The Rockcliffe Ski Jump

23 March 1937

Ottawa residents of today might be surprised to learn that one hundred years ago, the centre of skiing in the Ottawa area was Rockcliffe Park, not the Gatineau hills. Sure, the hills of Gatineau were popular among hard core skiers, but they were too far away for those without transport. Rockcliffe Park, on the other hand, was close by, just a streetcar ride away from downtown Ottawa. The Park’s crown jewel was a ski jump operated by the Ottawa Ski Club. The jump was the location of many provincial and Dominion ski-jumping championships during the first part of the twentieth century, drawing thousands of spectators.

Sigurd Lockeberg ski jumping at Rockcliffe Park, circa 1912, Ski Jumping Hill Archive.

Ski jumping in the capital started around 1904. In February of that year, a small notice appeared in the Ottawa Citizen advertising a meeting at the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club on Elgin Street for the purpose of organizing a jumping competition at Rockcliffe Park. The outcome of the meeting was unfortunately not reported. However, another contemporary news article noted that a man by the name of Jack Lawless, a noted canoeist, along with other Ottawa residents were busy practicing ski jumps in Rockcliffe area close to the Ottawa Canoe Club. It seems they attracted some high-class attention. Lord and Lady Minto, who were both described as enthusiastic skiers, were frequent spectators. Ski jumping was described as a “most spectacular sport” which had already taken hold in Montreal, where Norwegians were making long aerial leaps in Fletcher’s Field, now called Jeanne-Manse Park, opposite Mont Royal.

The sport really began to take off following the establishment of the Ottawa Ski Club in 1910. A later newspaper article attributed the construction of the first ski jump tower in Rockcliffe Park to Sigurd Lockeberg and two friends, Frank Bedard and Joe Morin. It was said that the trio illegally cut down trees in broad daylight to make the jump, with the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the lease holder to Rockcliffe Park, casting a blind eye to their doings.

Rockcliffe Park, with its many excellent natural ski jumps, was also a favourite spot of Ottawa Senators to both ski and try their luck at ski jumping. Bruce Ridpath, a forward with the team, reportedly “flew” 29 feet in one of his leaps in early 1911 when he was out one afternoon with teammates Fred Lake, Hamby Shore and Albert “Dubbie” Kerr. Ridpath’s career with the Stanley Cup champions was to be cut short later that year when he was hit by a car in Toronto and suffered a fractured skull.

In March 1912, the ski jump at Rockcliffe Park was the site for the first ski-jumping championship hosted by the Ottawa Ski Club (OSC). The Ottawa Journal described the event as “the nearest diversion Ottawa has to aeroplaning.” In addition to members of the OSC, jumpers from Montreal and Berlin Mills, New Hampshire were invited to compete in front of several thousand avid spectators. Members of the OSC captured six of the twelve prizes provided by the Club. Adolph Olsen of Berlin Mills wowed the thousands of spectators by turning a somersault in the air while jumping—”a feat that would appear impossible unless seen with your own eyes.” The overall champion of the event based on both distance and style was Ottawa’s own Sigurd Lockeburg. Reportedly, Lockeburg received a cup donated by Count Malynski of Russia who happened to be in Ottawa at that time. As an encore, Sigurd Lockeburg and his brother Hans made a tandem jump of 65 feet—a first for Ottawa.

Note the prevalence of Scandinavian names among the jumpers. Ski jumping was a sport with a long pedigree in Sweden and Norway, dating back to the early nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the sport came across the Atlantic with immigrants from that region to Canada and northern United States.

Rockcliffe Ski Jump, “Suicide Hill,” Newton Collection, City of Ottawa Archives

The initial Rockcliffe jump was a ramshackle affair, apparently made of cordwood. It blew down in 1914 to be replaced the following year by a tall artificial tower some 128 feet high. The new ski jump was constructed on the highest point in the park and towered more than 50 feet over the trees. The total descent from the top of the chute to the river level was 255 feet. It was hoped that the slide would allow for jumps in excess of 140 feet.

It did not disappoint. At a championship meet held in February 1915, Ragnar Omtvedt of Chicago jumped a record 145 feet from the highest take-off which was constructed by the OSC especially for his visit. Meanwhile, Adolph Olsen, the Canadian champion, increased his record leap from 92 feet to 122 feet. 

Sadly, this impressive ski jump did not last long. It blew down later in 1915, thus ending ski jumping in Rockcliffe Park until after the Great War. An ice toboggan slide was built on the site instead. Ski jumping moved to a site at Dome Hill near Ironside, Quebec, now a suburb of Gatineau. But it was too far out to attract many people.

In late 1919, the Ottawa Ski Club announced that the Ottawa Improvement Commission had given its blessing to the Club’s construction of a new ski jump at the Rockcliffe Park site.  In February 1920, the new jump was inaugurated. At that first tournament, the Duke of Devonshire, the Governor General, donated the Devonshire Cup for the best amateur ski jumper, resident in the Ottawa area, defined as living within a thirty-mile radius of the capital. There were also prizes for intermediate and junior competitions. The winner of the first Devonshire Cup was Arthur Pinault of the OSC, winning both for style and a distance of 77 feet.

Rockcliffe Ski Jump, circa 1930, National Film Board of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, 3224095.

Ski jumping became a fixture at Rockcliffe Park for the next three years. Indicative of the growing interest in the sport, the new Cliffside Ski Club of Gatineau built at considerable club expense a first-class ski jumping facility at Fairy Lake (Lac des Fées) in 1921. It was a good thing they did. In early 1923, the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the fore-runner of Federal District Commission and the National Capital Commission, closed the Rockcliffe ski jump on the advice of the Department of Justice over liability fears should a jumper or a spectator get hurt at the site.

It took several years of lobbying and negotiation on the part of the Ottawa Ski Club, the Cliffside Ski Club and the City of Ottawa with the OIC to work out a deal that would enable ski-jumping to resume at Rockcliffe Park. Legislation was passed in 1925 that permitted the OIC to return the site of the ski jump back to the City of Ottawa and avoid any potential liability.

After a lot of further dickering, it was finally agreed that the Ottawa Ski Club and the Cliffside Ski Club would share equally in the cost of rebuilding the wooden Rockcliffe ski jump at a cost of about $3,000. Plans for a steel structure were dropped when the quote from the Dominion Bridge Company came in at a whopping $12,000. The two clubs would also share the maintenance of the facility.

In 1926, the new Rockcliffe jump was ready for competitions with the Ontario championships held at the site under the auspices of the Ottawa Ski Club and the Dominion championships under the auspices of the Cliffside Ski Club.

Rockcliffe Ski Jump from Rockcliffe Drive, 8 July 1930, Library and Archives Canada, 5066194.

For the next ten years, ski jumping continued at the Rockcliffe facility as well as at the Fairy Lake jump which was taken over in the mid 1930s by the Norland Ski Club.

However, without warning, on 23 March 1937, C.E. Mortureux, President of the Ottawa Ski Club, announced to the press that the ski jump at Rockcliffe Park had been sold to M. Zagerman & Co. for $125 and would be removed immediately. Mortureux said that it was a Board decision to demolish the ski jump, though it was not unanimous. He said that the OSC was spending $200 per year on maintaining the ski jump and that these dollars could be better spent on upgrading the natural ski jump at the OSC’s site at Camp Fortune. Mortureux also attributed the decision to a decline in ski-jumping in recent years, and that the closure of the Rockcliffe jump was in keeping with similar decisions made by ski clubs elsewhere to move ski jumps to hills outside of urban centres.

Ottawa’s skiing community was shocked by the announcement. Two pro-ski jump members of the OSC’s Board of Directors, Sigurd Lockeberg and Gérard Dupuis, were out of town on the day of the Board made its decision and did not vote. It was not reported whether their votes would have made a difference.

The decision to close the jump set off a firestorm of letters in the Ottawa Citizen. The president of the Cliffside Ski Club, Stewart Bruce, wrote Mortureux asking for an explanation of why the tower had been sold without consultation, pointing out that in 1926 Cliffside had paid $1,536.51 towards the costs of construction, while the Ottawa Ski Club had paid $1,429.97. He estimated that with a 5% depreciation rate, the ski jump was still worth $1,900. 

The Norland Ski Club also issued a statement say that Norland had approached the OSC in late 1936 with a proposition to keep the Rockcliffe ski jump open and in safe and sound condition for the use of all Ottawa ski clubs. In response to this overture, the OSC had a solicitor draw up a draft agreement which demanded that the OSC receive 30 per cent of gross proceeds from any competition held by Norland. Norland refused. As well, the Norland statement indicated the Club’s surprise that the OSC was spending $200 per year on maintenance as Norland members supplied 90 per cent of the labour (gratis) to maintain the jump and often contributed themselves the materials necessary for its maintenance. The statement also took issue with Mortureux’s statement that ski-jumping was on the decline, suggesting instead that it never had an opportunity to flourish under the direction of C.E. Mortureux, the “oft-called Father of Skiing.”

The Ottawa Citizen came to Mortureux’s defence, pointing out the recent closure of two Quebec ski jumps. The article also argued that ski jumping was on the decline owing to the growing popularity of downhill skiing which took more training and a “higher degree of brains and skill.” It added that only the “halt and lame” could be induced to come out to watch ski jumping.

This brought Sigurd Lockeberg, hitherto silent, into the fray. In a letter to the Citizen, he indicated that he had been “heartbroken” when he had heard the news of the ski jump’s demise. He rejected the Citizen’s negative comments, saying that ski jumping required fully as much skill and brains as did other forms of skiing. Moreover, if only the “halt and lame” could be induced to come out to watch the sport, then this would mean the Governor General down to little boys and girls are “a lot of cripples and nitwits.”

He also disputed the notion that the sport was in decline in the Ottawa area or elsewhere. While two jumps had been closed in Quebec, there were special factors that accounted for them. He believed that Rockcliffe was the ideal sport for ski jumping, and that it was a pity that some members of the OSC’s executive decided to tear down the tower. He added that Mortureux himself had indicated that the Board’s decision to demolish the jump had been “irregular” and that he regretted it. Lockeberg closed his statement with some mollifying words, saying that Mortureax had done a lot for skiers in Ottawa, adding that he hoped that the pause in ski jumping at Rockcliffe would only be temporary.

It was not to be. Although the Ottawa Ski Club asked the city of Ottawa to reserve the right to erect a temporary jump in the event of a Dominion championship, the Federal District Commission was not interested. It said that a jump didn’t fit in with its plans for Rockcliffe Park and that reforestation of the ski jump site would commence immediately.

However, Lockeberg was correct when he said that ski jumping was still popular in the Ottawa area. Jumping continued at the Ottawa Ski Club’s site at Camp Fortune for almost another 60 years. In 1960, O’Keefe’s, the beer company, began sponsoring an international ski-jumping event at Camp Fortune, a relationship that lasted for close to two decades. In 1967, the Centennial International Jumping Competition was held at Camp Fortune on the new 60-metre Lockeberg ski jump, named for Sigurd Lockeberg who had done so much for the sport over the decades.

After a downturn in the sport in the late 1970s, ski jumping experienced a revival during the early 1980s led in part by the success of Ottawa-born Horst Bulau, who took the Canadian senior ski jumping championship in 1979 and who subsequently won thirteen World Cup ski-jumping victories during the 1981-1983 period However, the sport subsequently began to fade again. In 1993, the NCC, which had taken over Camp Fortune from the bankrupt Ottawa Ski Club, dismantled the ski jump owing to structural defects which rendered it unsafe.

Various attempts have subsequently been made to revive the sport at Camp Fortune but have so far met with only modest success.

Sources:

Gatineau Historical Society, 2021. Echoes from the Past.

Ottawa Citizen, 1904. “Sporting Notes,” 25 February.

——————, 1912. “Ski Jumpers Made Records,” 4 March.

——————, 1915. “Omtvedt Gave Great Exhibition But Failed to Create New Record in Ski Jumps at Rockcliffe Park,” 22 February.

——————, 1920. “Duke of Devonshire’s Trophy And City Ski Championship Was Won by Arthur Pinault,” 1 March.

——————, 1922. “On The Ski Trails,” 30 December.

—————–, 1923. “Ski-Jumping At Rockcliffe,” 5 February.

——————, 1925. “Approve Plans To Seek Saction of Rockcliffe Jump,” 23 January.

——————, 1926. “New Ski Jump At Rockcliffe,” 2 February.

——————, 1937. “Ski Jump At Rockcliffe Is Landmark Now Vanishing,” 23 March.

——————, 1937. “Removal of Ski Tower Is Giving Rise To Controversy,” 24 March.

——————, 1937. “On the Ski Trails,” 25 March.

——————, 1937. “The Slump in Ski Towers,” 26 March.

——————, 1937. “Letter to the Editor by S. Lockeberg,” 29 March.

——————, 1937. “reforestation On Site Of Rockcliffe Ski Jump Planned,” 23 April.

——————, 1976. “Ski jumping resembles hand-me-down,” 10 March.

——————, 1982. “Bulau zooms to lead in World Ski jumping,” 25 January.

——————, 1993. “Camp Fortune’s ski jump hil casualty of structural defects,” 28 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1904. “Skiing Contests In Montreal,” 22 February.

——————-, 1904. “Great Spot For Skiers,” 23 February.

——————-, 1904. “Skieing,” [sic], 1 March 1904.

——————-, 1911. “Hockey Stars Take To Ski Jumping, Like Real Natives,” 14 January.

——————-, 1912. “Ski-Jumping At Rockcliffe,” 11 March.

——————-, 1915. “Ottawa Ski Club Building A Big Chute On Rockcliffe Park Site,” 7 January.

——————-, 1919. “Not All Who Jumped Dome Hill Landed Right Side Up With Care,” 18 February.

——————-, 1919. “Ottawa Club Plans To Revive Jumping,” 16 December.

——————-, 1925. “Plans For Big Ski Tower Completed,” 1 August.

Ski Jumping Archive, 2021. Ottawa, http://www.skisprungschanzen.com/.

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