulsen disagreed on how to build in Squaw Valley, and in 1949, Cushing used his position as a majority stockholder to push Poulsen out. Poulsen lost the land he had contributed to the corporation but still retained 1,200 acres in the valley. The feud between Cushing and Poulsen lasted decades.
Construction continued, and despite facing delays, Squaw Valley was officially opened for the 1949-1950 winter season. It included a redwood and glass lodge, cafeteria, bar and lounge, ski school, rental shop, and the world’s largest chair lift.
Background Image: Auburn Ski Club Cross Country Race, c. 1938. PCM Collection.
The Olympic Bid
Lake Tahoe had long coveted bringing the Winter Olympics to the area, having first thrown their hat into the ring for the 1932 games, which was instead held in Lake Placid, New York. After reading in the newspaper in 1954 that Reno, Nevada, was being considered as a site for the 1960 Winter Olympics, Alex Cushing thought, “Why not Squaw Valley?” With limited facilities and undeveloped land, he believed that although it was unlikely the valley would be chosen, it would at least be good publicity for the lodge and ski resort.
Alex Cushing used his influence and charisma to propose his Olympic dream to officials in California. He convinced them that the fact that Squaw Valley only had a lodge, restaurant, three lifts, and a small number of homes was not a concern and that the valley presented a clean slate for the Olympics to design everything to meet their needs. After hearing his proposal in 1955, Governor Goodwin Knight of California and the California Legislature appropriated $1 million to host the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley.
On January 7, 1955, the Special Committee on Sites of the United States Olympic Committee chose Squaw Valley over Reno, Nevada; Anchorage, Alaska; Sun Valley, Idaho; Aspen, Colorado; and Lake Placid, New York. The United States Congress then passed a resolution, signed by President Eisenhower, to invite the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to select Squaw Valley as the 1960 Winter Olympic Games site.
Alex Cushing’s next obstacle was convincing the IOC members. He and his associate George Weller traveled around the world visiting Committee members and convincing them to take a chance on the small valley in Placer County.
It worked, and in June of 1955, the IOC selected Squaw Valley as the host of the 1960 Winter Olympics over Innsbruck, Austria, and St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The California Olympic Commission was then responsible for acquiring land and building venues for the games, and by 1956 these preparations were underway. Wayne Poulsen, who still owned 1,200 acres in Squaw Valley, learned the decision from reading it in the newspaper and was concerned about the plan for large paved parking lots. After some legal dispute, Poulsen sold 28.3 acres of land and leased 148 acres for compacted-snow parking lots for the Olympic site.
Background Image: Ski Lift at Squaw Valley, 1960. PCM Collection
Building the Olympic Dream
With thousands of people coming to see the historic games, almost everything had to be built from scratch. By 1959, California had appropriated nearly $8 million towards the games, with most to be spent on construction. A federal contribution of $3.5 million went to the construction of an arena, and the Department of Defense approved $900,000 to be spent on the staging of the games.
Buildings constructed for the 1960 Winter Olympics included the Blyth Memorial Ice Arena, a speed skating oval, three outdoor rinks, official’s housing, Olympic Village athlete’s housing, an administration building, a communications center, IBM Data Processing Center, and “snowflake pavilions” or public information centers. These Winter Olympics were unique in that the participants and the public could walk to most events. Only two events were held further away, the cross-country and biathlon skiing events.
In addition to constructing buildings, essential services also needed to be set up in anticipation of the games. The California Division of Forestry established fire protection for the area, employing 16 staff. A Sheriff's office built in 1959 employed 65 officers by the start of the games who were used as security escorts, guards, and crowd control officers.
The United States Postal Service established a branch in 1959, designating it the "Olympic Valley Post Office," which served the athletes, officials, press, Olympic offices, and the general public. It handled an average of 20,000 pieces of mail each day.
To address the threat of avalanches, a Snow Safety Group was put together from the U.S. Forest Service and the Olympic Ski Patrol. A communications center monitored avalanche hazards and used mounted rifles to manage dangerous snow. By the end of the games in 1960, they had used 216 rounds of ammunition and 5,000 pounds of other types of explosives.
Background Image: Map from 1960 Winter Olympics Program.
The Games Begin
The VIII Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony was held on February 18, 1960, in the Blyth Memorial Ice Arena. On a special trip from Washington, DC, Vice President Richard Nixon gave the official declaration of the games' opening.
Walt Disney served as the Pageantry Committee Chairman and was responsible for the design and orchestration of the festivities. His vision included 30 snow sculptures decorating the Olympic grounds, a firework display, the releasing of 2,000 doves and 20,000 balloons, and eight ceremonial cannon shots representing the 8th winter Olympics.
The games saw 665 athletes from 30 nations and five continents participate in 27 Olympic events.
They were exclusively broadcast by the Columbia Broadcasting System, which was the first time the games had been televised in the United States. 1960 was also the first year that South Africa competed in the Olympic games, the first time women were allowed to compete in speed skating, and the first time the United States hockey team beat the Soviet Union to win the gold medal.
Another first was the state-of-the-art IBM Data Processing Center, which housed an IBM RAMAC 305 computer used to compute Olympic results in less than two minutes.
The computer boasted a storage capacity of 5 megabytes. In comparison, the first-generation iPhone released in 2007 had a storage capacity of 16000 megabytes.
The games concluded on February 28, 1960. Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee, said: "I feel the people of the States of California and Nevada, and, in fact, the entire nation should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished in Squaw Valley." Unfortunately, the $2,475.00 revenue was $1 million less than projected and the games failed to break even.
Background Image: The 1960 Winter Olympics Facilities. PCM Collection.
Even before the games had started, the question of what to do with Squaw Valley was raised, especially after the state had spent more than $9 million into acquiring land and building facilities. In 1957, the California State Legislature voted to make Squaw Valley a State Park, and after the conclusion of the games, the area was turned over to the California Division of Beaches and Parks. They entered into long-term concessionaire’s leases to operate restaurants and a ski equipment shop.
The state decided to sell their holdings in Squaw Valley in 1974 in a public auction, the only bidder being Australian company Mainline Corporation Limited. Mainline had previously purchased the land in the valley still owned by Wayne Poulsen and appointed him an officer in the company. Alex Cushing, whose company was now known as the Squaw Valley Ski Corporation, still ran the lifts and slopes.
Over the years, many of the Olympic buildings were lost to time. In 1983, the Blyth Memorial Arena was demolished after its roof collapsed, and the building was deemed too expensive to save. Buildings still standing today include the California and Nevada Olympic Spectators' Centers and the Athlete’s Housing, which was turned into timeshares and renamed the Olympic Village Inn. The Tower of Nations, the 80-foot tower with the Olympic rings and crests of participating nations, still stands at the resort entrance.
Alex Cushing continued to develop and expand the Squaw Valley Ski Corporation (later called Squaw Valley USA) until his death in 2006. In 2010, the Village at Squaw Valley, Squaw Valley USA skiing, and other real estate holdings were purchased by KSL Capital Partners LLC. The Squaw Valley resort later merged with nearby Alpine Meadows and is today known as Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. A small museum at the ski resort showcases memorabilia from the 1960 Winter Olympics, and a non-profit foundation seeks to open the Sierra Nevada Olympic & Winter Sports Museum showcasing the Squaw Valley Olympics and ski history.
Background Image: Squaw Valley, 1960. PCM Collection.
The Story of a Name
It is now widely accepted that squaw is a derogatory term. Across the country, sites and locations with "squaw" in their names have made efforts to change them. The Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Resort announced in 2020, after consultation with Native American groups and the community, that it will be changing its name for the 2021 skiing season. It has yet to announce their new name. Following the resort’s announcement, the Squaw Valley Public Service District changed its name to the Olympic Valley Public Service District.
Today, the unincorporated community in Placer County which was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics is commonly known as Olympic Valley. Olympic Valley has been used to refer to Squaw Valley since 1960, when the United States Post Office had to use an alternative name to avoid confusion with the other Squaw Valley in Fresno County.
Background Image: Squaw Valley Postcard, undated. PCM Collection.