The Man Who Invented Water Skiing

One hundred years ago, Ralph Samuelson successfully skied across the waters of Lake Pepin

Ralph Samuelson
Ralph Samuelson on water skiis via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5

One winter, while skiing down snowy hills with fellow neighborhood kids, Ralph Samuelson had an idea.

“If you could ski on snow,” he wondered, “why not on water?”

In the summer of 1922, Samuelson, then 18, began his attempts to stand up on skis on Lake Pepin, just a few blocks from his house in Lake City, Minnesota. After lots of trial and error, he eventually succeeded, and one of the world’s most beloved water sports was born.

This summer marks water skiing's 100th anniversary, and people living in Samuelson’s hometown want to make sure no one forgets his contribution to warm-weather fun.

On July 2, at 4:11 p.m.—the exact moment 100 years ago that Samuelson rose from the water on skis behind his brother’s boat—Lake City leaders will unveil a life-sized bronze statue of Samuelson.

The new statue will be located at Ohuta Park and Beach on the shores of Lake Pepin, which stretches for some 20 miles down the Mississippi River. City officials raised $75,000 for the statue, which was made by Brodin Studios in Kimball, Minnesota.

“This is Lake City's Kitty Hawk moment,” John Hutchinson, president of Destination Lake City, the community’s tourism arm, tells the Star Tribune’s Curt Brown. “We want people to stop and take selfies with Ralphie.”

Someday, city leaders hope to create a water skiing hall of fame. But in the meantime, Lake City just wrapped up its annual Water Ski Days, a celebration that included water ski shows, live music and other festivities. Also this month, local filmmaker Ben Threinen released a new 33-minute documentary about Samuelson’s invention, and historians in nearby White Bear, Minnesota, opened “Bears on Boards: Waterskiing in White Bear,” an exhibition celebrating the sport’s 100th anniversary.

Water skier
Water skiers still stand up in the manner that Samuelson did 100 years ago. Pexels

But Samuelson didn’t always get so much recognition for his clever invention. As the story goes, he first tried water skiing while riding his aquaplane, a large, flat board pulled behind his brother’s boat. On June 28, 1922, he skied for several yards this way—but knew he could do better.

He unsuccessfully tried snow skis and barrel staves before realizing that he needed something that covered more surface area on the water. The ever-resourceful Samuelson went to the local lumberyard and found two eight-foot-long, nine-inch-wide pine boards, wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jim Harmon in 1987. Using his mother’s wash boiler, he softened one end of each board, then clamped the tips with vises so they would curve upwards. He affixed leather straps to hold his feet in place and acquired 100 feet of window sash cord to use as a tow rope. Finally, he hired a blacksmith to make a small iron ring to serve as the rope’s handle.

In the days that followed, Samuelson tried several different approaches. In most of his attempts, he started with his skis level with or below the water line; but by the time his brother got the boat going, Samuelson was sinking.

Finally, he tried raising the tips of the skis out of the water while he leaned back—and it worked. As his brother steered the boat, which was powered by a converted Saxon truck engine, Samuelson cruised along behind him. To this day, this is still the position that water skiers assume, according to the USA Water Ski & Wake Sports Foundation, which inducted Samuelson into its hall of fame in 1982.

Of course, Samuelson didn’t stop there. He began learning tricks on his skis, which drew crowds of onlookers to the shoreline. Eventually, he began charging admission to his unofficial exhibitions and turned over the proceeds to the town, which paid for the gas the boat used. The town also built a small bandstand next to the lake, where live musicians sometimes accompanied his shows.

One hundred years later, water skiing and wakeboarding are popular summer pastimes. Pixabay

Sadly, his career as a water skier was short-lived. When he hurt his back in a construction accident in 1927, he was forced to hang up his skis for good. He never patented his water skis, and he never took credit for inventing the sport. Skiers in New York and France tried to claim that they were the first to float on water, and Fred Waller patented the first water skis in 1925.

But so many people had watched him ski—and he had gotten so much news coverage for his feats—that Samuelson was eventually heralded as the sport’s inventor.

Today, water skiing has grown to become a popular summer pastime, both among casual thrill-seekers and serious competitors. It was included in the 1972 Olympics as an exhibition sport, and the first National Show Ski Tournament was held in 1974, per USA Water Ski & Wake Sports. In 1979, college students on water skis began competing for national titles.

Though he died of cancer in 1977, Samuelson’s legacy lives on. Travelers can see a pair of his original water skis at the USA Water Ski & Wake Sports Foundation Hall of Fame in Davenport, Florida. There’s also a historical marker at Lake Pepin proudly identifying it as the “Birthplace of Waterskiing.”

Samuelson’s family members remember him not only for his ingenuity, but also for his amiable personality and his cooking skills.

“My dad only had an eighth-grade education, he wasn’t savvy or what we'd call ‘worldly’ today,”  Samuelson’s daughter, Deb Henningsen, tells the Star Tribune. "But he never had an unkind word for anyone and he cooked the best roast beef dinners on Sunday nights—and I mean the best.”

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