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A couple's quest to restore, reopen historic Santiam Pass Ski Lodge
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A couple's quest to restore, reopen historic Santiam Pass Ski Lodge

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SANTIAM PASS — Since the mid-1980s, when the Santiam Pass Ski Lodge closed, the only guests to stay overnight have been wildlife from the surrounding hills.

Recently, a feisty marmot destroyed a window screen to get inside and caused other damage.

“Everything around here has called this home for the last 30 years. And they never swept up,” Dwight Sheets sighed. “We’ve been on a quest to convince them this isn’t their place anymore.”

Sheets and his wife, Susan Sheets, Salem natives who now live in Sisters, are on a much bigger mission, as well.

The Sheets are spearheading a $2 million project to restore and reopen the historic 1940 structure and spruce up its grounds. The couple hopes to transform the Santiam Lodge, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, into a sort of community center, events venue and museum, where visitors learn about the history of the building, the CCC and the Santiam Pass.

"Primarily it will be a day lodge for the public to use year-round. There will be a little cafe in there," Susan Sheets said.

The lodge could be a place to stop for hot cocoa after skiing or hiking — or it could be a destination in itself for a quick stroll in the woods or a snowshoeing jaunt.

“We think it will bring more people to the Santiam Pass to enjoy the area. We think everyone would gain from that. We think Hoodoo would benefit from it, too,” Dwight Sheets said. The ski resort is nearby on the south side of Highway 20, about 20 miles west of Sisters.

The Sheets envision the lodge as a gateway to the Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington wilderness areas, the Old Santiam Wagon Road and more. And it could also be a rest area for travelers, as well as a staging site for authorities to battle wildfires or conduct search and rescue missions.

The goal of the restoration is to return the lodge to its original 1940s look. “It’s still going to be very rustic,” Dwight Sheets said.

“It will always be a little rough,” added Susan Sheets.

Though the Santiam Pass Ski Lodge is run down, the structure, which sits off the north side of Highway 20 near the eastern border of Linn County, is blessed with good bones.

The rocks for the thick foundation and fireplace in the main lounge were hand-cut from nearby Hogg Rock, and the hand-hewn timber comes from the hills surrounding the structure. The CCC, which put Americans back to work during the Great Depression, aimed to create unique buildings using local materials. The Santiam Pass Ski Lodge fits into its environment because it is from its environment.

The building, completed after seven months of construction in February 1940, included a ski shop with waxing room, a kitchen, and separate bunk rooms for men and women downstairs.

The structure was one of six ski lodges designed and built by the CCC in the Northwest. Those include: Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood; Skyliner Lodge near Tumalo Falls; White Branch Camp on the McKenzie Highway; Leavenworth Ski Hill in Washington; and American Ridge Lodge in the Mount Rainier area.

“We’re the only one that isn’t operating,” Susan Sheets said.

The Sheets have been visiting the other CCC ski lodges to research fixtures and finishes as they work on restoring the Santiam Lodge, which was placed on the National Historic Register in 2018.

Pandemic impact

The project to reopen the Santiam Pass Ski Lodge started in earnest with hard labor — including cleaning up mouse droppings and removing asbestos — last summer. However, work has been put on hold a bit by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

For the lodge’s 80th year, the Sheets had a plethora of projects and contractors lined up. Their target was to secure the entire exterior shell of the structure by the end of the construction season. “We really had a lot of momentum,” Dwight Sheets said.

In February, they started a capital campaign and everything was on track. In March, due to COVID-19, funding sources dried up. Donor organizations lost money or redirected it due to the pandemic. Contractors had to move on to other projects.

The Sheets said they are applying for other grants from organizations that aren’t as dependent on tax dollars.

“This is still going to happen. No pandemic is going to stop us,” Dwight Sheets said. And the former contractor said that there’s plenty of smaller projects that can be tackled this summer.

While the couple is leading the restoration effort, they’re not alone. They helped form a nonprofit, the Friends of the Santiam Pass Ski Lodge, that is overseeing the fundraising, promotion, restoration and maintenance of the facility. The group includes an architect, marketing consultant and other experts on its board of directors. Plus, the group has the support of the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the lodge and surrounding property, as well as preservation groups.

Some contractors who have worked on the lodge have taken a sense of ownership and made substantial in-kind donations, the Sheets said. “People really fall in love with the lodge. We want people to feel like they’re a part of it,” Dwight Sheets added.

The Sheets said they worked for about a year and a half to go through the process of getting a five-year permit to restore the Santiam Lodge. The deadline is spring 2023. If it isn’t reopened in time due to economic problems associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Sheets are confident the USFS will recognize they’re on the right track and give an extension.

The Sheets also have secured a 20-year permit to operate the lodge.

The couple plans to rent out the lounge for events, and also have a courtyard, nature trails and areas up on the hill where people can gather, potentially for family picnics or even outdoor weddings.

“We’ll be the only roadside year-round staffed facility on the pass when we open,” Dwight Sheets said.

The Sheets’ permit includes 26 acres, but former operators of the lodge have utilized nearly 80 acres at the site.

History and problems

Decades ago, before there was a road to Hoodoo, people would park on the highway and ski into the recreation spot, then stay at the Santiam Pass Ski Lodge, Susan Sheets said.

“In the ’40s and ’50s, this was a popular place,” Dwight Sheets said.

A rope tow also went up the hillside to the north from a garage just below the lodge, so many Bend-area and Willamette Valley residents learned to ski at the lodge, he added.

In 1959, the Presbyterian Council of the Cascades took over the lodge lease from the U.S. Forest Service and made it into the site of summer camps and retreats.

After 46 years of operation, the lodge closed in 1986 and gradually fell into disrepair.

Two times in recent decades, the lodge was nearly destroyed.

Heavy snow from storms in the winter of 1999-2000 weighed down the roof and bowed the walls out, and those will have to be squeezed back together and stabilized once again as part of the renovation. Temporary beams in the lounge have been holding the building upright for two decades, and if those weren’t put in place, the building would have collapsed.

The B&B Complex fire in 2003 came within 100 yards of the lodge, but firefighters wrapped it and the garage in a flameproof material to keep it safe. Water towers and a well house were destroyed by the blaze.

Evidence of the fire remains, though vegetation is growing and slowing transforming the hills. “We like to say that the Santiam Lodge is coming back with the forest,” Dwight Sheets said.

To-do list

There’s still plenty of work to do before the lodge reopens. The facility needs all its utilities restored, as well as windows and siding installed.

A wall between the dormitories, once crowded with bunk beds, will be removed so that a fireplace can be added to the space, which will be turned into a sort of downstairs great room. Graffiti and chewed gum from visitors — more in the men’s bunk room than on the women’s side — remain on the wooden pillars downstairs.

Second-floor ceilings throughout the building will be removed to expose the rafters.

Another important aspect of the renovation involves the two-story hallway between the original lodge and an addition, built in 1941, that includes the dining room and the rec hall below. The addition and the original lodge literally don’t fit together well, so the hallway will be dismantled and then rebuilt.

The Sheets said that with the dawn of World War II, the CCC was winding down and manpower was being directed toward the military, so the newer structure doesn’t have the same level of detail and workmanship.

When it first opened, visitors would enter the lodge from stairs that led up to the lounge on the second floor. The stairs were removed in the 1970s, however, and the main entrance shifted to downstairs, near the dorms. The Sheets aren’t sure if they’ll rebuild the stairs or have the primary entrance remain on the ground floor.

Almost everything on the project needs to be approved by the USFS’s Willamette National Forest and the Oregon State Preservation Office, the Sheets said.

Personal connection

The Sheets, who both grew up in Salem, have fond memories attached to the lodge, and that’s part of their motivation for reopening the structure.

As children, they skied at Hoodoo regularly. They also visited the lodge a number of times with church groups.

After marrying, the Sheets both worked in education and taught college courses in Southern California, the East Coast and the Midwest. On visits home, they’d always stop by and be disappointed with the condition of the Santiam Lodge.

In 2015, they returned to Salem. The next year, they started pursuing a special use permit for the lodge. Susan Sheets had always wanted to operate a venue, and the couple loved the place, so they wanted to save it. Last year, they moved to Sisters so they could focus full time on the historic building.

The Sheets said that besides their personal attachments to the lodge, they wanted to pass it down to the next generation.

"It's important because it's a huge part of our history in Oregon. For some reason, it's survived for 80 years. It's just something we feel strongly about. We felt we were the only people who felt that way, but we've been overwhelmed with the people who are excited it's coming back," Susan Sheets said.

"It's a shame it's sitting there and not being used," she added. 

For more information on the Santiam Pass Ski Lodge, including how to donate to the project, go to santiampassskilodge.org or the Friends of the Santiam Pass Ski Lodge Facebook page.

Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or kyle.odegard@lee.net.

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