The story of Timberline Lodge is a strange but heart-warming tale. It revolves around two men: one, an ambitious opportunist and his first, disastrous fling at a really big-time operation; the other, a wealthy young man who abandoned a career in social work to become what he had never dreamed of—the operator of one of America's largest ski resorts, the man who brought Timberline back from the brink of ruin to its rightful place as one of the nation's most spectacularly beautiful and popular skiing areas.
Twenty years ago Timberline Lodge was conceived in the minds of a group of businessmen and bankers in Portland, Oregon. They saw, high on the vast snow fields of Mt. Hood, some 50 miles away, the prospect of a magnificent skiing area which could be used by Portland's 370,000 people and other skiers from more distant places the year round. The U.S. Government, in a unique make-work project born of the Depression, realized the dream. CCC workers hacked and blasted a road to the area, 6,000 feet high at the timber-line, where a great lodge was to be built. They moved the massive rocks into place for its walls, winched the huge timbers which supported it up the mountainside and set in place the massive uprights, three and a half feet thick, 40 feet high, which stand in its main lobby. Hand-wrought iron, hand-made furniture, hand-carved railings and newel posts went into its construction. WPA artists contributed more than 100 paintings of Mt. Hood flora and fauna, and government sewing projects sent the hand-woven draperies and upholstery in original designs that decorated its rooms and windows. It took one million dollars and two years to finish the 360-foot-long lodge, four stories high, topped by a 750-pound brass and bronze weather vane. Five million dollars could not duplicate it today, with its chair lift along the Magic Mile to Silcox Hut at the 7,000-foot level; yet it took barely a year to bring the entire resort to the point of dissolution.
For 14 years Timberline was leased out by the U.S. Forest Service (which, as the agency in charge of Mt. Hood National Forest where the resort is located, was responsible for it) to a quasi-public organization of the Portland businessmen and bankers who had conceived it. By and large, it paid its way. Sometimes, in stormy seasons, it lost as much as $100,000, but the losses were always made up by better years. For the men who ran it, however, it was a time-consuming, un-remunerative enterprise. In 1952 they decided a resident manager with his own investment would be better for the resort and everyone concerned. Three Portland citizens put up the money, and the lease was transferred to them.
That was when Timberline's troubles began. "They made a mistake right away," one of the trustees said later. "They put a lot of money into improvements, 'and ran out of working capital. When other things didn't work out for them, they were in trouble."
Within 18 months the trouble had amounted to $80,000 worth of debts, with no foreseeable profits from which to pay them. The three operators were quarreling among themselves as to what should be done. It was a situation just right for a clever man to make a killing—and, like a character in a Grade B movie, the man appeared.
His name was Charles W. Slaney. He was 49, the owner of a number of movie theaters in and around Portland, a man who had collected an impressive roll of $1,000 bills which he was able—and willing—to flash when the occasion warranted. (He also had collected an impressive array of civil suits, tax liens and attachments, but that was not generally known.) Slaney had lived in Portland for several years, acquiring his theaters from the profits of a popcorn-vending operation. Although on several occasions fire damaged or destroyed Slaney's theaters—one of them three times—the diversity of his enterprises enabled him to stay in business and to look for new opportunities. Among the acquaintances he made in the course of his theater operations were two of the three men, Carl Mc-Fadden and his son John, who had taken over Timberline Lodge.
"We knew Slaney," McFadden explained subsequently, "because he was in the theater business; but we didn't know much about him. When he came to us and offered to take over Timber-line—that was late in 1953—we were happy to get out." To which R. P. Bottcher, assistant supervisor of the Forest Service in the Timberline area, added: "Slaney was quite pleasant, and he assured us that he was going to build up Timberline. It was only later that we began to get complaints."
A careful inquiry into Slaney's business history might well have persuaded the Forest Service that he was hardly the man to manage a resort patronized by upwards of 90,000 skiers each year, from 50�-per-lunch youngsters to $33-a-day luxury guests. No such investigation was made, however, and Slaney got Timberline virtually for nothing: he took over the stock in exchange for the burden of debt. But Slaney lacked the ability—or the working capital—to make the most of his windfall. The deterioration of the great resort began almost at once. Slaney was careful always to meet the quarterly payments to which he was obligated under the terms of his lease, but many other commitments went unpaid.
As creditor after creditor turned his back on Slaney, the lodge and the skiing area fell into disrepair. When the 1954 season began, none of the usual preparations had been made for winter. The chair lift was out of order, the rope tow was buried in snow. No winter shutters had been put up. Employees, many of whom were paid by checks sent along with requests for reservations, were sullen and disgruntled. Dirt and broken equipment piled up in the kitchen, lounges and rooms. Slaney's economies reached something of a high point when 24 rooms were without keys. Guests who had mistakenly taken them along dropped them in the mails to be returned to the hotel; but Slaney would not pay the 2� due on each key and so they stayed in the post office.
PROMISES AND THREATS