On June 29, 1922, 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson of Lake City, Minn., skittered briefly across the surface of Lake Pepin on huge homemade water skis and unwittingly invented a sport. The significance of his accomplishment didn't occur to Samuelson at the time, which helps explain why it took 44 years for the world to find out about him.
Samuelson was a thrill-seeking river rat who spent much of his time on Lake Pepin, a picturesque 30-mile-long, 3-mile-wide section of the Mississippi 60 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. As detailed in an unpublished biography written by the late Gregor Ziemer, Samuelson enjoyed bouncing across the lake on his aquaplane, a large, flat board that he tied behind his older brother Ben's powerboat. Ralph liked riding while balancing on a friend's shoulders or standing on his head on a chair.
In the winters, he took to the lake in an iceboat and skied down the bluffs along the shore, which gave him an idea. Perhaps his snow skis, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, would take him across water. He made his first attempts in the spring of 1922 behind his brother's boat. He tried snow skis and sank. He tried barrel staves and sank again. A group of schoolboys regularly gathered on shore to watch his attempts. In Lake City (pop. 2,500), Samuelson was news. "Everyone, of course, thought I was nuts," he told Ziemer years later.
Before long Samuelson realized that with the boat's top speed of less than 20 mph, he needed skis with more surface area to help him stay on top of the water. He bought two eight-foot-long, nine-inch-wide pine planks at a local lumberyard, softened one end of each in his mother's wash boiler and curved the ends up by clamping them in vises. He fastened a leather strap in the middle of each ski to hold his feet in place, bought 100 feet of sash cord to use as a tow rope and had a blacksmith make him an iron ring, four inches in diameter, to serve as a handle, which he insulated with tape.
Samuelson's first successful ride on the skis came when he lugged them along on the aquaplane and put them on as his brother eased the boat up to its top speed. Then, one ski at a time, Samuelson stepped off one side of the aquaplane and managed to stay upright for a few yards before he fell.
Abandoning this approach, Ralph then tried to start on the skis from deep water. After three days of heading toward the bottom of the lake as soon as he yelled for his brother to take off, he thought of keeping the tips of the skis out of the water on the start. On July 2, a day before his 19th birthday, Samuelson went from sitting in the water to skiing on top of it, and he considered that the highlight of his week. Now the local boys who had waited for him to break his neck crowded around when Samuelson came in to shore. "We asked two questions," recalls longtime resident Ben Simons, who was seven years old at the time. " 'How'd you do it?' and 'Can you do it again?' "
Samuelson could. As he added new tricks to his waterskiing repertoire, the crowds grew. Photos of him began appearing in area newspapers. Lake City officials offered to pay for the gas he used, and when Samuelson charged admission to his weekend waterskiing exhibitions, he turned the money over to the town. In 1923 a small bandstand was built beside the lake, and a band often accompanied his performances.
Samuelson combined showmanship with a daring that bordered on recklessness, and spectators—who sometimes numbered more than 1,000—usually got their money's worth. In July 1925 he became the world's first water-ski jumper, riding over a partly submerged diving platform greased with lard. The following month a barnstorming pilot named Walter Bullock flew into Lake City in a World War I-vintage Curtiss MF flying-boat, offering rides above the lake for $2. Samuelson, who had yet to find a boat fast enough to satisfy him, asked Bullock if he might ski behind the plane. They would draw a large crowd, he explained, and no doubt stimulate Bullock's business. Bullock agreed.
With Samuelson at the end of a 200-foot rope, Bullock got the plane going, planning to lift off and fly a few feet above the water. As he neared 60 mph, the plane's propeller began to pick up water and push it back toward the skier. The drops felt like bullets on Samuelson's face, but, too scared to let go, he held on—even as the plane, unsuccessful in its attempts to take off, bounced on the water, jerking Samuelson right out of his skis. He landed on his stomach and slid for what felt like a city block, suffering minor abrasions. Still, he later insisted that "my first thought wasn't for my safety, but whether I'd lost my swimming suit."
The next time, they used a proper promotional campaign. Samuelson had hundreds of handbills printed, announcing that "a death-defying ride on water skis...behind a flying boat" would take place in Lake City the following weekend. He took off with Bullock in the plane, and they dropped the literature over the surrounding towns. The next weekend, as reported on the front page of the Aug. 28, 1925, Wabasha County Leader, "2,000 people were given a real thriller when Ralph Samuelson of this city did water skiing behind a seaplane that sped through the water at a dizzy pace and at times flew a few feet above the water." This time the dizzy pace, according to Bullock's air-speed indicator, was 80 mph.