BERLIN, N.H. — A historic ski jump that once attracted up to 30,000 spectators and made New Hampshire an important winter sports destination after it opened in 1938 is getting a chance to soar again.
The Nansen Ski Jump in Milan lured some of the biggest names in jumping to the state's North Country for decades and was host to Olympic tryouts, World Cup competitions and four national championships before the last jumper flew off it in 1985.
Now, an effort is underway to revive the dilapidated jump and make it a tourist attraction featuring story boards, a picnic area and observation platform at the takeoff point so visitors can get a jumper's eye view of the seemingly bottomless panorama. The timber and overgrown brush that have obscured the jump from view are scheduled to be cleared next spring and grant proposals are being written to develop the state park around it.
The 70-meter jump is a monument to the region's rich cultural history and the Scandinavians and Canadians who were brought in to clear forests for the nearby paper mills. They brought with them their devotion to skiing and ski jumping and championed the building of the jump by the Nansen Ski Club — the oldest continuously operating ski club in the country, formed in 1872.
The club's membership was initially restricted to Scandinavian men and its meetings were conducted in Norwegian. It eventually eased the restrictions in deference to Canadian winter sports devotees lured to jobs at the paper mills.
"There's a lot of history, a lot of interest and a lot of potential," said Vaughn Roy, 72, of Berlin. He said he first worked up the courage to go off the jump at age 17 and made about 75 jumps in all.
"It's exhilarating," he said. "The tower is pretty intimidating and sways in the wind. The view is tremendous. When you're in the air, you feel like you're floating."
The jump was the brainchild of Alf Halvorson, an avid skier and jumper who was president of the club since age 18 and went on to coach the 1932 U.S. Olympic ski team that competed in nearby Lake Placid, New York.
At its inception, the Nansen was the highest steel-structured jump in the world, according to Walt Nadeau, vice president of the Berlin Coos County Historical Society. Its tower sits 171 feet above the ground and soars above surrounding trees on Cates Hill. He said Halvorson had hoped to host the 1944 Olympics, which were ultimately canceled by World War II.
More than 25,000 people attended the Olympic tryouts in 1938 — the official opening of the jump. It was broadcast on radio stations nationwide. Among the first off the jump was female Norwegian jumping legend Johanne Kolstad, who returned several more times.
Ben Wilson, director of the bureau of historic sites with the state Parks and Recreation Department, said ski museums in New Hampshire and Maine are part of the coalition of people working to preserve the jump. A Maine steel company — still in business today as Hussey Seating Co — helped design the project and provided the steel to build it. He estimates it will take $100,000 to turn it into a tourist site, though there are no plans to use Nansen for jumping again.
The Friends of the Nansen Ski Jump will work to reverse 30 years of neglect at the jump where Roy long ago launched himself skyward.
"It's over before you know it," he recalled. "Too quick."