Pokagon commemorates 80 years of tobogganing

In this file photo, a sled full of people make their way down Pokagon State Park’s famous refrigerated toboggan slide. This year marks the 80th year the slide has been open to the public. CONTRIBUTED

LAKE JAMES — Pokagon State Park’s toboggan slide has been around for nearly 83 years, but it has only — only — been a public attraction for 80 years, and Pokagon and Steuben County Tourism Bureau folks are celebrating.

A commemorative postcard has been issued by the Steuben County Tourism Bureau that’s available exclusively at Pokagon to those who ride the slide.

This commemorative postcard is being provided free to riders of the Pokagon State Park toboggan slide in recognition of the slide being open to the public for 80 years.

Starting Friday and running through Jan 1, each toboggan will receive one postcard while supplies last. The postcards aren’t available otherwise.

“Right now — and we’re waiting until you’re done riding so you don’t have to carry them while you ride — we’re only giving them when you rent a toboggan, when the toboggan gets returned, while supplies last,” said Tammy Sawvel, Pokagon office manager.

The postcard shows the side in four different versions since it was first built, originally in 1935.

The track was originally built to run along the contour of the hill where it currently rests, then curved to head to Lake James. It was built, like much of Pokagon, by the Civilian Conservation Corps Co. 556.

“Originally the toboggan was just entertainment to the CCC guys,” Sawvel said.

The track was opened as an attraction to the public in 1938 by park Superintendent Russell Sprague, the same Sprague for whom Sprague Addition on Snow Lake is named.

It was in 1938 that the first tower was built. It was 20-feet high and made of wood. The current 30-foot steel tower was built in 1974.

Over the years, the slide — the only one in Indiana and one of about three in the Midwest — has become a big attraction, helping make Pokagon one of Indiana’s few year-round state parks.

The toboggan season opens the day after Thanksgiving and it stays open until the end of February — or the first weekend of March, depending on how the calendar falls.

Because the track is refrigerated, it can remain open on days when the mercury reaches into the 50s and 60s, depending on a variety of weather factors.

In the early days, winter weather was a must. In fact, there’s lore that ice was cut from Lake James to be placed in the tracks prior to refrigeration.

It has come a long way since those early days when it took a lot of labor to keep the track in running condition.

“It is a big attraction to Steuben County in the winter. We have about 90,000 riders a year,” Sawvel said.

Like many aspects of Pokagon, the toboggan slide is something of a tradition to many. Families will come in with custom toboggan t-shirts and plan reunions around the slide. Boy Scouts come to camp to earn their winter camping badges — and have fun on the slide.

Another change that came last year is a sled notification system. Instead of waiting for a person to call out a number to let you know a sled is ready for rent during busy times, there’s a system set up where people can be notified of sled availability via cellphones.

So on those busy days, visitors can visit the Inn restaurant or the Nature Center or go on a hike while they wait for their sled.

Toboggan rental is $13 a toboggan per hour. One toboggan will hold up to four riders. There is a gate admission fee of $7 for in-state vehicles, $9 for out of state vehicles, or $2 a person on a bus or commercial van. For more information visit tobogganrun.com or call Pokagon at 833-2012.