by Jeffrey R. Leich, Executive Director, New England Ski Museum
First published in Historical New Hampshire, Volume 63, Number 2 (Fall 2009)
NEW HAMPSHIRE was the epicenter of American skiing from the 1930s into the 1950s when the focus shifted west to higher mountains and deeper, more consistent snowfall. Skiing first became popular as a sport and recreation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in northern Europe, notably the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and Austria. As the new sport crossed the Atlantic, it became established in and around the northeastern port cities of New York and Boston, which had hinterlands noted for hills and mountains, snowy winters, resorts, and established transportation networks. Due largely to its proximity to Boston, New Hampshire rose to an early, though brief, prominence as a site for recreational skiing in the United States. The state’s influential role was due as well to the passionate interests of three distinct groups: the Scandinavian working-class immigrants who flooded into the Berlin paper mills in the late 1800s; the Dartmouth Outing Club students who became enamored of the sport in the 1910s and 1920s; and the generally older, more staid membership of the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club.
As a result of these positive influences, New Hampshire became established as a skiing hub by the early 1930s, just as the popularity of the new sport was beginning to escalate. Dartmouth followed closely new skiing developments on the Continent, and downhill skiing techniques, developed in Europe by professional ski instructors such as Hannes Schneider, were popular in the teens and twenties.. Many who learned skiing in Dartmouth and other college outing clubs kept up the activity as they moved into a variety of careers, becoming advocates for the sport. Owners of summer inns in the White Mountains and elsewhere quickly saw the potential for a winter season; state agencies also foresaw future revenue and mounted publicity campaigns.
By the time World War II brought the development of downhill skiing to a temporary halt, most elements of the modern ski industry had arrived in New Hampshire, many of them for the first time in this country. New Hampshire can profess fairly to be the first American location where the following manifestations of the sport were seen: down-mountain trails cut specifically for skiing; new developments in downhill racing; overhead wire-rope ski tows; an aerial tramway and other innovative conveyances for skiers; professional ski patrols; a systematic method of ski-slope grooming; the first professional ski school; the concept of Alpine-style ski villages and associated sales of real estate; the profession of ski resort planning; and governmental ski-lift safety board and skier statutes. Taken together, these elements combined to form the structure of an entirely new tourism industry.
When in the 1920s and 1930s New England skiers left behind barnyard hills and back pastures of upcountry farms for greater adventures, they confronted mountains that were thickly forested with tangled vegetation. A few existing carriage roads offered skiing routes on significant mountains, but it became evident that for skiing to be opened up on additional mountains, trails would need to be cut through hardwood forests and, on major peaks, through tight, spruce and fir forests characteristic of elevations above three thousand feet.
New Hampshire was the scene of the first American efforts to create trails through the forests specifically for downhill skiing. The Appalachian Mountain Club began this work in 1927 as its members trimmed and widened the existing Wapack Trail in the southern part of the state into a twenty-one-mile ski route that traversed the Wapack Range over numerous summits from Mount Watatic, on the Massachusetts border, to North Pack Monadnock.
In the summer of 1931, the enthusiasm for building ski trails moved north as the Winnipesaukee Ski Club, whose territory was near the lake of the same name in the central part of the state, cut a ski trail over Mounts Gunstock and Belknap, with a 1,200-foot vertical drop from the summit of Belknap. This trail was the site of the Eastern Downhill Championships held in February 1932.
Katharine Peckett of Peckett’s Inn on Sugar Hill convinced a group of local hotel owners in the summer of 1932 to contribute money toward hiring local workers to hew a major ski trail from the summit of 4,077-foot Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains. Duke Dimitri von Leuchtenberg, then teaching skiing at Peckett’s fledgling Arlberg ski school, marked out the trail’s course over land owned by the State of New Hampshire and by the heirs of hotel owner Richard Taft, for whom the trail was named. The Richard Taft Trail was the first trail to be attempted on a four-thousand-foot mountain, and it proved to be too large a job for the local crew to complete in one summer. It took the participation of a federal agency that would come to be called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to finish the Taft Trail in the summer of 1933.
The Richard Taft Trail became the prototype for numerous ski-trail construction projects in the state, and, in turn, these projects would become a pattern for other New England states. After President Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933, several skiers prominent in the state, such as Dartmouth graduate and Manchester attorney John P. Carleton, worked to bring ski-trail projects to the attention of state and federal agencies. Carleton and his associates hoped that the new jobs programs that the president and Congress were expected to unveil might be utilized for the benefit of the ski community. They formed a committee to present their ideas, which resulted in support from the New Hampshire State Forestry Department and from James E. Scott, supervisor of the White Mountain National Forest. By mid-July 1933, the first CCC ski-trail project, the Wildcat Trail in Pinkham Notch, commenced, and after a massive effort, forty miles of new ski trails opened to the public in 1934.
Developments in Ski Competition
While studying in England in 1923 on a Rhodes Scholarship, Carleton had participated in two Oxford versus Cambridge ski races in Switzerland in 1923 and there caught the eye of British ski patriarch Arnold Lunn. Through Carleton, Dartmouth Professor Charles A. Proctor began receiving the British Ski Club Yearbook from Lunn, establishing an early connection between the Dartmouth Outing Club and skiing developments in Mürren, Switzerland, a connection that allowed the Dartmouth group to stay abreast of the newest trends.
In 1925 Professor Proctor, inspired by Lunn’s writings, set a slalom course at the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. The winner that year was Proctor’s son, Charles N. Proctor, on a course he recalled as “less than 100 feet vertical drop, and not really steep in any place. . . . There were eight or nine pairs of markers made from pine branches.” That race was the first slalom race held in North America. The slalom quickly became the preferred race form, superseding short “dashes on skis” and proficiency tests and encouraging wider adoption of skiing by undergraduates.
By 1927 another European competition form appeared first at Dartmouth, this time fathered by Colonel Anton Diettrich, a Hungarian ski and fencing coach. Diettrich was a veteran of Alpine combat along the Austrian-Italian border in World War I where he commanded a battalion of Tyrolean sharpshooters. In February 1927 he told his Dartmouth winter sports team how the Austrian army held a single down-mountain race each year to determine the best overall skier, and he proposed a similar event if a suitable course could be found. Dartmouth Outing Club members suggested Mount Moosilauke and its carriage road, owned partially by the college and only about forty miles distant.
The winner of this first modern downhill race on March 8, 1927, was once again Charles N. Proctor, son of the professor, who would represent the United States in the 1928 Olympic Winter Games. The race has come to be considered the first modern-form downhill held in the country.
Downhill racing became popular in the 1930s, but the difficulty of the new trails built by the CCC was beyond the skill of average competitors. When Franklin Edson III, a member of the Amateur Ski Club of New York, died of injuries he received in an interclub race in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Edson’s widow suggested that the New York organization sponsor a memorial race that was both fast and safe. At about the same time, Dartmouth racer Dick Durrance editorialized in the Ski Bulletin about a new form of racing in Europe, a downhill modified with control gates, which he thought could be successful in this country. The outcome was the establishment of the Edson Trophy by the Amateur Ski Club, with the first event a race in Tuckerman Ravine on April 4, 1937, featuring a new racing format now known as giant slalom. The race attracted many of the best competitors in the country and was deemed a success because of a lack of casualties, unusual for a major race at the time, and because of the adventure of a new racing form.
Innovations in Ski Tows and Lifts
After the rope tow had been introduced to North America at Shawbridge, Quebec, in 1933 and at Woodstock, Vermont, in 1934, experimentation and innovation in forms of uphill ski conveyances demonstrated the vigor of the nascent skiing movement in New Hampshire. New Hampshire inventor George Morton devised several unique ski-tow variations, and several forms of aerial lifts were deployed in the state for the first time in America.
The first new development in ski tows was the replacement of the manila rope by a cable, more properly termed wire rope, circulating above the rider, from which were suspended various types of hangers that pulled the rider uphill. The first two tows of this type opened in New Hampshire in the winter of 1936. The Bolgen J-bar tow in Davos, Switzerland, patented by Ernst Constam, served as a prototype; the Dartmouth Outing Club imitated it for its Dartmouth Ski Tramway, built at Oak Hill in Hanover and operational in the winter of 1936. This tow had a 5/8-inch wire rope, from which hung J-shaped wooden handles. It was built by the combined efforts of the Split Ballbearing Corporation of Lebanon, New Hampshire, acting as the local contractor, and the American Steel and Wire Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, which was experienced in building tramways for mining and other passenger applications. The Hanover tow received a great deal of publicity at the time it opened and had a long history of service, finally turning its last circuit in 1985. It did, however, constitute an infringement on the Constam patent, and when Constam himself was in New England to oversee the construction of a similar, duly licensed tow at Pico Peak, Vermont, he paid a call on the Dartmouth Outing Club manager with the intent to extract licensing fees for its use of his design.
In late January 1936 a far less publicized overhead-cable ski tow opened for business in Jackson on the Moody Farm, which is today subsumed into the Black Mountain Ski Area. The tow was a joint project of mechanic George Morton, White Mountain Power Company executive Philip Robertson, and landowner Edwin Moody, and featured an overhead cable lift with a bull wheel set at a forty-five-degree angle to the horizontal, with short ropes suspended from the cable for skiers to grasp. The angled bull wheel was problematic, and when the farm and ski tow were purchased the next year by Appalachian Mountain Club skiers Bill and Betty Whitney, they re-engineered the tow with a horizontal bull wheel and replaced the dangling ropes with D-handles from Sears Roebuck that were attached to lengths of locally cut saplings. For the next decade the lift was known as the Shovel Handle. Because this example did not incorporate the J-shaped hangers of Constam’s patent, there was no question of patent infringement with the Moody Farm tow.
The first chairlift that was constructed outside the confines of Sun Valley, Idaho, the site of its creation, was in Gilford, New Hampshire, at a Works Progress Administration project on Rowe Mountain at the Belknap Recreation Center. Just how a chairlift came to be built in New Hampshire in the summer of 1937, only a year after its invention, is a question still open to research, but nonetheless it signifies the keenness for new ski-related technology that characterized the state in this decade.
The following season, 1938–39, two groundbreaking new ski lifts went into service at Cannon Mountain in Franconia and Mount Cranmore in North Conway. The two major ski developments that these lifts were designed to serve would remain the dominant resorts in the state well into the 1950s. The Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway was a Bleichert installation imported from Germany and installed by the American Steel and Wire Company in the summer of 1938. Aerial tramways were common in Europe, partly as a result of the high-altitude combat along the Austrian-Italian border in World War I, when thousands of tramways were built to supply Alpine troops. For a time it seemed that tramways might become the dominant ski-lift form in the United States, and Alec Bright, a Boston stockbroker and passionate skier, conducted a survey of potential sites for tramways in the White Mountains in 1934. Bright advocated the Cannon Tramway as a demonstration project that might lead to more tramway construction, but by the time the lift was complete, the chairlift had been invented in Sun Valley. As the chairlift proved to be more economical and less complex, it became the workhorse of the ski industry.
The Cannon tramway was not the first passenger tramway in the United States. That distinction belongs to a short-lived, summer sight-seeing installation in Idaho Springs, Colorado, before the First World War. The Colorado tramway appears in photographs to have been little more than an ore car. The Cannon tramway, however, was the first in America designed specifically to carry skiers to developed trails. Its financing and ownership by the State of New Hampshire, one of the most politically conservative states in the 1930s, was indicative of the extent to which skiing, seen by many small business owners as a new source of revenue, enjoyed robust state fiscal support despite the dire economic circumstances of the time.
The other ski area, opened simultaneously at Mount Cranmore in North Conway by Harvey Dow Gibson in the winter of 1939, may well have been influenced by Gibson’s friend and fellow magnate, Averill Harriman. The most significant feature of Harriman’s Sun Valley, Idaho, resort had been the invention of the revolutionary chairlift, and Gibson sought to open his new resort with a similar technological flourish. He turned to George Morton, the local mechanical genius who had designed the Moody Farm lift, and charged him with creating a unique new lift as a centerpiece of the resort. The result was the Skimobile, a variation on the concept of San Francisco’s cable cars, in which individual cars ascended a wooden trestle hauled by a wire rope slung under the platform. This proved to be a colorful, eye-catching, and ultimately beloved ski lift. It was, however, slow and expensive to maintain. Also its lengthy individual ride came to seem unacceptably solitary once skiers became accustomed to the double chairlift. The Skimobile was imitated in only one other location, at the Homestead in Virginia, where it was relatively short-lived.
Yet another new form of aerial ski lift made a North American debut in the state in the winter of 1958, this time at Wildcat in Pinkham Notch. Wildcat was the first ski area constructed on National Forest land in the East, and the builders planned a major resort with the CCC’s Wildcat Trail as its core. The founding partners, Malcolm McLane, Mack Beal, Brooks Dodge, and George Macomber, were all internationally ranked ski racers. They were experienced with skiing at Tuckerman Ravine and hence were familiar with the sometimes harsh weather of the area. While in Europe, Beal and Dodge researched covered ski lifts as an alternative to open chairlifts. Hoping to provide greater protection from the weather, they selected an Italian manufacturer, Carlevaro-Savio, for the Wildcat installation. The result was an aerial lift from which two-person gondolas, rather than exposed chairs, were suspended. Gondolas became popular at ski resorts in the 1960s and, because of their greater comfort compared to chairlifts, came to be seen as markers of significant ski resorts. The Wildcat gondola was in service for four decades until decommissioned in 1999.
Ski Patrol and Slope Grooming
The advent of the ski tow brought new concentrations of skiers into tightly limited spaces. This was in sharp contrast with what had been a more dispersed activity. Two New Hampshire innovations signaled the future direction of ski areas in dealing with this development: the first professional ski patrol and a comprehensive system of grooming slopes derived from agricultural technology.
In the winter of 1937 a lone, paid patroller worked the slopes of Mount Hood, Oregon, but it was at Cannon Mountain in 1938 that the State of New Hampshire hired the first unit of professionals fitting the modern understanding of a ski patrol. The patrollers doubled as guides for the new Aerial Tramway in the summer and as ski and slope maintenance workers in the winter. Ken Boothroyd was the ski patrol director, overseeing roughly twelve patrollers who split their time between attending at accidents and performing trail maintenance by hand:
We done [sic] all the maintenance work with shovels. . . . Usually after a weekend, we started in Monday morning fixing all the trails so they’d be in shape to ski again. . . . We used to have time trials here every Wednesday on Cannon Mountain trail, that was one of the reasons we went out on Monday, to get the Cannon trail ready. We worked Monday and Tuesday shoveling all the way down the whole two miles and a third, then Wednesday we had the time trials.
Establishment of a ski patrol at Cannon Mountain predated that at Sun Valley. The first professional ski patrol director at the Idaho ski area was engaged in the winter of 1939–40 after lifts were installed on Bald Mountain. In the three years prior to that winter, skiing was confined to lower, gentle, open slopes, and what injuries occurred were handled by the Austrian ski instructors, whose national certification process included first-aid training.
That Cannon’s patrol needed to spend two days with shovels getting one ski trail ready for a new week of skiing suggests the magnitude of maintenance required on the trails, some with vertical drops of two thousand feet or more. Hand work was a stopgap only. A more sustainable approach first appeared at Mount Cranmore beginning in the winter of 1940. There a new system of ski-slope grooming used modified agricultural implements hauled behind small tractors. Philip Robertson, earlier a partner in the Moody Farm lift and later a key figure in the development of the state’s pioneering Tramway Safety Board, described the Cranmore slope-grooming methods in the American Ski Annual. Two different types of snow rollers and a mat drag were used for varying snow conditions, and calcium chloride was applied to areas of exposed ledge to develop a frozen base over the bedrock. In the next few years experimentation continued, with a ski-mounted road grader proving to be very successful. Cranmore’s mechanical methods were slow and were certainly not used every day as in modern resorts, but its crew’s ability to modify ski conditions over a wide area had no known counterpart at this early date.
Arlberg Ski Instruction
Skiing as it was practiced in New Hampshire in the 1920s and 1930s was largely a European creation. Of the two chief forms of skiing that were in the process of evolving in this period—the nordic style, originating in Scandinavia, that emphasizes ski jumping and cross-country, and the alpine style from Central Europe that stresses controlled downhill turns—it was the alpine discipline that was undergoing rapid gains in popularity. Hannes Schneider, an Austrian national from St. Anton was the well-known developer of the Arlberg ski technique, named for his home region in western Austria. Schneider’s unique contribution was twofold: he refined a ski technique in which a student could progress through a series of increasingly sophisticated maneuvers, and he combined this technique with an organizational approach that ushered large numbers of skiers in ascending class levels through this progression. German filmmaker Dr. Arnold Fanck featured Schneider’s skiing, making him an international sports celebrity, and the Hannes Schneider Ski School brought unprecedented prosperity to St. Anton.
The Arlberg technique held promise for the growing population of New England skiers who had much enthusiasm but little or no expertise. The earliest Arlberg ski school in the country was in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, at the inn owned by the Peckett family. Katharine Peckett, a skier herself, arranged to keep the inn open for the 1929–30 winter season, so that two European ski teachers could offer Arlberg ski instruction there. Peckett’s attracted a well-to-do clientele and became the rendezvous for a network of skiers whose social standing increased the cachet of the new sport.
In the spring of 1934 Carroll Reed, co-founder of the White Mountain Ski Runners club and a committed skier, incurred a spinal fracture on the Wildcat Trail. While recovering from his injuries, Reed saw an article about Schneider’s ski school and convinced innkeepers in Jackson to fund the costs of retaining an instructor from St. Anton for the 1937 winter season. Schneider sent one of his most experienced instructors, Benno Rybizka, who conducted thousands of ski lessons that winter despite notably poor snow conditions. Once established, the American Branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School grew from two to four Austrian instructors, and in 1939 political upheaval in Europe brought Schneider himself to North Conway.
In the meantime, Harvey Dow Gibson, president of Manufacturer’s Trust Company in New York, whose youth had been spent in North Conway as the son of the station agent for the Maine Central Railroad, was working to develop Mount Cranmore as a ski area. As part of this project Gibson bought Carroll Reed’s interest in the Jackson ski school and moved it to North Conway. Gibson had international financial connections forged through his work with relief commissions following the First World War. Reed, the originator of the American Branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School, turned his considerable energy to establishing in North Conway the Carroll Reed Ski Shop, one of the earliest ski catalog retailers in the industry.
Hannes Schneider was the leading citizen of St. Anton and as such was courted by the emerging National Socialist party in the mid-1930s. Schneider adamantly refused to enter the Nazi orbit and was thereafter marked as an opponent by Nazi party members based in Innsbruck. Days after the Anschluss of March 1938, local Nazis imprisoned Schneider and made one of their own the head of his ski school. Schneider had made many friends, and one was Dr. Karl Rösen, a German attorney active in organized skiing who, while not a party member, had been involved in Hitler’s defense at the time of the 1924 Beer Hall Putsch. Rösen had enough influence with the German Nazis to have Schneider transferred to his custody under house arrest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. There Schneider languished for months, held apart from his family and confined, yet safe for the moment from the Austrian Nazis. He likely posed a bureaucratic dilemma for the German Nazis who were aware of his international following.
Gibson, now hosting the American Branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School in North Conway, was kept abreast of these developments by Benno Rybizka. Gibson was the chair of the American Committee for the Short Term Creditors of Germany. The committee’s German government contact was Hjalmar Schacht, president of the Reichsbank, and Gibson evidently used his leverage as a creditor and his friendship with Schacht to negotiate Schneider’s release. Much remains unknown about the details of the deal between Gibson and the Germans, but the outcome of it all was that Schneider and his family were allowed to leave Europe, and the skimeister took up residence in North Conway at the head of the Hannes Schneider Ski School at Mount Cranmore in February 1939.
The presence of Hannes Schneider, the virtual creator of the downhill skiing phenomenon with all its associated prosperity, made North Conway a world capital of the sport until his death in 1955. The ski school and Mount Cranmore thrived, helped by the ease of access from Boston provided by snow trains and by regular visits from internationally known ski figures, such as Arnold Lunn. New Hampshire’s place as the hub of alpine skiing in mid-century America was assured.
Tuckerman Ravine on the eastern side of Mount Washington, one of several glacial cirques in the Presidential Range, accumulates extraordinary quantities of snow, which the prevailing northwest winds transport from acres of treeless tundra above and upwind of the area. The ravine’s headwall, which appears to summer hikers as a series of rocky crags and cliffs interspersed with clinging vegetation, is transformed after a winter of wind-driven snow into several smooth, steep, expansive snowfields and gullies that have attracted skiers since the 1920s. The precipitous gradient of the springtime snowpack approaches the angle of repose of wind-packed snow. The resulting depth of snow and extremity of pitch have attracted expert skiers through the decades, so that skiing Tuckerman Ravine has become a demanding test and rite of passage. The uniqueness of Tuckerman Ravine is enhanced by the notorious changeability of Mount Washington’s near-arctic weather conditions, and by the startling reality that here, less than seventy miles from the Atlantic coast, the risk of snow avalanches constitutes a serious concern for the unwary.
The ravine became a distinctive ski destination in the 1930s. Charles Proctor and John Carleton made the first known run over the forty-five-degree headwall in April 1931, a descent today called the Lip. Over the next decade, about five additional ski routes were pioneered, though when and by whom each was skied for the first time is not on the record. Also undocumented is the identity of the first woman to ski the headwall, though tradition has it that it was Mary Bird, one of the best female racers of the day, who had learned to ski from Hannes Schneider’s ski school in St. Anton and who was the first American woman ski instructor.
An irregular series of three races, the American Infernos, held in 1933, 1934, and 1939, was run from the summit of Mount Washington down through Tuckerman Ravine and through the forest to the highway in Pinkham Notch. These free-form races with a 4,200-foot vertical drop over a four-mile length drew a great deal of interest among skiers, and the 1939 event is still remembered for the electrifying schuss, or straight run, on the headwall portion of the course by nineteen-year-old Austrian Toni Matt. Matt, a young instructor in the American Branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School, won most of the downhill races he entered from 1939 through 1942, but was new to Mount Washington. As he climbed the headwall on his ascent, he planned to make a series of turns high on the steepest portion for control, then straighten his line for speed on the lower half. A skier approaching the lip of the headwall is blind to the terrain immediately beneath due to the change in angle of the impending precipice. Though Toni Matt made his planned turns too high, he straightened his skis just as the snow dropped away at the steepest angle. Matt somehow kept his stance on the roaring plunge down the headwall and across the floor of the ravine, stunning the hundreds of spectators who saw him disappear toward the ski trail below on his way to victory. In later years Matt was bemused that he was most remembered for his 1939 American Inferno win rather than for his dozens of regional and national championships. Toni Matt’s schuss of the Tuckerman headwall has become a long-lived legend of Mount Washington and New Hampshire, especially impressive to those who view in person the imposing headwall and sense the unsettling seriousness of the ravine.
The potential in Tuckerman Ravine for destructive snow avalanches, otherwise rare in the East, contributes to the exotic aura and sense of distance from everyday experience that defines the place. Prior to setting the course of the April 1937 Franklin Edson race in Tuckerman Ravine, Dartmouth ski coach Walter Prager observed signs of recent avalanche activity on the headwall and dispatched members of his ski team to throw dynamite charges in avalanche starting zones to trigger potential snow slides before they could threaten racers and spectators. A decade later Utah snow ranger Monty Atwater discovered that dynamite is a less effective method for avalanche control than more modern explosives designed for demolition, but Prager’s unproductive attempt is surely the earliest on record in the East, if not the country. Officials of the White Mountain National Forest, within which Tuckerman is located, experimented with avalanche-control methods ranging from explosives to area closures from the 1950s into the 1980s, before adopting an advisory approach that relies on daily condition and hazard reports prepared by on-site rangers trained in snow science.
When the popularity of skiing resumed after the Second World War, Brooks Dodge made the first ski descents of more than a dozen steep, narrow gullies and chutes in Tuckerman Ravine, employing a self-developed technique that required a thinner corridor of snow and was more efficient than the existing Arlberg method. Dodge, who would ski for the United States in the Winter Olympic Games in 1952 and 1956, had grown up at the trailhead to Tuckerman Ravine, at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Camp, where his father Joe Dodge was hutmaster and de facto authority on skiing, mountaineering, and rescue in the region. The ski descents made by Brooks Dodge in the late 1940s–especially routes such as Icefall, in which the skier literally drops from a series of frozen cascades or ‘no-fall’ gullies, such as Dodge’s Drop and Cathedral, where a fallen skier is likely to slide into rocky terrain with catastrophic results–prefigure by decades the “extreme skiing” label that gained cachet among skiers and magazine publishers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite the three-mile hike required to reach the major ski runs of Tuckerman Ravine, skiers in the hundreds and thousands converge each spring on the area, drawn by the long-lasting snowpack, steep slopes, hint of peril, and unlikely carnival atmosphere. Skiers in other parts of the country, if they know nothing else about New Hampshire, are apt to be aware of Tuckerman Ravine, the state’s island of alpine terrain, and of the legend of Toni Matt and his dazzling 1939 Inferno schuss.
Ski-Area Planning and Legislation
Real estate development near the slopes—both short-stay lodging and second homes—is today a routine and expected feature of the modern American ski resort. The emergence of this symbiosis can be traced to New Hampshire, where as early as 1936 a “Ski Village” was planned, and one cabin actually constructed, along the Wapack Trail on Pack Monadnock in the Peterborough region. Led by Major A. Erland Goyette of the Monadnock Region Association, this effort appears to have ended quickly without any lasting impact. A decade later at Mittersill, a small resort adjoining Cannon Mountain, the concept of a ski village in close proximity to ski lifts and downhill ski trails emerged. In the late 1940s Austrian émigré Hubert von Pantz, attracted originally by the Aerial Tramway, offered lots and chalet homes clustered around the ski-lift base. The Mittersill village became vital in the 1950s and 1960s and probably set the pattern for another early New England ski village, Vermont’s Magic Mountain, which was developed by Hans Thorner, formerly owner of a Franconia inn near Mittersill.
While planning ski-trail construction in 1933, the CCC employed a handful of experienced skiers, such as Charles N. Proctor and Duke Dimitri von Leuchtenberg, to survey and mark out the trail routes ahead of the work crews. As a college student and recent graduate, Berlin native Seldon Hannah worked with this first generation of ski-trail architects on New Hampshire trails, such as Hell’s Highway, the Mount Tecumseh Trail, and the Cannon Mountain Trail. In 1947 Hannah was hired to make improvements to the Richard Taft Trail and within a decade was conducting surveys for the White Mountain National Forest, which in those years offered multiple sites for lease as ski areas. Hannah joined David Heald, William F. Shaw, and William A. Walsh in 1958 to incorporate Sno-Engineering to advise potential and existing ski-area operators on aspects of planning and engineering specific to skiing. From a small Franconia office Hannah and his partners, notably Jim Branch and Joe Cushing, with a great deal of behind-the-scenes work by Hannah’s wife Paulie, assisted their clients in coping with the increasing complexities of ski-area design and planning, and in the process helped define ski-area engineering as a distinctive profession. Sno-Engineering’s corporate successor, SE Group, later re-located out of the state and developed a client base extending around the globe.
For twenty years after the invention of the chairlift there was little governmental oversight for this emerging form of public conveyance. While California did introduce some regulation around 1957 by extending its existing elevator inspection procedures to ski lifts, a regulatory vacuum persisted in other ski states. An accident occurred in the summer of 1956 on the 1937 single chairlift at the Belknap Recreation Area in Gilford; the wire rope broke, causing one death and injuring eleven skiers. Momentum soon built among ski businesses for some form of operational standards that would guide ski-area operators in maintenance procedures and provide state agencies and insurance companies some level of confidence that safety concerns were being met. Philip Robertson, manager of Mount Cranmore, president of the Eastern Ski Area Operators’ Association, and later a two-term member of the New Hampshire Executive Council, was elected to chair a committee involving this association, the American Standards Association, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, charged with developing a safety code for aerial lifts. This led to creation in 1957 of the New Hampshire Passenger Tramway Safety Board, also chaired by Robertson. The New Hampshire board became a national model because of its connection with the American Standards Association (now renamed the American National Standards Institute). A lift safety code adopted in 1960 became the basis for legislation in most states with ski areas.
A Westward Shift
In the 1930s support from state government–exemplified by its role in the Civilian Conservation Corps, its financing of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, its expenditures to encourage winter tourism through colorful ski posters, trail maps, and the New Hampshire Troubadour magazine, published by the State Planning and Development Commission–enabled the state to promote its natural advantages as a ski destination. The state, a leader in the marketing of skiing from the 1930s through the 1950s, issued at least sixteen color and black-and-white posters promoting the sport. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the State Planning and Development Commission distributed detailed maps of the state showing ski trails and ski tows as they were built. Winter issues of the Troubadour featured images of snowy landscapes and smiling skiers by talented photographers such as Winston Pote and Harold Orne.
Later a reduction in state support and increased initiatives by neighboring Vermont, as well as the prospect of impressive skiing terrain in the West, marked a decline in New Hampshire’s prominence in the ski industry. When the Depression ended, New Hampshire reverted to its historic stance of Yankee conservatism, so that after World War II there were fewer state resources directed toward skiing. At the same time the Vermont Development Commission was able to obtain state highway funds to construct ski-area access roads and parking lots and, in some cases, ski-area base lodges.
Transitory though New Hampshire’s moment in the sun as a skiing hub proved to be, it left the state with an enduring foundation for tourism-based prosperity that remains important today. Skiing continues to have an enormous impact on the state, as fourteen major and numerous smaller resorts serve alpine skiers, and many touring centers provide cross-country facilities. A trade association economic impact-study in 2006–7 reported that the state’s ski areas accounted for $269 million in direct spending and more than $450 million in secondary spending. Direct and indirect employment related to skiing amounted to 17,282 jobs, or 2.1 per cent of winter employment.
That New Hampshire lost its early lead in the development of skiing in America is hardly surprising. What is remarkable is that for a decade or more, this diminutive state in the northeastern corner of the United States became the national focal point for the evolution of the sport into an economically significant industry, an industry that spread across the northern tier of states and today sustains those who find gratification and fulfillment in the simple act of sliding downhill on snow.