Warren’s World: Skiing at Chicago’s Soldier Field

By Beacon Staff

In the mid-1950s, someone hooked up an air compressor to a hose, rammed the air through some plumbing with water running through it and started making artificial snow. Ski resort marketing directors don’t like anything artificial, so they immediately changed the name to man-made snow. But back in those days it was artificial snow no matter what anyone called it. A few years later, almost every resort east of Chicago had some kind of air compressor running whenever the temperature was below freezing.

It didn’t take too long before every air compressor that was rented out in the summer to run jackhammers to dig up streets was rented out all winter to cover mud with white slippery stuff. Then the marketing directors started to get into the picture and Grand Targhee advertised, “Our snow comes out of the clouds, not guns.” That’s all well and good when it does, but gradually as the snow making machinery was being refined other people got into the act. It wasn’t too long before some promoters got together with a couple of engineers and they located the highest hill within 20 miles of Chicago where they could install their artificial snow making machines. It sure looked like the perfect place: not too steep, almost 200 vertical feet and plenty of parking to handle the anticipated crowds. They even had bathrooms already in place.

That perfect place was Soldiers Field. That’s right, the home of the Chicago Bears during the football months and unused the rest of the year because they don’t make the playoffs too often.

The promoters raised the money and the engineers installed three or four rope tows halfway up the bleachers where you walk horizontally around while looking for your seat. They filled those wide walkway transitions with hay. An out-of-work Austrian ski instructor/carpenter was the ski school director. A toboggan slide was built behind the goal posts with the outrun ending out somewhere near the 10-yard line.

With everything in place for the start of the artificial ski season, they only had to wait for cold weather to turn on the air compressors and the snow making machines. You know what one air compressor sounds like? Fifteen of them are 15 times as loud. And so they started filling the stadium bleachers with man-made snow, covering everything including the straw. A few days later when they had enough snow made, they started selling rope tow tickets and hustling ski lessons.

Actually the Soldier Field ski resort was quite nice the first time I filmed it. But with only the Austrian instructor and three pupils on a Thursday afternoon skiing in the vastness of the stadium, I couldn’t get very good pictures. Two weeks later, I had a Saturday afternoon available when I could come back and film the thousands of Chicago skiers carving turns fairly close to home, if they lived near Soldier Field.

When I came back with my camera the resort had changed. The engineers had forgotten that if it was cold enough to make snow, the uncovered pipes throughout the stadium would freeze. Every pipe in the stadium had frozen then burst and that was only one of the problems.

Chicago had two warm days and some of the man-made snow had melted and drained down into the bales of hay. When hay gets wet, something happens that makes it heat up. This caused the snow covering the hay to melt and there was a band of mildewing ugly brown hay clears across the ski run about 30 feet wide.

The Soldier Field ski resort developers also forgot that the millions of commuters’ cars and tens of thousands of Chicago chimneys deposit a daily blanket of soot onto anything within 100 miles of Soldier Field. As a result, whatever snow hadn’t melted was the color of a gray sweat suit.

I shot a roll or two of film of three people hauling a toboggan up to where the start of the slide was. They hoped to have enough speed out of the upper half of the run to slide across the rotting hay into the outrun and somehow coast as far as the goal line.

It didn’t happen. The toboggan stopped half way across the hay and the three bodies went tumbling on down through the bleachers. That accident sealed the fate of the artificial snow experiment within Chicago city limits. Two weeks later the injured toboggan riders had hired a contingency fee attorney and were suing the resort developers and the city for $3 million.