Tom Eastman wrote a wonderful article for the Mountain Ear Newspaper of North Conway, which appeared on Jan 24, 2002. It was a great piece about NELSAP and North Conway region ski areas. Lots of great info here! Thanks Tom!
Part 1 Part 2
(By Tom Eastman, copyright The Mountain Ear newspaper of Conway, N.H. 03818 email@example.com and www.mountainear.com)
Reprinted with permission from the Jan. 24, 2002 Mountain Ear newspaper of Conway, N.H. All rights reserved. By Tom Eastman firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 1 of 2 Part Series: Recently, MASTERS ski racer John Pepper of the Jackson Historical Society told me about a new ski history web site, www.nelsap.org (the New England Lost Ski Areas Project), which is devoted to the forgotten ski areas of New England.
Pepper was enthusiastic about the site, and he ought to be — the web site makes for fascinating browsing for those who love local ski history. The site was organized four years ago by ski history enthusiast Jeremy Davis, a 24-year-old former Mount Washington Observatory intern (summer 1999) and Lyndon State College graduate who now works in the meteorology field in Glens Falls, N.Y.
The seeds for the endeavor were planted a decade ago, when the then 14-year-old Davis took a family ski trip from Chelmsford, Mass., to Mt. Washington Valley to ski at Cranmore and Black Mountain in 1991.
During that trip, he remembers driving past the former Mt. Whittier ski area in Ossipee, and it got him to wondering about how many other old ski areas might there be out there?
“Then I saw the old ski trails of Tyrol when I was skiing at Black in Jackson. I wondered what I could find out about that one, and others. I started looking for stuff — old guidebooks and maps in antique stores and used book shops — but there really wasn’t much information out there at all. Then I read Glenn Parkinson’s book in the early 1990s, ‘First Tracks,’ about Maine’s early ski trails, and that got me really interested. I started the web site as a hobby in 1998, and it has taken off from there so now it’s somewhere between a hobby and a job, although I don’t get paid for it,” said Davis in a recent phone interview.
Starting out with histories of a few areas, the site has mushroomed, and now lists more than 440 areas, including 402 in New England, along with three in New York state, two in Quebec and even — for good topicality — one in Afghanistan. (The latter is an area known as Sari Pul, located 10 miles south of Kabul — it closed when the Soviets invaded the country in 1979, according to a meteorologist friend of Davis’ who works for USA Today).
With his assistants, Chris Bradford of Sanford, Maine, and Betsy McDonough of Boston, Mass., Davis handles the time-consuming task of updating information, working out of their respective apartments.
He’s sure it could become a full-time occupation, but he’s not ready to give up on his meteorology business just yet — nor does he have room in his apartment to run a full-time business.
“We’re thinking of doing a calendar of old ski shots, or maybe of selling mugs to help support some of the expenses, but we’re not there yet,” said Davis.
The beauty of the web site approach is that it is a two-way street, says Davis. “It’s amazing how many people have visited the site. Well over 100,000 visits. And people respond with their own information, emailing us photos which we then scan and put on the site. It’s a never ending process — there is so much stuff out there. What I feel good about is that all of this is digitalized information — once it’s on the web site, it’s preserved, and that is really important to me, because in 20 or 30 years, who is going to remember this stuff?” he said.
The web site lists New Hampshire areas by region, noting that there are at last count 142 former areas listed throughout the state (Connecticut has 34, Rhode Island, four; Massachusetts, 112; Maine, 27, and Vermont, 83.)
Of the Granite State areas, 51 were in southern New Hampshire, 59 are listed in Central New Hampshire, and 32 formerly operated in northern New Hampshire.
Among those in central New Hampshire is the former Mt. Whittier in West Ossipee, which operated, Davis writes, from “before 1949 to 1985,” near the present site of Watson’s store.
Says Davis, Whittier “was truly a unique area. Many skiers today pass by it on the way to North Conway. The area was truly unique in that it never operated any chairlifts, just a gondola and several T-bars for the majority of its life.”
The area was founded around 1948. In 1949, three rope tows operated, with lengths of 1200, 1000, and 300 feet. The 1200-foot tow served intermediate and expert trails 1000 feet long, a 400-foot novice slope and 2000-foot open slope for all classes. A new slope was cut in 1949, served by the 1000-foot tow which connected to the then existing slopes and trails.
In 1950, Davis writes, a 2000-foot platter pull lift, one of the first in the country, was installed at Mt. Whittier. It served three trails and slopes which included 1.2 miles of skiing on 80 acres. By 1957, all of the former rope tows were removed save for one 800-foot tow. In that year, Davis writes, “Whittier only operated on 30 skiing days, most likely due to a lack of snow.”
Around 1963, Davis writes that one of the first if not the first four-passenger Mueller gondolas in the country was installed at Whittier, significantly increasing their vertical to 1100 feet. A unique feature of this gondola, Davis says, was the fact that it crossed Route 16, picking up skiers at a midstation (you may see the old gondola building today near the McDonald’s in West Ossipee — it was retrofitted as a post office and gift shop approximately 10 to 12 years ago).
Several trails cascaded down from the gondola summit, leading to either the T-bar area or back to the gondola.
“One major problem existed: the slopes were too steep for most novices, and were so wide the sun tended to melt the snow ... Unfortunately, snowmaking was never installed. The area dwindled during the late ’70s and into the early ’80s, losing T-bars as they wore out. By the time it closed in 1985, only the gondola, one T-bar, and a few rope tows were left. The owners tried to add summer business, including an Alpine Slide, water park, and bumper boats, but these failed to save the area. It closed in 1985,” notes Davis.
Since that time, like many of the forgotten ski areas of New Hampshire, the area has really fallen into decay. Trails have become overgrown almost completely. Lifts have degraded to the point that they could never operate again.
“Despite all this,” writes Davis, “the cable remains on the gondola, and all the towers are still standing, including one in the McDonald’s parking lot!”
Among the 32 which formerly operated in northern New Hampshire, local residents with not-so-distant memories will want to read about the former Tyrol Ski Area, which operated in Jackson from 1963 to 1981, and the old Intervale Ski Area, which operated from the mid 1930s until 1976.
Like Whittier, Tyrol and the Intervale Ski Slope suffered from competition from their bigger neighbors.
The web site carries information provided by ski historian Jim Clarke, who wrote his master’s thesis on New England ski history.
Notes Clarke, “While Tyrol had a substantial vertical drop of 1000 feet and a variety of terrain consisting of four novice trails, six intermediate trails, and four expert trails, Tyrol’s location proved to be its downfall. According to Tim and John Bailey, former owners and operators, factors such as the area’s distance from the highway, and the steep entrance road were detriments that likely led some patrons to favor nearby Black and Cranmore Mountain. Critical to Tyrol’s failure was its lack of access to a suitable and stable water supply for snowmaking.”
Tyrol’s lack of snowmaking proved a devastating liability during the ’73-’74 gas crisis and snow drought, allowing it to open for only a few days.
It made up in events and activities what it lacked in terrain, however, as Tyrol was renowned among the Valley’s partying skiing crowd as the place to have fun. (Ask a 50-something skier about the old days of the “Sun, Sin Snow Circus” of the mid-’70s!)
Faced with mounting debts Tyrol closed for good following the winter of 1980-’81.
The Intervale Ski Slope ski area changed a lot during its history, notes Davis’s team of historians. First, it had a J-bar, one of the earliest ever installed by the famous Fred Pabst. Then, Pabst removed the J-bar in 1947 and installed it at Bromley, his home ski area. Although the J-bar was removed, the area changed ownership in 1947 and became the property of the late Dick Stimpson. A rope tow then replaced the J-bar, but according to Stimpson, who died in 1998, it “wasn’t very popular” (Ski Magazine Dec. 1956).
So, to combat the bad rope tow, an 1800-foot long and 400-foot vertical pomalift was installed. It carried 700 skiers per hour and was financed by $500 notes. Five thousand skiers per year visited the area, which featured only three trails.
“But the times were not kind to Intervale. Growing skiing areas such as Cranmore, Attitash, Wildcat, and Black Mountain virtually sucked the life out of this area,” writes Davis on his web site. “A lack of room to expand also contributed to its failing. It closed around . Rust took over the lift. Saplings grew in the trees. But, in 1986, Mr. Landry of Landry’s Ski Slope, took out the poma and prepared it for use at his area. But it was not to be used, as Landry’s closed the following year.”
Still not done yet, parts of the poma worked their way over to Locke’s Ski Tows and Atlantic Forest, in Amesbury, Mass.
Today, Intervale has almost completely grown in. The old base lodge now serves as the home of Stimpson’s widow, Priscilla Stimpson.
OTHER AREAS depicted on the web site in the northern section of New Hampshire include:
•Jackson areas: -Ballentine’s Pasture Tow
(Pre-1938-At least 1941);
Iron Mountain Slope (1939?-1975)
Guptill Pastures (pre-1941)
Oak Lee Ski Slope (before 1949?)
Omer Gile’s ropetow (before 1947)
Spruce Mountain (1930s-1949)
Thorn Mountain (1939 - late 1950’s)
White Mountain Inn (before 1949-1960?)
•Bartlett areas: -Stanton’s Slope (pre-1938-late 1940’s)
•Conway areas: -Dundee, South Conway
(Late 1960s-After 1973)
Hillside Farm Tow (pre-1938-Around 1950)
Oak Hill (Before 1938-Early 1940s)
•Eaton Center areas: -Rockhouse Mountain Slope (’51-’53)
•Intervale areas: -Intervale Ski Area (Mid-1930s - 1976)
•Kearsarge areas: -Russell’s Cottages (1930s-’40s)
Those are just some of the stories that ski history enthusiasts can glean from the web site.
Hearing some of the tales reminded this writer of the day back in March 1994, when the late Dick May (1915-1999) — then 78, and a 10th Mountain Ski Troops veteran of World War II fame, and a former Wildcat Mountain publicist — took me on a drive around the Valley to some of the former ski hills and rope tow sites.
Next week, we’ll recount some of May’s tales of those trails on that tour eight years ago.
Part 2--- By Tom Eastman Part 2 of 2-Part Series
As we noted in last week’s issue of The Ear, ski history is being kept alive by a new web site entitled, www.nelsap.org (the New England Lost Ski Areas Project).
The brainchild of ski history enthusiast Jeremy Davis of Glens Falls, N.Y., the web site provides an overview of many no longer operating New England ski slopes, some of which were no more than hillsides cleared for skiing in the 1930s and 1940s.
Reading about the ski areas on the web site brought to mind a tour I took back in March 1994, with now late local ski historian Dick May (1915-1999) of Jackson, of former ski slopes here in what is now known as Mt. Washington Valley.
May, who was a 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops veteran of World War II fame and a revered longtime publicist at Wildcat Mountain, was a wealth of ski history information, having first come to the White Mountains to ski from his hometown of Cohasset, Mass., in the mid-1930s.
In recognition of the continuing apparent thirst for ski history information, as evidenced by the NELSAP web site and in tribute to Dick, I thought it would be of interest to re-run excerpts from our story of the tour from eight years ago.
••••• “Someone living in Birch Hill may not know that they’re living on top of what was once the site of an old rope tow for the West Side Slope, sometimes known as the North Conway Slope,” noted May as we drove down the West Side Road from North Conway to Birch Hill on that cloudy day back in March 1994.
The North Conway Slope was located where the access road to the Birch Hill housing development now sits off West Side Road.
“Its rope tow wasn’t a long tow, but we used the slope quite a lot in the ’30s. Mt. Cranmore’s ski school used it for lessons quite often. That’s where that famous photo of Hannes Schneider with the Cranmore instructors was taken on his first day in the Valley in February 1939,” said May.
The area featured five acres of skiing terrain, “suitable for all classes of skiers” and was said to be “especially good for advanced practice and slalom,” according to a 1938 map of local ski trails put out by the Eastern Slope Ski Club.
May — who worked in Carroll Reed’s ski shop in 1938-’39 when it was located in what is now the North Conway 5 and 10 Cents Store — said skiing was a relatively new sport back then, and facilities in the region were crude.
“After World War II,” recalled May, “T-bars and Poma lifts began to appear, but before the war, there were a lot of rope tows, powered by old Ford Model A V-8 engines. Any farmer with an open pasture and a yen for making an extra buck in winter could throw one together. An awful lot of skiers got their start on rope tows. They put some sport into going uphill, too.”
A car engine, some rope and a hilly pasture — it didn’t take much to please skiers in those days, according to May. “If it was a short run, hell, you just made more trips,” said May.
Rope tows were built out of makeshift parts, and powered by gasoline. Most were jury-rigged at best —there were no blueprints in Popular Mechanics to consult.
“Where there was a hill, and a will, and a tinkerer, there was a lift in those days,” said May. “They pretty much could be built by back yard mechanics out of old automobile engines, with old wheel rims to carry the return rope overhead and around a bull wheel. The powerdrive would be at the bottom or top. It was preferable to have your drive station at the top — except in the morning, when you had to be the first guy to climb up the hill to start it up,” said May.
A 1938-’39 map from May’s extensive local ski history collection showed that there were indeed hundreds of ski trails in the region — at least six of which were serviced by rope tows.
There were a few rope tows of various success in Jackson in the mid-1930s. The lift at Moody’s was built in 1935 by inventor George Morton and Phil Robertson of the Goodrich Falls Hydroelectric Company, and it had troubles. When Bill and Betty Whitney bought the farm in fall 1936, they paid Moody an extra $250 for the tow.
The lift, Betty Whitney, now 99, recalls, later became famous as the Shovel Handle when Bill improved its design for the winter of 1937-’38 by attaching 72 shovel handles to the overhead cable for people to hang onto.
May and I next drove up Carter Notch Road, where he said a 900-foot Underwood rope tow was also operated in the ’30s at Spruce Mountain, a former ski slope.
Next, we swung north on Route 16. Flossie and the late Omer Gile, May said, ran a 1000-foot rope tow behind their “Last Chance Filling Station Before Entering Pinkham Notch” gas station from 1945 to 1950, just south of the Dana Place and Blake House on the east side of Route 16.
“We had good luck with it. But after 1950, we just decided to concentrate on our cabin business and the gas station,” Flossie later told me when I called her, noting that she and her husband later sold the property, and the station was razed to make way for the vacant model log cabin which sits there today.
Jackson Farm, which was located 1.5 miles south of Conway Village on Tasker Hill Road, offered “three acres of open pasture,” and was said to be “suitable for beginners. Serviced by 300-foot rope tow.” A modern looking home now sits on the property, and remnants of the old lift shack can still be seen at the top of the hill.
Skiers also used the golf course at Russell Cottages in Kearsarge.
Bartlett Village, meanwhile, had Upper and Lower Bear Mountains, neither of which was lift serviced, and Stanton’s Slope, serviced by a rope tow (we’ll hear more about that well-traveled tow in a moment). Stanton’s was located where the Trecarten Farm now sits, near Stillings’ Grant homesites, on the north side of the Saco accessed via the bridge off River Street.
We next visited the site of the former Thorn Mountain Ski Area, located on Middle Mountain off Tin Mine Road, near yet another former ski area — Tyrol, a latter day resort which operated from 1963-1981.
While Tyrol’s ski slopes are still readily apparent, it takes some work to determine the former trails of the Thorn Mountain Ski Area. Thorn operated during the relatively recent era of 1948 through 1955, according to May.
Even before entrepreneur Charlie Plumb opened Thorn, skiers in the late 1930s took to its then wide open slopes, according to May.
“Jackson was much more open then. We could put our climbing skins on or wax our skis, and go to the top of Middle Mountain in spring when the snow would corn up. We’d ski down the saddle between Middle Mountain and Thorn Mountain. It was more darn fun to come down through those farm fields and pastures. You could ski from above where [Sean Doucette of the Mount Washington Observatory now lives, in the former Lodi homestead] and come out behind the Wildcat Tavern,” said May.
Plumb had dreams of some day expanding his trails over to where Tyrol eventually was developed, but those dreams had to be left for others to fulfill in the 1960s.
“Plumb went broke, I suspect,” quipped May when asked about the demise of Thorn Mountain.
To retrace the former Thorn trails, May drove up Tin Mine Road, past the Tin Mountain Conservation Center, to just past the Washington Boulder.
“The novice trails followed the road here. And these houses, where [Doucette] now lives and what was once the Stone Fox, weren’t occupied in winter. There were two tandem lifts, which met halfway up the mountain here. There were three rope tows, one of which went from Washington Boulder here just up the ridge on Middle Mountain,” said May.
Further up the road, at the top of a cul-de-sac, May pointed out the former location of the ski area’s log summit cabin.
“The novice trail followed the road route we just came up,” said May. A halfway cabin also served skiers, and access to the area was provided by a road that still can be seen off Thorn Hill Road, across from the Inn at Thorn Hill.
The story of Carroll Reed’s rope tow deserves retelling. It’s one in which May was personally involved. Call it the “Little Tow That Couldn’t Find a Home.”
After breaking his back in a ski accident on the old Wildcat Trail in April 1934, Reed recuperated at The Memorial Hospital and came up with the idea to form a ski school so that others might learn how to ski properly to avoid injuries such as the serious one he had suffered.
Reed established his Eastern Slope Ski School in the winter of 1936-’37, a year which is remembered for being one of the worst snow seasons ever. As part of his school, he set up a rope tow with Skimobile inventor George Morton’s help at the base of Thorn Mountain. Due to the poor snow season, the lift never turned a crank that season. Lessons were held instead on the combination of light snow and sheep manure on the golf course slope in front of the Eagle Mountain House.
When North Conway native son and world financier Harvey Dow Gibson bought Lookout Mountain in January 1937, renaming it Mt. Cranmore, he set out to put the area on the skier’s map of America. He prevailed upon Reed to move his rope tow to Cranmore, allowing Reed to retain ownership while he paid for the cost of moving it. Finally, during the 1937-’38 season, Reed’s tow was put to use.
Gibson thereafter had Morton develop the Skimobile at Cranmore, with the Lower Skimobile opening in December 1938. Prior to the completion of the Upper Skimobile to the summit in August 1939, skiers looking to reach the top could hoof it, or, if they were truly courageous, they could opt for a short-lived contraption known as the Skisleigh — a huge sled pulled by a steel cable.
But, back to Reed’s rope tow. It was eventually sold to Woody Stanton, who moved it from Cranmore to his slope in Bartlett. After World War II, the tiny tow was purchased by a group of young veterans and skiers and set up in a pasture on what is now Black Mountain Ski Area in Jackson in the winters of 1946-’47 and 1947-’48.
Included among that group was young Dick May, who was then just back from the European theater as a member of the 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops. Other members of the investment group were Dick’s brothers, Bill and the late Jake May; Rink Earle, and 1933 Inferno racer Bob Cann, formerly of Freedom.
“We were just back from the war. We bought it for a few hundred dollars with our Army bonus checks,” said May.
The young men improved the lift by adapting its flat belt drive belt to a multiple V-belt to prevent slippage on the drive pulley.
“We kept busy. I don’t think we made any money. We charged $2.50. I’ve still got some tickets silkscreened on cardboard from those days. We’d cut them out and tie it onto a piece of yarn,” said May.
Ultimately — like all rope tows — the Mays’ ski tow was a victim of progress. When Bill and Betty Whitney teamed up with Halsey and Stan Davis to purchase and develop what is now Black Mountain in 1948, it spelled the end for the little tow.
The Mays and Company sold the lift to the Iron Mountain House in Jackson, where it saw a few years of use on a slope behind the inn [until 1975, according to NELSAP]. “Eventually — and I don’t remember exactly when — they sold it, and when last seen, it was rumored to be headed somewhere in the Sanford area in Maine. And that’s the last I heard of it,” said May.
Editor’s note: Readers should note that many of the former ski areas mentioned in these articles are now the property of private owners who are intent on preserving the land and as such they are not open to public use.