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#259 COLLAPSE OF BLYTH ARENA

TAHOE NUGGET #259 COLLAPSE OF SQUAW VALLEY’S BLYTH ARENA    Among some longtime locals, the collapse of Squaw Valley’s Blyth Arena on March 29, 1983, is a legendary tale of conspiracy, mystery, and subterfuge. Even after 30 years, unsubstantiated rumors still persist that the structure, completed in 1959 for the 1960 Winter Olympics, was purposely destroyed to expand parking at the famed resort. Analysis by engineers and Squaw Valley management determined the likely cause to be inadequ…

TAHOE NUGGET #259 COLLAPSE OF SQUAW VALLEY’S BLYTH ARENA   

Among some longtime locals, the collapse of Squaw Valley’s Blyth Arena on March 29, 1983, is a legendary tale of conspiracy, mystery, and subterfuge. Even after 30 years, unsubstantiated rumors still persist that the structure, completed in 1959 for the 1960 Winter Olympics, was purposely destroyed to expand parking at the famed resort.

Analysis by engineers and Squaw Valley management determined the likely cause to be inadequate engineering combined with heavy snow buildup during the big winter of 1983. These claims, however, have done little to assuage those who still think dynamite brought the building down. 

When Alex Cushing, owner of the relatively primitive Squaw Valley ski area, managed to land the 1960 Winter Olympics in the spring of 1955, plans for building the required infrastructure got underway in earnest. It was a huge undertaking with a $16 million price tag.

As part of Alex Cushing’s pitch to land the 1960 Winter Games, he promised that the United States would build a brand new Olympic Village from scratch, which pleased many non-European delegates during this Cold War period.

One of the key structures for the VIII Olympic Winter Games was the Blyth Memorial Arena. Easily accessible by both spectators and athletes, the arena was a modern and uniquely engineered structure that had won first place over 600 other entries in the 1958 Progressive Architecture Design Award for recreational facilities.

Blyth Arena was enclosed on three sides with the south side open. The building was designed similar to a suspension bridge with a span of about 100 yards. There were 16 steel support columns (six on each end of the arena) that held up the roof, but no true support columns within the perimeter of the arena. The roof beams were a clear span from the ridge to the side walls and abutments. Cables anchored to concrete blocks were attached to the top center of each beam, so the dead weight of the blocks counterbalanced the roof load.

Blyth Arena was still under construction during the February 1959 North American Championship winter sports competition, which was billed as a “dry run” for athletes who hoped to compete in the upcoming 1960 Olympics.

The west and east sections of the roof were actually separate structures capable of flexing independently under the weight of snow. The arena could seat up to 9,000 spectators plus room for 2,500 people standing, and provided a 360 degree unobstructed view of the ice rink.

Blyth Arena had already withstood some heavy hitting winters such as 1969 and 1982, but the 1983 season was a monster with rapid-fire storms. It still ranks as one of the worst in California history. (See Nugget #257)

Unlike most buildings in snow country, which are beefed up structurally to passively carry anticipated snow loads, Blyth was designed with an active system to make the roof shed snow. The roof itself consisted of galvanized metal with the lower section heated so that snow at the bottom would constantly slide off into concrete troughs at the west and east ends of the building. That allowed snow on the upper portion of the roof to also slide to the bottom rim.

Heat was produced by the huge refrigeration compressor that kept the ice rink artificially frozen. In the years following the Winter Games, however, the compressor was replaced with a smaller, more energy efficient unit supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

Note lack of snow on Blyth Arena roof when snow-shedding system was working properly in 1960. Courtesy Bill Briner, Squaw Valley’s official photographer during the Olympics.

During the 1970s, complaints that the roof leaked were sent to the U.S. Forest Service which had assumed ownership of the building after the 1960 Games. Instead of simply caulking the cable-related openings so that the building’s active snow-load management system could continue to function properly, the Forest Service coated the entire roof with fiberglass waterproofing. Once that was done, snow no longer slid off the roof as designed.   

During the summer of 1982, the Forest Service surrendered ownership of Blyth Arena when Congress passed legislation to liquidate the federal holdings in Squaw Valley. Subsequently the former Olympic Village (present-day Olympic Village Inn) was sold to a developer and Blyth was purchased by Squaw Valley Ski Corporation.

After Squaw bought Blyth, Peter Bansen, a Ski Corp employee, volunteer fireman, and former assistant manager of the rink, took over running the facility.

By late December 1982, deep accumulations on the roof of Blyth threatened the structure. To reduce the load, Ski Corp brought in snow cats to plow the roof; snow depths ranged from four to eight feet. This winter was far from done, however, and heavy wet snow continued to pile up in the Tahoe Sierra. Frequent storm days drove skiers off the mountain and onto the protected ice rink making for handsome profits.

The classic ski movie “Hot Dog” was being filmed at Squaw during the winter of ’83. The production company was using portions of the Blyth facility for storing props and equipment. Many Squaw Valley and North Shore locals were cast as extras in this flick.

On March 29, 1983, Blyth Arena was booked with a Tiny Tots skating session in the morning, public skating in the afternoon and broomball games in between. Peter Bansen went to work at 6 a.m. that morning, fired up the compressors and picked up the receipts from the previous evening.

To this day Bansen doesn’t know why, but as he walked on the rink’s ice surface he looked up at the roof. Two of the huge, steel box beams that supported the roof were bending at just about the middle of their span. Deeply concerned, Bansen met with Ski Corp’s General Manager Jimmy Mott and asked him to come down to the rink to check out the situation. After looking at the Blyth support beams, Mott told Bansen “I don’t know what I’m looking at – just do whatever you think is best.”

Bansen wasn’t sure if a roof failure was imminent or even likely, but he decided to err on the side of caution. He closed the arena for the day. He changed the answering machine message, called all employees and told them not to come in, and when the “Hot Dog” production crew arrived he killed the electricity and told them there was a power failure. To be sure that none of his staff entered the building he changed the locks. When he left, he believed that the facility was empty.

Once outside, he inspected the building and noticed that the lower cables that supported the two distorted beams were starting to fail. As each individual wire in the woven cable snapped, it generated a chilling, flat twang. Bizarrely, the roof didn’t appear to have too much snow on it, except for a drift in the middle that extended from the edge of the roof almost to the ridge. 

Rink manager Pete Bansen was walking across the parking lot when a huge portion of the roof collapsed with a loud boom and billowing cloud of dust. Despite all of Bansen’s precautions, Squaw Valley employee John Moors had entered the building to work on a special project. A large chunk of snow trapped him inside the building for a few minutes, but luckily he escaped unscathed and there were no injuries or fatalities

A forensic engineering report released in 1987 pointed out that the arena was structurally under-designed for snow loads at that location. In 1977 a group of consultants had agreed that the structure was in good shape, but recommended additional support to bring the building up to code. Money was spent on improvements, but nothing was done to increase the load capacity.

The collapse of Blyth Arena left a gaping hole in our collective memories of all the historic events that occurred there, including the U.S. hockey team’s miraculous 1960 victory over the Gold Medal-defending Russians.  

Until its collapse, Blyth Arena had been very popular with locals and visitors alike who enjoyed the year ‘round skating there. Figure skating exhibitions, youth hockey and broomball leagues brought in thousands of people every year.      

Blyth Memorial Arena was a conspicuous landmark and epicenter for Olympic competition during those glorious Winter Games at Squaw Valley.

Special thanks to Pete Bansen for sharing his comprehensive overview of the Blyth Arena history and collapse.

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By Mark McLaughlin

Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author, photographer and professional speaker with 7 books and more than 900 articles in print. Mark has lived at Lake Tahoe for 40+ years and is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip guide. Mark has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel, The Weather Channel, the BBC, and in many historical documentaries.

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