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Birth of Waterskiing

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Our Mississippi River Valley has always had more than its share of tinkerers with too much time on their hands, but few with a more hare-brained idea than Ralph Samuleson of Lake City, Minnesota.

Lake City sits on the shores of Lake Pepin, that three-mile-wide stretch of the Mississippi south of Red Wing. One summer day in 1922, perhaps as young Ralph watched boys skipping flat stones across the water, a lightbulb went on in his head. If heavy stones could stay on the surface, why couldn’t a pair of skis do the same thing?

Ralph went to the lumber yard and bought two pine boards for a dollar each. He cut each one to what seemed like a good length, eight feet, nine inches. Then, he bent the tips by steaming them for three hours in his mother’s old copper boiler and placed a simple leather strap at the halfway point.

When these water skis, as he chose to call them, broke, he made a better pair, this time with sections of rubber floor treads for a better footing and iron straps for reinforcement.

Ralph Samuelson's water skis worked after a fashion, but only with a great deal of effort. The fastest motorboats then could only go about twenty miles an hour, so the skier had to constantly zig-zag behind to boat to keep enough speed to stay afloat.

It was fun for a summer, but Ralph grew into an adult, put away childish things, and forgot about waterskiing. Not so, the rest of the country. By 1965, more than nine million Americans were skimming across the surfaces of lakes and rivers on wooden boards, trying to keep afloat. Not until the American Water Ski Association decided to check on the origin of their sport did someone remember the crazy daredevil kid from Lake City that summer of 1922.

In 1966, the Association officially declared Ralph Samuelson as the "first water-skier of record." He was brought out of retirement, back to a grand celebration in Lake City, which promptly declared itself as "the birthplace of waterskiing," and elevated its native son from crazy kid to visionary inventor.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.