by Ronald A. Shearer
Olaus Jeldness was a "mining man," but he is a legend in Rossland, British Columbia, not for his accomplishments in mining, but for his exploits on skis. Yet, despite his local fame, surprisingly little is known about his life and some of the details regularly repeated in the extant literature are incorrect. In his adult life, skiing was important, at times a basic means of locomotion in winter, but more generally a relaxing and exhilarating relief from the stresses and anxieties of dangerous and demanding everyday activities. However, at root his life was an odyssey through the mining camps of North America (and some in Europe), in a determined quest for ever elusive riches, always guided by the optimistic belief that the next hole in the ground would deliver the big bonanza. His personal bonanza was found on an isolated mountainside outside Rossland. It gave him a modest personal fortune and for an extended time he led a prosperous life style. However, he died in less than prosperous circumstances, a victim of his own speculative nature and the depression of the 1930s. This paper reports what I have discovered in my attempt to understand Olaus Jeldness and his life.
Olaus Nilsen Jeldness was born Olaus Nilsen Gjeldnes, one of seven children in the family of Nils Gjeldnes on a farm in what was then the rural municipality of Stangvik, Norway, on October 1, 1856.[i] Following administrative reorganizations, Stangvik is now a village in the larger municipality of Sarnadal, in the district of Nordmore, in the county of More og Romsdal.[ii] Stangvik is deep in a fiord on the southwest coast of Norway, about 375 kilometres north and somewhat west of Oslo and about 100 kilometres southwest of the famous ski resort of Trondheim. The Gjeldnes family had a farm, with a substantial farmhouse that is still in use. Olaus, like other family members, changed the spelling of his name to Jeldness (or, perhaps the immigration officials changed it for him) when he immigrated to the United States.
I have discovered nothing about his early life in Norway, except that he was an accomplished skier and ski jumper from childhood. Olaus reported that before leaving Norway, he set a national (and by implication, a world) record with a ski jump of 92 feet, a record that he asserted stood until 1888 when it was bested by another Norwegian who jumped 100 feet.[iii] I have not been able to verify Olaus' claim; nor could Wormington. However, Olaus had a reputation for honesty and even if it was not recognized as a national record, the jump was a remarkable achievement for the times. By today's standards, these records seem puny. However, it was very early in the history of jumping competitions, skiing equipment was primitive and science had not yet been applied to the refinement of jumping techniques and the design of ski jumps and jumping hills.
Olaus' education is a blank. He left Norway at age 16, but I do not know if he remained in school until his departure. However, given what I know about his subsequent accomplishments, whatever the number of years of formal schooling, I would be surprised if he was not also academically gifted. His letters and a few other writings show a mastery of the English language that, while not perfect, would be the envy of many native speakers. He also proved himself capable of self-directed advanced study in geology and mining engineering and thoughtful explorations in politics, religion and moral philosophy -- all of this while working hard in a variety of mining camps on the western mining frontier of North America. Regardless of his level of formal education, he was a highly intelligent man.
Topics Covered in this Essay
- Olaus Jeldness
- Early Years
- A Contemplative Man
- The Jeldness Family
- Who Was Olaus Jeldness?
- Afternote: Mount Jeldness