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Finding Minnesota: Birthplace Of Water Skiing

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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LAKE CITY, Minn. (WCCO) — Even though he’s just 17 years old, Travis Ryan has been water skiing for more than a decade.

“Oh, it’s awesome,” he said. “I mean, it’s nice and cool. You get to be out with all your friends and everything.”

Travis skis on the very lake where another teenager invented water skiing 90 years ago.

Lake Pepin, a wide spot in the Mississippi River, inspired 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson to invent the sport in 1922.

“Some people referred to him as ‘Crazy Sammy,'” said Lake City Marina Director Mark Lutjen.

Samuelson was stubborn and persistent, which helped him accomplish what no one had done before — he found a way to glide across the lake on a pair of skis.

“He had skied on snow,” Lutjen said. “And he thought it could be done on water.”

Samuelson did it with a couple of long, heavy pieces of lumber – 8 feet long and 9 inches wide. He boiled the tips for two days, and used vises to bend them into place. Then he took scrap leather from a harness shop to keep his feet in place.

The breakthrough came after several unsuccessful attempts with those pine boards fully beneath him – but underwater.

“Finally, he thought, ‘I wonder if I brought the tips of the skis up out of the water, if I could get up?’” Lutjen said. “And after several tries on July 2, 1922, on a Sunday afternoon, Ralph Samuelson got up on skis.”

Samuelson later performed the first ski jump from a greased-up ramp on Lake Pepin, and then he became the first speed-skier when a Northwest pilot pulled him behind his World War I Curtiss flying boat – reaching speeds of 80 miles per hour.

Samuelson drew crowds of people to local festivals, but the world barely noticed until decades later.

“He really kind of admitted years later that he just didn’t understand what he had created,” Lutjen said. “It was just something he wanted to do.”

Lake City was officially recognized as the birthplace of water skiing in 1966, by the American Water Ski Association.

Samuelson never applied for a patent for his invention, and didn’t make any money from it. In fact, he went through bankruptcy in later years and died from cancer in 1977.

In his honor, Lake City is holding its 41st-annual Water Ski Days on June 22-24.

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