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Remember This? The first to ski in Ottawa

Ottawans didn't know exactly what to call it at first. For a time, skiing was called skilobning in North America.
2021-01-18 first ottawa skiiers
Skiing at Rockcliffe Park, circa 1898. Photo/ Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3386372.

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

January 22, 1887

It would be hard to imagine a Canadian winter without skiing, either cross-country, Nordic skiing, or the downhill variety, a.k.a. Alpine skiing.

Ottawa has the weather and the terrain for top-quality, cross-country skiing.

In addition to the many trails through Ottawa’s greenbelt and along the Ottawa River, the trails of Gatineau Park in Quebec are but a short drive from the capital. The Park boasts more than two hundred kilometres of groomed paths fit for all levels of experience. Since 1967, the Ottawa Ski Marathon has attracted thousands of skiers, from the novice to the hardy coureur de bois who camp out in the frigid cold in addition to completing the 100-mile course through the Gatineau Hills.

Let’s also not forget downhill skiing in the region. Mont Cascades, Vorlage, Camp Fortune, and Edelweiss ski resorts on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River offer excellent downhill skiing.  All are located within a half-hour drive of the Parliament Buildings.

Caricature of Lord Frederick Hamilton, 1895, by “Spy,” Vanity Fair.

You might ask how the sport came to Canada, a country traditionally known for snowshoeing, the mode of winter transportation favoured by its Indigenous peoples and later adopted by European settlers.

Oddly, it had much to do with an English aristocrat living in Ottawa.

In January of 1887, Lord Frederick Hamilton, the aide-de-camp to Lord Lansdowne, the Governor General at that time, and brother to Lord’s Lansdowne’s wife, brought out some skis and took a turn on the hills of Rockcliffe Park near Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s home.

Hamilton, who was a diplomat, had been stationed at the British Embassy in St. Petersburg during the early 1880s prior to being posted to Canada. It was in Russia that Hamilton took up the sport. Coincidentally, the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg at the time of Hamilton’s posting, was none other than Lord Dufferin who had been Canada’s Governor General during the late 1870s.

In his memoir titled The Days Before Yesterday, Lord Hamilton recounts, “I brought out my Russian skis to Ottawa, the very first pair that had ever been seen in the New World. I coasted down hills on them amidst universal jeers; everyone declared that they were quite unsuited to Canadian conditions.”

Skiing at Rockcliffe Park, circa 1898, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3386372.

When exactly in January 1887 this memorable skiing event occurred is open to conjecture as it wasn’t reported in the local newspapers at that time, nor did Hamilton record the precise date in his memoirs. However, the most probable date is Saturday, January 22, 1887, though Saturday, January 15, is another possibility. It’s unlikely that Hamilton ventured out onto the slopes on a weekday. A Sunday would also have been improbable given the Lord’s Day Act which barred people from doing anything but go to Church on Sundays. On the first Saturday of that year, New Year’s Day, everybody would have spent the day home recovering from the previous night’s excesses. It was only on January 22 that the weather was perfect for skiing, other Saturdays being either punishingly cold or too wet to make skiing attractive.

Despite Hamilton’s claim of bringing skiing to North America, there are other claimants.

An 1895 article in the Ottawa Daily Citizen says that Mr. Anders Nostrom, “a Swedish gentleman” who lived in Ottawa, was the originator of the sport in the capital. When he was supposed to have done this is not mentioned. During the winter of 1895, Nostrom and a number of other Swedes demonstrated the sport by skiing over hills and along the Ottawa River. In that year’s winter carnival, the men paraded through Ottawa’s streets wearing sashes in the yellow and blue colours of the Swedish flag and carrying Swedish and Norwegian flags.

Another Ottawa Citizen article, which appeared in a regular weekly feature called “Old Time Stuff,” written during the 1920s and 1930s, makes mention of Lord Hamilton’s claim of bringing the first skis to North America. However, the journalist interviewed a Mr. W.J. Annand of Lindenlea, but formerly of Lancaster, Ontario, who said he first put on a pair of skis in 1872, some fifteen years before Lord Hamilton swooshed down that Rockcliffe Park hill. Annand came to Ottawa in 1874, and was certain that skis were already in Ottawa prior to Hamilton’s arrival in the city, but he was “not prepared to stake his oath on that.”

Still, yet another story, which appeared in the Ottawa Journal in 1899, concerned a pair of “Greenland skis” covered with sealskin, hairy side down on the underside of each ski with the grain of the fur pointing towards the heel of the skis to stop backsliding. The skis were displayed in the window of Messrs. Orme & Son on Sparks Street. Apparently, the skis, then owned by Mr. C.W. Lett, had been brought to Canada some forty years earlier. The skis’ backstory sounded like an opera’s script.

The story went that a young Greenland maiden had used them to escape her father. Skiing across snowy, moonlit fields she met up with her lover at the shore. Although she managed to board his waiting ship, her father caught up with her and demanded that she leave her lover and return home. She refused. The father verbally goaded the lover to disembark. In the ensuing fight, the father killed the lover. The distraught daughter remained on board the ship which soon sailed for Quebec, where the maiden got off, thereby bringing her skis to Canada.

Advertisement, Ottawa Journal, 24 January 1898.

Regardless of which tale you believe, there is little doubt that Lord Hamilton’s skiing adventure cast a spotlight on the new sport. Celebrity endorsements were just as effective in the nineteenth century as they are today. And Hamilton was a bona fide celebrity—a dashing, debonair aristocrat, the sixth son of the 1st Duke of Abercorn.

Skiing quickly took off in popularity among Ottawa’s elite.

One enthusiastic skier is reported as saying that the sport far outstrips tobogganing, “Standing erect and shooting down steep slopes at the speed of the fastest locomotives has to be experienced to be realized.”

He cautioned, however, that working uphill was not an easy task for the novice.

During its early days, the name of the sport and its spelling had not yet been standardized. Skis were sometimes known as Norwegian snowshoes to distinguish them from Canadian snowshoes. In Montreal, they were briefly called jimpatony shoes, after the person who introduced the sport to that city. The word ski itself, appears to have Norwegian roots, the word skilöber meaning a person who snowshoes. Consequently, for a time, skiing was called skilobning in North America. The term did not catch on. Ski was also sometimes spelled “skee” or “skei.”

Nineteenth century equipment was similar to what is used today for cross-country skiing.

Reportedly, early skis, which were made of maple or birch, were six to seven feet long, 3 ¾ inches wide in front, tapering to 3 ¼ inches in the middle and widening out slightly to 3 ½ inches at the tail. The toes of the skis were pointed and upturned. On the underside of each ski was a central groove to help the skier keep their legs together and parallel. The underside of the skis was smooth; wax and grease were regularly applied. Like today, ski boots were attached at the toe to the skis so that the heel could be easily raised.

One type of ski attachment was called “the Ottawa cane fitting.” This was a leather-covered cane strap that went around the heel of the boot with the two ends brought together tightly at the front of the toe and attached to a brass adjustment screw. The boot itself was made of oiled leather and worn several sizes larger than usual to accommodate several pairs of wool socks.

One distinguishing feature of a nineteenth-century skier’s equipment was a single pole or staff, six to seven feet long, made of hickory wood. At the pole’s snow end was a spike with a ring of cane and ribbing a few inches up so the pole wouldn’t sink too far into the snow. The pole was used for balance and breaking.

In addition to the “Ottawa cane fitting,” there was the “Ottawa skie” made, naturally, in Ottawa. During the late nineteenth century, the city was the centre for the manufacture of skis, “due to the energy and enterprise of Ottawa sportsmen and businessmen” said the Ottawa Journal. Their promotion of the sport helped the sport’s early rapid growth.

One interesting feature of the new sport was the active participation of women.

In 1894, the Ottawa Journal reported that it won’t be long in all probability before the American girl will go skilobning.” Two years later, a Harvard professor commented that the lives of the women of Norway have been “revolutionized by the ski and snowshoe.”

Ski Party near Ottawa, circa 1898, William Louis Scott fonds, Library and Archives Canada, 3386437.

Here in Ottawa, upper-class women embraced the sport.

The standard feminine skiing apparel consisted of a slightly shortened skirt with bands of red and black on the hem, red mittens, a sash, and a toque that contained a dash of bright colour such as scarlet.

Big ski parties were organized.

In January 1898, the Journal reported that among others, Miss Lemoine, Miss Powell and Miss Blair were out skiing on the hills. (Miss Blair was likely Miss Bessie Blair who was to die tragically in December 1901 when she fell through the ice while skating on the Ottawa River. Mr. Henry Harper, who attempted her rescue, was also to die. The statue of Sir Galahad on Wellington St. in front of the Parliament buildings was erected to honour his heroic sacrifice.)

By the late 1890s, the Gatineau Hills were already luring Ottawa skiers to test their skills on its slopes. Lord Aberdeen hosted a ski party near the small community of Ironside, Quebec in early January 1898. Ironside, which is today a suburb of Gatineau, was located on the west side of the Gatineau River, north of Lac Leamy. Fairy lake, or Lac des Fées, also became a popular skier venue for Ottawa civil servants who established a club house there.

By the time the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, skiing was well established, and was a big part of Ottawa’s winter life. Lord Frederick Hamilton, who launched the Canadian ski industry, died in 1928 at the age of 71.

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