Each year the Museum researches and creates a new annual exhibit focusing on some aspect of ski history. Exhibits from previous years can be seen at the Museum’s satellite locations, which are presently located at Bretton Woods Mountain Resort, the Eastern Slope Inn, the Intervale Scenic Vista, and at the summit of Cranmore Mountain.
Current Annual Exhibit in New England Ski Museum: Ski Area Survivors: Prewar American Ski Centers with a History
A recent series of 75th anniversaries celebrated by ski resorts across the country, from Shawnee Peak in Maine to Timberline in Oregon, points to a phenomenon that is the subject of a new exhibit at the New England Ski Museum, titled Ski Area Survivors: Prewar American Ski Centers with a History. In the 1930s the concept of a ski area was new, based on the recent invention of ski tows and aerial lifts for skiing and, new ski areas were opening up rapidly. By the latter half of the decade a handful of American ‘ski centers’, to use the term of the day, had emerged that are recognizably modern, and the foremost among them approached the scale of resorts found in Europe at the time.
The ten principal ski areas of the prewar years shared most of the features that came to define the concept of a ski resort: maintained ski slopes or trails; a state-of-the-art ski tow or aerial lift; nearby or on-site lodging accommodations; professional ski instruction; and provision for a ski patrol. In many cases, these prewar areas were the venue for national ski meets.
Sun Valley in Idaho, opened in the winter of 1937 by the Union Pacific Railroad, was the earliest and most developed of the ski areas of the 1930s, and became a prototype for other American ski centers. It directly influenced developments at two New Hampshire locations, Belknap Recreation Area (now Gunstock) in Gilford and Cranmore Mountain in North Conway in succeeding years.
Whitney’s (now Black Mountain) in Jackson, New Hampshire, Pico in Mendon, Vermont, Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont, and Cannon Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire round out the list of eastern areas that were the most significant of the prewar skiing universe. In the west, Mount Hood, Oregon with its majestic Timberline Lodge, Alta, Utah, Sugar Bowl near Norden, California, and Sun Valley were the major resorts of the day.
Beside these leading ski resorts, dozens of other smaller areas with rope tows and T-bars had opened in the years before the United States entered World War II. The National Ski Areas Association, the trade group for ski areas in the US, lists more than 40 areas that date back before the war but did not have status as a major resort at the time. Some of these, like Aspen, Winter Park and Steamboat in Colorado, and Snow Basin and Deer Valley, Utah, have since become some of the largest ski resorts in the country.
The somewhat surprising premise of the exhibit, that more than 55 American ski areas dating back to the 1930s or earlier are still operating today, contrasts sharply with the doleful lists compiled by the New England Lost Ski Area Project website (www.nelsap.org) that document the closure of nearly 600 mostly small-scale ski areas in New England. Visitors to the new exhibit, Ski Area Survivors: Prewar American Ski Centers with a History, should come away with an appreciation of these ski area survivors that can all be skied today.
Current Exhibit at Bretton Woods Ski Area Base Lodge: From Pastime to Enterprise: Skiing Becomes a Business
Bretton Woods Mountain Resort has been host to a Ski Museum exhibit in recent years. Located in the ground floor of the Bretton Woods base lodge, the exhibit usually consists of about fifty photographs and text drawn from the annual exhibits seen at the Ski Museum. A single chair from the 1940 Mount Mansfield chair lift, once the world’s longest, is also on display here. The current exhibit is From Pastime to Enterprise: Skiing Becomes a Business includes, among other content, photos and text detailing the invention of the chairlift.
In the spring of 1936, the chairlift was invented as part of a major new ski resort in the Idaho backcountry planned by the Union Pacific Railroad and its board chairman W. Averell Harriman. The resort was named Sun Valley, and the new form of uphill transportation, which was almost passed over in the planning process, became the workhorse conveyance of ski resorts throughout the world.
The exhibit details the beginnings of ski tows and lifts, which vastly boosted the popularity of the sport by relieving skiers of the need to climb uphill. The first ski tow on record was built at Schollach in the Black Forest of Germany, powered by a water wheel. The prototype of surface ski tows was the Bolgen lift at Davos Switzerland, built in 1934 by engineer Ernst Constamm of Zurich. Ordered by Averell Harriman to devise a new, more comfortable way for Sun Valley skiers to ride uphill, Union Pacific engineers combined the basic pattern of circulating wire rope that Constamm used in Davos, with the unique contribution that James Curran made to skiing. Curran, son of a Nebraska sheriff and a Union Pacific engineer, had come up with a hook-shaped hanger and cable for unloading heavy bunches of bananas for a previous employer. In the spring of 1936, Curran designed a small chair seat that would be suspended from an overhead cable, and raising anxieties by his superiors that hoisting paying customers six or more feet off the ground would be hazardous. Luckily, ski consultant Charles N. Proctor saw Curran’s plans, allayed the concerns, and obtained Harriman’s approval.
The first two chairlifts in the world went into operation at Sun Valley in the winter of 1937, and the first in the east was built the next year at Belknap Recreation Area (now Gunstock) in Gilford, New Hampshire. Chairlifts evolved from singles to doubles, then to quads and six-seaters, and since the 1980s the standard configuration is the detachable quad chairlift. The exhibit takes note of an early detachable quad built in 1969 in Utica, New York that was a bit too far ahead of its time for reliable operation.
Another major advance for skiers came about 15 years later, when aviation engineer Howard Head unveiled his Head Standard, the first commercially successful ski made of metal. It took Head three years and 39 failed models of his ski before ski instructor Clif Taylor declared the 40th version of the ski a success following a run down Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine Headwall in April, 1950. In the following ski season, 60 years ago now, Head made and sold the first 300 pairs of his skis. Head skis and other models made of metal would come to dominate the ski market in the 1950s and 1960s before fading in favor of fiber-reinforced plastic models.
The exhibit offers vignettes in photographs and text of other inventors whose creations have eased the life of skiers and riders over the years. The first systematic grooming was carried out by Mount Cranmore beginning about 1940. Emmitt Tucker, Sr., of Jump-off Joe Creek, Oregon, invented the Tucker Sno-Cat, which provided the motive power for ski area slope grooming for decades. Harold Hirsch learned to ski as a Dartmouth student, then re-organized his family’s textile company producing work clothing for loggers into White Stag Ski Togs, a leading maker of ski apparel Willy and Maria Bogner took advantage of a new kind of elastic fabric in the mid-1950s to stitch stretch pants in their Munich factory housed in a former sauerkraut plant.
Current Exhibit at the Eastern Slope Inn, North Conway: Five Rings, Six States: New England Skiers in the Winter Olympics
Located in the space that was once the dining room of the historic Eastern Slope Inn, the Museum’s satellite exhibit in North Conway currently has Five Rings, Six States: New England Skiers in the Winter Olympics, as well as a newer version of the Skiing in the Mount Washington Valley display that can also be seen at the Intervale Scenic Vista.
More than 140 New Englanders have represented the US in the Winter Olympics in skiing and snowboarding since winter events were first held in Chamonix, France in 1924. New England skiers, defined for the purpose of the exhibition as those who were either born, raised, schooled or settled in the region, have participated in every Winter Olympics. The US team gave a notable performance, mostly forgotten today, at the 1952 Games in Oslo, Norway. There, Andrea Mead Lawrence of Rutland, VT won gold medals in slalom and giant slalom, Imogene Opton of North Conway, NH was fifth in slalom, Bill Beck of Kingston, RI took fifth in downhill, and Brooks Dodge of Jackson, NH was sixth in giant slalom.
In a later double-medal performance in 1960 at Squaw Valley, CA, Penny Pitou of Gilford, NH won silver in downhill and giant slalom. The Museum will honor Penny Pitou with its Spirit of Skiing award this coming November at its annual meeting.
Most recently, with the important exception of Bode Miller, New Englanders have found the most Olympic success in freestyle and snowboard events rather than alpine skiing. Freestylers Nikki Stone and Hannah Kearney both won gold, Stone in 1998 and Kearney in 2010, while Ross Powers, Kelly Clark, Hannah Teter and Seth Wescott have all won gold in various snowboard events.
Current Exhibit at the Intervale Scenic Vista: Skiing in the Mount Washington Valley
The history of skiing in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley is the subject of a traveling photographic exhibit located in the Intervale Scenic Vista Visitor Center on Routes 16 and 302 several miles north of North Conway village, where there is a sweeping view of Mount Washington over the alluvial plain of the Saco River.
The skiing history of the region is rich, and it can be argued that Jackson and North Conway were the first towns in the US where a ski business arose. Beginning in 1936, professional ski instruction and a pioneering ski tow were available in Jackson, and with the opening of a comprehensive resort at Mount Cranmore in 1938, it became the first mechanized American ski area located in a populated village, a combination that favored further ski industry developments.
The exhibit begins with a grainy image of three female skiers taken at the Eagle Mountain House in Jackson in 1887, and concludes with a photograph dating from the early 1970s of cross-country skiers in the same location. In the intervening years several unique contributions to skiing originated in the Eastern Slope Region, as the area was known in the decades before the 1960s. The first overhead cable ski tow of original design in the country was installed at what is now Black Mountain in the winter of 1936; the first (and with one exception, the only) Skimobile lift came to Cranmore in 1938; the first systematic ski area grooming in the country was performed at Cranmore in the early 1940s; and the first state ski lift safety board was chaired by Phil Robertson, a North Conway man.
Two further unique features of the area’s ski history are the residence of master ski teacher Hannes Schneider beginning in 1939, and the looming presence of Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine, a natural snow collector where skiers can find snow well into the springtime. Schneider, who devised a system of ski technique and instruction in Austria and was considered by many to be the father of modern skiing, relocated to North Conway prior to World War II after being forced out of his native land by political turmoil. It was one of Schneider’s Austrian protégés, Toni Matt, who captured the imagination of the skiing world when he schussed (ran straight) the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine in 1939. The steep slopes and precipitous gullies of Tuckerman were not all skied until the early 1950s, when Brooks Dodge of Jackson made a concerted effort to descend them all.