To understand the development of Suicide Hill, one must also understand its founders, the Ishpeming Ski Club formerly known as the Norden Ski Club. The history of the Ishpeming Ski club did not begin on January 24, 1887, it began thousands of years ago. There is only one study of skiing in the Northwest, and it is mostly concerned with the Hemmestsveit brothers and Minnesota. Yet it is the State of Michigan which holds a special place where the skisport — as skiing was called a hundred years or so ago — is concerned. In Michigan townships and in nearby communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Norwegian immigrants organized the sport of skiing on a local basis. Sensing success, competition was opened to a wider region, and thanks to persistence, the town of Ishpeming hosted what was touted as the “Greatest Exhibition of Skiing Ever Witnessed in America.” A complete accounting of Ishpeming’s ski jumping history can be found at the National Ski Hall of Fame.
Several areas and hills were used before Suicide Hill came into existence. The first formal tournament was held on February 25, 1888, by the Norden Ski Club (renamed the Ishpeming Ski Club in 1901). During the early years, hills were fashioned out of snow pushed up against boards to form the scaffold, then snow was piled up for the bump or takeoff, and smoothed out for the landing. The Norwegians and Finns had differing views on ski jumping as the Finnish skiers used poles. At one point the Ski Club decided to let the Finnish boys in the club, poles and all. However, during one meet, when the best skiers had difficulty reaching long distances, and fell during competition, it was blamed on the Finnish boys as their poles ruined the track, attesting to the high level of competitiveness between nationalities in those early years. Competitions were held at hills which include Brasswire, circa 1901, Jackson Hill, circa 1907, East New York Hill, circa 1923, Rocky Walter Huns Anderson, circa 1924, with scaffolds built of man-made materials that provoked a certain amount of fear and danger, adding to the heightened spectra of adventure and daring, and giving way to tournaments exhibiting “death defying feats” by the town’s local jumpers.
Club officials kept looking for a better hill with greater capacity. Credit for discovering Suicide Hill goes to Peter Handberg and Leonard Flaa, at the time active officers of the Ishpeming Ski Club. Engineering authorities had previously advised the club that 165 feet was the maximum they could jump in the Old Jackson Hill and efforts were launched in 1925 to locate new hills. Flaa and Handberg, recalling remarks of those who had tramped that district, searched the territory and decided on the locale. They settled on the present location in Section 12, Negaunee; and negotiated a lease from Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company. Representative citizens and service club officers were invited to make an inspection, and when they concurred with the Flaa-Handberg findings, development work started. Work started in the autumn of 1925 on clearing, grading, and shaping the hill. Ishpeming turned in another of its famous performances for community effort – Suicide Hill was built by volunteer labor and donated materials. The effort was rewarded with scheduled a completion and the first meet on Suicide Hill to be held February 26, 1926.
Suicide, carved out of a pine forest, nestled among rocky bluffs, looks forbidding and formidable, as the man-made scaffold peers over the tree tops. The scaffold towers 140 feet towards the sky. Its structure is supported by 4 x 8″ I-beams bolted to a 4 to 5 foot cement pilar foundation, 2 x 4″ angle irons connecting the massive I-beams, and 4 x 8″ x 2.7 meter I-beams, with Douglas fir flooring, and particle board sideboards, stretching a length of 90 kilometers. Its scaffold can be seen towering over the tops of trees at several locations throughout Ishpeming and Negaunee.
Suicide Hill got its name when in 1926 Walter “Huns” Anderson was injured on the hill. The local newspaper reporter, Ted Butler, said “Sure it’s a good hill, but why not have a little color about it. I gave it the name a few days before it was used in 1926. Walter Anderson fell in practice a few days before the meet and was badly hurt. In the stories I sent out about him, I called it Suicide Hill and the name stuck”. “We don’t like the name ‘Suicide Hill,” James Flaa, club official protested, “because it keeps riders away. It creates the wrong impression of what troubles await them”. Actually, it’s one of the best hills in the country. Even Johanna Kolstad, the fine Norwegian woman skier, says she has only seen one better hill in the country. But the name did stick, and it has turned out to be a fine, competitive, and safe hill.
Suicide Hill gave Ishpeming the following men of honor:
*Though a team was picked for the 1940 Olympics, the games were not held because of World War II.
Suicide Hill is historically significant for its long association with the Ishpeming Ski Club and the development of the National Skiing Association (today called the United States Ski and Snowboard Assocation). It was also the impetus for having the National Ski Hall of Fame located here. Since its construction in 1925, Suicide Hill has been the single most important structure in community sports. Suicide Hill has produced Olympic participants, hosted 113 Suicide Hill competitions, the annual Paul Bietila Memorial tournament, the new Troy Gravedoni Memorial Tournament, and became the venue for Ishpeming’s contribution to nationally recognized competitive events, and was a lure for junior ski jumpers looking to conquer “THE 90”. It is the gathering point for all nationalities and countries to come together in the month of February in an aura of athletic prowess, to hopefully defend or bring their community to the forefront. The simple wood and metal structure, well-preserved, and carefully maintained continues to serve the City of Ishpeming and the Ishpeming Ski Club in the same capacity as its predecessors.
Suicide Hill remains quite competitive in nature, keeping its rich history alive, and adding to its ranks newer generations destined to take their spot in historical annals and archives. We have Rhys Hecox readying for the 2002 Olympic games, Ty Jacobson and Ray Hocking vying for 2006 Olympic bids, and up and coming juniors including Jordan Ruhmor, Cole Horton, and Colin Barton showing promise for success for future Olympics.
In 1999-2000 a group called the Ishpeming Skiers Preservation Committee nominated Suicide Hill for National Historic Designation. While this majestic structure and the town of Ishpeming awaits official word, its 140 foot scaffold towering toward the sky, and opening the door to the greatest event of all, is a constant reminder to the community that ski jumping remains the “KING” of all winter sports.