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The lost Rossland ski medal

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Perusing old issues of the BC Museums Association newsletter, Museum Roundup, I came across this startling item from the January 1967 edition:

Does the museum still have that medal? Collections manager Sara Wright confirms they do!

The description in the museum’s artifact database says the medal “consists of a silver Maltese cross metal medallion suspended from a gold metal pin bar.” The front is engraved “Canadian Championship Rossland 1900/2nd Prize Ski Race.” The reverse has “Won by” but there is no name on it.

(Courtesy Rossland Museum and Discovery Centre)

It’s a cool item, made doubly so by the story of its acquisition. Yet somewhere along the way, that letter from the CBC disappeared and the story became disconnected from the artifact. And frankly, parts of it, at least as related in the newsletter, are either wrong or don’t make sense.

In his book The Ski Race, Sam Wormington quotes an unidentified newspaper as follows about the race in question, which took place Feb. 17, 1900:

At 10 o’clock the ski races were started. The competitors were numerous and the contests exciting. The course was from the summit of Monte Cristo mountain, thence along the pole line of the West Kootenay Power & Light company, thence to the head of Washington street and down the thoroughfare, winning at the bridge over Trail creek.
The first was for the ski running championship of Canada, amateurs only. The prizes were the Mackintosh cup and gold and silver medals. There were six starters in line … Olaus Jeldness (twice winner of the cup), Alex Olson, P. Ritsal, Nels Sayter, T. Hartman and A. Sostad. From the start Mr. Jeldness had it all his own way … Alex Olson won the second prize.

Most of the same crew also took part in the next day’s ski jumping contest on Spokane Street from Second to First Avenues. Jeldness won again with jumps of 28 feet, one inch and 26 feet, while Olson was well back with a jump of 23 feet, seven inches.

Jeldness, credited with introducing skiing to Rossland, remains a well-known figure. There’s even a statue in his honor on Columbia Avenue. But who was Alex Olson? (Or Oleson, as his name was spelled in the Nelson Tribune’s account of the race.)

It’s not clear. He doesn’t appear to have competed at the Rossland carnival before or after 1900. I found several men by that name, including a miner from Phoenix, although nothing suggests he was a skier.

The best candidate, although I can’t place him definitively in Rossland, is Aleksander Olsen (or Olson), an engineer who came to Canada from Norway sometime in the 1890s. He moved to Montreal to design grain elevators and between 1911 and 1916 won five combined ski-jumping and cross-country championships. In 1915 in Ottawa, he broke the Canadian ski jump record by three feet with two jumps of 125 feet during an event held before the Duke and Duchess of Connaught.

Olsen went back to Norway and married Solveig Ritter in 1921. Their son Kaare was born in Oslo the following year. They then returned to Montreal, where second son Rolf was born in 1923. Both sons also grew up to be ski jumpers and here they are depicted with their father in the Montreal Gazette of Dec. 15, 1939.

Sadly, Rolf was killed in France in 1944 fighting in World War II. Kaare only died in 2014. A third brother, Alexsander, was a noted football player who was born in 1929 and died in 2017. There was also a sister, Ella.

Aleksander Olsen died in Montreal in 1981, age 90. And therein lies a problem: if his obituary was correct, he would have only been nine or 10 during the Rossland Winter Carnival of 1900.

Back to the story in the museums newsletter, which contains several discrepancies. It claims the medal was from a race “about 50 years ago,” i.e. circa 1917, despite the fact it says 1900 on it.

The medal has a 1961 accession date, but the newsletter states it was found in 1965. It also says a skier recovered it “about 150 miles north of Oslo” but doesn’t explain exactly where or how. It adds the skier recognized the inscription “BC,” helping it find its way home. The medal is not inscribed “BC,” although it does say “Canadian.”

The story correctly attributes the medal to a skier named Olsen, but given that his name is not inscribed on the medal, presumably someone looked it up in the newspaper once it arrived at the museum. (I checked, unsuccessfully, for any other mentions of the medal’s discovery in digitized newspapers online.)

Finally, the story claims Olsen lost the medal “half a century ago during a visit to his native land.” That could well have been, given that Aleksander Olsen returned to Norway for a few years before 1922, but how did they know?

Curiously, there is a village called Rossland on Norway’s west coast, but I don’t know how it got its name. There isn’t a lot of information about it online except its location and population as of 2019 (333).

According to the Rossland Weekly Miner of Feb. 22, 1900, 20 medals were created for the carnival that year. “They will be distributed as soon as they have been engraved,” the newspaper wrote. So why wasn’t Olsen’s name on his?

The first prize medals are of gold and the second usually in silver. The majority are in the shape of a pendant Maltese cross ... [T]here are first and second prize medals for the three-mile skating contest; the first and second prizes for the one-mile skating race, the first and second prizes for fancy skating, first and second prize for the ski jumping, ski racing, snowshoe race, and other events.

The Rossland ski medal wasn’t the only interesting thing I came across in the Museum Roundup newsletters from the 1960s.

I’ve long wondered how the Ferguson townsite in the Lardeau won provincial historic site status, which was conferred on Oct. 16, 1968. Not that it didn’t deserve such a designation, but at that time there weren’t many buildings left, and there were lots of other West Kootenay ghost towns equally worth of recognition.

The answer turned up in the October 1968 edition of Museum Roundup, and it’s not something I ever would have guessed.

And yet, this status didn’t prevent the loss of the Lardeau Hotel or the other few remaining buildings at the time. Nor did it seem to have any effect on the townsite being acquired by the Niho Land & Cattle Co. in 1998 and the lots sold to recreational users, some of whom have built new cabins, possibly on the same land the government previously did not want disturbed by bottle pickers!

I made two other discoveries in the pages of Museum Roundup, one to do with Revelstoke and another with Nelson, but those will be the subject of separate posts.

— With thanks to Sara Wright and Sarah Taekema-Slot

The crumbling Lardeau Hotel at Ferguson is seen at right in the late 1960s or early ‘70s, but I don’t know what the other buildings in the distance are. (Ellis Anderson photo)

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