A Bit of Skiing History in New England

by Laurie J. Puliafico

 

Skiing in New England wasn't always the great sport today, in fact, for many years it wasn't a sport at all.  In the 19th century, early Scandinavian immigrants used skis to get around and conduct their daily business.  Many of them hand carved their own skis from pine, hickory and other hard woods.  Skiing was a means of transportation for these immigrants. Skis were often used by loggers, Mailmen and school children to get around in the harsh conditions where they lived.

 

Though many Scandinavian immigrants had settled in the mid-west, others settled in the woods of Northern New England.  As they settled these parts, they noticed that the weather conditions in the winter were much like those they had left.  Getting around in the winter before the invention of the automobile was difficult at best, particularly when deep snow blanketed the countryside.  In response to this, they began to make and use skis like they had in their old countries.

 Before the first trail was cut in or the first rope tow erected,  New Englanders were skiing.  As the 20th century drew near skis began to appear in some of the local shops.  Some people began to make their own skis modeled after those they had seen in shops and other people adapted barrel staves to make their own.  Though it was not wide spread, the popularity of skiing was beginning to grow.

In the early part of the 1900's, people began to recognize not only the transportation benefits of skiing, but also the health benefits.  Skiing became more wide spread and began it's journey to becoming the sport it is today.

Among the first to use skiing for recreation was a group of college men from Dartmouth College.  In 1909, Fred Harris, an undergraduate student, suggested that they form a ski and snowshoe club there.  The Dartmouth Outing Club was founded shortly thereafter.  Other colleges, schools and town groups soon followed and formed their own ski clubs. 

Ski Jumping provided the greatest attraction and several large jumps were set up throughout New England.  Slalom and downhill, though gaining popularity in European countries, were hardly heard of here.  Competitions on the large jumps and Winter Carnivals began to spring up all over New England.  Carnivals included additional events such as obstacle races on skis, cross-country races, tobogganing, skating and snowshoeing.  Skiing was quickly becoming more popular.   

The Brattleboro Jump (taken in 2003)

Roger F. Langley

In the early 20's, the nation's first full time ski program for juniors began in Massachusetts at the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield.  Then headmaster  Howard Gibbs approached the newly hired athletic director, Roger Langley,  about the need for a winter recreation activity for the students.  The School did not have a gymnasium.  The headmaster was an outdoorsman and thought that a winter sport would be a great thing for the boys.  Mr. Langley began to introduce the winter sport, although he was no skier himself.  Eaglebrook soon became one of the largest junior ski clubs in the Eastern United States.  Mr. Langley became a ski enthusiast and went on to be a very important man in the development of skiing in the United States (and Canada).

 

European influence soon brought the thrill of speed to skiing.  Slalom and downhill events quickly made their way into winter carnivals.  Snowy hills became the favorite of winter enthusiasts and they would flock to these areas even when carnival events were not scheduled.

Snow trains from cities to these snowy hills began.  These trains were quite popular and brought many city dwellers out for a weekend of "earn-your-turns" skiing.  Lodges and Inns were established near many of the more popular hills, some of these even had their own hills right in their back yards.

A Ski Train

Gilbert's Tow-1st  Ski Tow in the U.S.A.- Woodstock, Vermont - January 1934 

Soon the first rope tow appeared on the slopes of Gilbert's Hill in Woodstock, Vermont.  It was opened by "Bunny" Bertram who was a ski instructor in the town.    He had been told about a rope tow in Shawbridge, Quebec, Canada (Foster's Folly).  He shared this with the innkeepers, Bob and Betty Royce, who traveled to Quebec, saw the tow and spoke with it's owner.  A rope tow of their own appeared the very next year.

The popularity of the rope tow and it's appeal lead others to soon follow.  Similar tows were erected throughout New England.  New tows sprung up all over and it was a common site to see rope tows in farmer's fields and meadows.  Soon, nearly every town had one.

 

More and more people took up skiing as uphill travel was simplified.  With the increase of skiers came the demand for instruction.  These new skiers needed to be taught to control their decent, to turn and take the bumps.  This was increasingly more important as the number of skiers on the hills grew.  Ski Schools began to pop up at many of the larger hills.  European instructors were hired to teach these lessons.  Many of these instructors were trained in Hannes Schneider's Arlberg Method.

New Trails were cut as the demand for "higher, steeper, faster" continued to grow.  Much of the labor for the new trails was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

 

  An early rope tow on a New England field, Fitzwilliam Inn, Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire

A turn on Nosedive.

 

New England had many great skiing pioneers as a result of this, it was on the forefront of many great developments.  Many of the early National Ski and Jumping Championships took place right here in New England.  Probably the most important of these events was the 1938 National Downhill and Slalom Championship at Mt. Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont.  It was at this event that the National Ski Patrol was conceived and established, halfway up the Nosedive trail.  This came about as the result of a conversation between Roger Langley and "Minnie" Dole.
New England Skiing kept getting bigger and better, J-bars, T-Bars, chairlifts, tramways and gondolas began appearing at many of the established ski areas.  New Areas on mountainsides continued to spring up. This fast rate of growth continued into the early 1970's.  Throughout the world, skiing was becoming and important sport.

Mt. Snow Vermont.  This scene shows 2 chairlifts from different times in the history of lift development.

Pine Ridge Ski Area, Barre, MA 1960's

The early 1970's saw several liability cases spring up which resulted in insurance increases.  Many of the smaller mom-and-pop operations that had sprung up in the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's could no longer afford to operate.  They have disappeared into the history books.  Some remembered fondly, others lost and forgotten for ever. 
Today, skiing continues to evolve.  Slow and inefficient lifts are being replaced with high speed lifts capable of transporting more skiers faster to the tops of the mountains.  Equipment has transformed from the hand-crafted wooden skis with leather, lacing boots to high-tech hybrids made of materials not even thought of during the early years of skiing.  While the cost of skiing has significantly increased over the years, comfort, convenience and ease of use has made skiing more user friendly.  What is the future of skiing?  No one knows.  With the technology that is constantly being developed there is no telling where it will be in the years to come.

Cannon Mountain Tramway 2003.  See also the 1940's Postcard and the 1963 Brochure

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