Fifty years after their boom times, New England ski resorts look back at their heydey
by Brion O'Connor/
Skiing and nostalgia go together like hot chocolate and whipped cream (or maybe après ski banter and a beer for the adult set). Now, think about that “Eureka!” moment, when that one clever person actually first adorned his or her hot cocoa with that wonderful, airy confection. It must have tasted like heaven.
Well, that’s what life was like 50 years ago in New England skiing. It was an intoxicating time of innovation and investment, when ski areas large and small seemed to be opening on a daily basis. And people flocked to this wintertime sport that appeared to be hitting critical mass just about the same time as, somewhat ironically, the Cold War.
“That’s right in the middle of what I would think of as the big boom in New England skiing. It actually started more like in the late ’50s, when Wildcat, Sugarbush, Killington, Sugarloaf, some of the real big ones got going,” says Jeff Leich of the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, N.H. “1961, ’62 was right in the middle of the big growth spurt, which started in the winter of 1958.
“By the time you get to 1965 and ’66, when Loon and Waterville open, I think that big spurt is pretty much done with,” he says. “So you’re looking at the top of the curve.”
Stepping back in the time machine, 1961 saw President Kennedy assume residency in the White House the same year Barack Obama was born. Moviegoers flocked to see “The Guns of Navarone,” “West Side Story” and “101 Dalmatians.” Television sets buzzed and blinked with “Perry Mason,” “Candid Camera,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Bonanza.” On the crest of the Beatles and the British Invasion, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” Elvis Presley’s “Surrender” and Chubby Checker’s “Pony Time” topped the pop music charts. And Volkswagen’s microbus — that iconic vehicle of ski bums everywhere — was all the rage.
It was, in many respects, New England skiing’s Golden Age.
“I think that’s true,” Leich says. “Just before the Wildcat gondola went in, people got up the hill on a single chair in the best case. And they were probably staying in a motel or a tourist home in a mountain town near the ski area. And they were skiing the Arlberg technique. By the time that was all over in 1966, they were riding in gondolas and on double chairs. They were staying at the mountain more and more, maybe slopeside lodging or more likely they had a ski house near the mountain. And they were skiing wedelling. That all happens in a very short eight-, nine-year period.”
Today, many of New England’s best known and most beloved areas are hitting their Golden Years. Though New England skiing traces its roots to the early 1900s, notably the formation of the legendary Dartmouth Outing Club, and the Civilian Conservation Corps trail-cutting efforts in the 1930s, there’s little doubt that the post-World War II boom was a period of unprecedented growth for the sport. Skiing perfectly complemented the notion of the self-sufficient Northeastern Yankee, the rugged outdoorsman who would rather be caught naked than caught lazing inside on a bright, brisk winter’s day.
Plus, skiing was undeniably sexy. The region already was enamored with the dashing Austrian ski instructors, led by Hannes Schneider, Benno Rybizka and Toni Matt (or, as Maine’s Nancy Marshall called them, “these Austrian ski gods”). But in the late 1950s, racers caught our collective eye. The “Blitz from Kitz,” Toni Sailor, captured our imaginations with his gold-medal sweep in Cortina, Italy, and that interest hit warp speed when the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley put ski racing front and center of the American consciousness. That led to local stars such as Burlington, Vt., native Billy Kidd, who used to rip up Stowe slopes as a member of the Mount Mansfield Ski Team.
Add other luminaries such as Jimmy Heuga (who, along with Kidd, became the first American men to medal in Olympic alpine skiing, taking bronze and silver, respectively, at Innsbruck in 1964), the tragic Spider Sabich (who finished fifth in the 1968 Olympic slalom in Grenoble). All of whom, of course, were eclipsed by the supernova that was France’s Jean-Claude Killy, the ultimate blend of Euro sophistication and competitive superiority (James Bond on skis!) who made ski racing a can’t miss event on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
“Today, nobody knows anything about World Cup skiing,” says Tom Gross, president of operations for Waterville Valley. “Bode Miller wins, and you don’t even see it anywhere. The only time ski racing becomes part of the social discussion is during the Olympics. That’s when people are really drawn in. You don’t really see it on television anymore.”
The 1960 USA Olympic ski team also had a member named Tom Corcoran, a Dartmouth graduate who would finish only a half-second out of the running for bronze in the giant slalom. Corcoran parlayed his competitive notoriety and business acumen to launch Waterville Valley in the mid-1960s, and the resort instantly became the darling of the Boston social set.
“I grew up in Manchester, skiing at Pat’s Peak and Ragged Mountain and Gunstock and Sunapee and King Ridge,” Gross says. “But then Waterville came in, and I remember seeing that base lodge, which was huge, and seeing the White Peak double chairlift. And the setting, this spectacular island within a forest. And I remember looking down from the top of Tecumsah into the town. There was just nothing like it. It was like you were in Europe, or a Western resort, because it was 10 miles in to this beautiful enclave.
“And then you had the Kennedys, and Colonel (John) Glenn, and Andy Williams, and there was just this kind of mystique that you’d hear about Waterville Valley,” he says. “It was the first real big ski area that entered the state.”
On a regional basis, however, Waterville Valley had plenty of company. There was Vermont’s Stowe and Stratton (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year), and Sugarbush, famously dubbed “Mascara Mountain.” This Warren resort, which first opened in 1958, brought in the crème de la crème of New York’s high society, including movie stars such as Kim Novack and Geoffrey Horne, fashion designers such as Oleg Casini, plus celebrities, politicians and celebrity-politicians (including, yes, the Kennedys), not to mention celebrity instructors, such as Stein Eriksen.
In many ways, these New England mountains rivaled the notoriety and cachet that today’s massive Western resorts, such as Aspen, Vail and Sun Valley, enjoy. And the social elite brought the media in tow — such as a March 14, 1960, Newsweek article entitled “The Fashion for Skiing — Sugarbush” — which brought this wonderful pastime to the masses.
It wasn’t just the sport; it was the lifestyle. Consider this wonderful exchange, as reported in the aforementioned issue of Newsweek: “Clerk: ‘I don’t really think that outfit would be quite right for skiing.’ Shocked Snow Bunny: ‘But I’m not planning to ski.’”
There was, clearly, a different vibe to the sport a half-century ago. Despite the fact that gas was only about 25 cents a gallon, and the average automobile cost only $2,800, people often opted to take the snow trains or the bus to their favorite ski destination (there was a chartered Greyhound known as the “Sugarbush Special” that ran from New York’s Park Avenue to downtown Warren). And that’s because there was a sense of automatic inclusion. Skiing represented an invitation into a very select community.
“You look at the pictures of the people coming up on the ski train out of New York and Boston, coming in to Schouler Park in North Conway and the train station, and everyone looking like they were having a grand time,” says Ben Wilcox, general manager at Cranmore. “That had to be a good time. Everybody got on one train, they didn’t have to drive, they basically were delivered to the slopes so they could party, they could ski, and they could socialize.”
Back in the early 1960s, the average lift ticket in the region cost between $5 and $8, though a few high-end resorts commanded the princely sum of $10, says Jeremy Davis, founder of the New England Lost Ski Area Project (nelsap.org). Adjusted for inflation, those tickets would average about $50 today.
“With improvements like high-speed quads, snowmaking, grooming, etc., the cost of skiing isn’t really too much higher than in the past, though it sure seems it,” Davis says.
With an average annual income of less than $5,500 in 1961, skiers also sought to stretch their dollars as far as possible in terms of lodging. The condo-craze was decades away, though some areas began looking into slopeside lodging. At the time, though, the prevailing accommodation was the classic ski lodge, offering simple bedrooms and large common areas — where meals and parties were held family style — or small tourist houses.
“I remember on ski trips to Vermont, we’d go through Ludlow, and there would be a big old house, and the lady of the house would have rooms for tourists,” Leich says. “The whole transition, the way the real estate and housing has come along, the transition from staying in a motel or a tourist house — people don’t even know what those are anymore — or ski club to lodging at the mountain, second homes near the mountain, and later condominiums. That’s been a huge change.
“People would join the ski club because they needed a place to lodge their family weekend after weekend. Then it became the A-frame, and ski house,” he says. “What hadn’t taken place by the end of this big boom was each state passing condominium laws. That made it possible to set up this entirely new real estate format.”
My own childhood winter recollections (full confession: I’m now 54) revolve around family forays to Sugarbush’s little sister, Glen Ellen (now part of the resort). We would travel in a convoy, with several families getting together to literally rent out the lodge. I vividly recall boisterous parties, with all the grown-ups good-naturedly shooing the kids back to our rooms (or, if we were lucky, to the game room where we would play billiards or Parcheesi into the wee hours).
It was the same throughout New England.
“My family packed up in my father’s Ford LTD — a company car — and traveled to Rangeley Maine, where we stayed for a week in the Town and Lake Motel, and skied at Saddleback,” says Marshall, who today owns her own PR firm but once worked as Sugarloaf’s communications director. “My father was fairly frugal, so my mother had to cook for the five of us on the two stove-top burners in the efficiency motel room we were renting. I believe we ate spaghetti every night.
“We drove back and forth to the mountain each day,” she says. “The access road to Saddleback is pretty windy, and I don’t think my father had snow tires on his car. I remember my father going too fast around one corner, and we were stuck in a snowbank for the better part of a whole day.”
Customers driving into ditches were a big concern for Gross, who owns a bar — Legends 1291 Sports Grille — in the Waterville Valley village.
“It’s changed from being a rock ’n’ roll, liquor-fueled Jagermeister après craziness to family dining,” he says, laughing. “Which is better, I might add. It was bordering on lunacy.
“People still gather, but that snapshot of ‘come out of your room and down by a roaring fire and the place is packed,’ that’s changed over the 50 years,” Gross adds. “Things went more condo, more single-family homes. People may still go out, but they’re not going out to hotels. They’re going to restaurants.”
Quite simply, people rarely gather in old-style lodges, such as Johnny Seesaw’s outside of Bromley, anymore. Instead, they opt for the privacy of a ski house, condominium or efficiency hotel. It’s another reason why the classic ski club is on the wane; people don’t appear that inclined to share a place anymore.
“Slopeside housing was a real important development, and it happened in New England at about that timeframe” of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Leich says. “There was one small pre-existing precedent, and that was Mittersill at Cannon, which by the early ’50s was selling lots and had a few houses. But it didn’t take off until the very late ’50s, early ’60s. Magic Mountain was one that got it rolling in Vermont.”
This housing boom caught several ski areas off guard, and some were never able to compensate.
“Wildcat is a great example,” he says. “When they conceived the idea of Wildcat, they had no conception that housing and lodging was going to become important. And, of course, they’re on National Forest land. So just a few years later, maybe five years later, they went back to the National Forest and said, ‘Listen, do you think there’s any way we can modify the terms so we can get some lodging here?’ And the answer was ‘No.’
“But (slopeside housing) just didn’t enter into the formula in the mid-’50s. But by the early ’60s, it was really (an integral) part of it.”
Another development that had an undeniable, if unintended, impact on ski areas was the improvements to the interstate highway system. Seemingly overnight, certain ski areas now had an asphalt carpet paved almost to their doorstep, while others, situated on backroads, fell by the wayside, collateral damage of the American love affair with the internal combustion engine and big, open roads.
“The age of the interstate highways made a big difference,” said Leich, noting how areas such as Loon and Waterville benefited from Interstate 93. “It set the pattern for future success of some of these areas, and probably choked off others.”
The ease of travel — air travel in particular — also proved a harbinger, as the “rich and famous” clientele that once flocked to the Northeast now turned their sights out West, where the snow was more abundant and the mountains more spectacular. New England ski areas, however, kept pace, adding better lifts, and improving snowmaking and grooming.
“Fred Pabst was the first guy to put snowmaking top to bottom on his mountain, at Bromley, in the 1960s, and then Killington did the same thing,” Leich says. “Once you had top-to-bottom snowmaking and good grooming, the areas that couldn’t keep up in the arms race just had to drop out.”
Of course, there was more than just the competitive element of snowmaking and grooming at play for many ski areas. Unpredictable snowfall, unpredictable fuel costs, an unpredictable season ticket base and spiraling insurance premiums all conspired to some degree to doom a number of New England ski areas. It was slopeside Darwinism at its most unforgiving. As a result, there are almost 600 “lost ski areas” in New England alone, by Davis’s count. And that grim total includes larger areas such as Temple, Tenney, and Mount Whittier in New Hampshire, Big Squaw in Maine, and Ascutney in Vermont.
On the flip side of that equation are the areas that continue to flourish, investing new technologies to make for a better, and more attractive, ski experience. Many have gone through at least one, if not several ownership changes, but they’ve managed to find a niche where they can not only compete for a growing number of skiers and snowboarders, but also thrive.
“The people who were skiing (in the early 1960s), my parents’ generation, and probably your parents, they still remember when they knew everyone who was a skier,” Leich says. “If you didn’t know someone, but they were a skier, you were part of a very tight culture, and you probably knew someone in common.
“We don’t have that anymore, I don’t think. And part of that is the vast expansion of the skier population.”
That expansion was abetted, in no small part, by the advent and acceptance of the snowboard. According to Gross, the snowboarder represents the single biggest change in the “ski experience” landscape over the past 50 years. In addition, there are a lot more helmets on the slopes, and the food offerings in the lodge have improved tenfold.
“You can have some fun with the idea of, whether the ’60s was the Golden Age of skiing in New England, or is this the Golden Age,” Leich says. “The grooming and snowmaking is so much better, and you can ski the same vertical in two hours that used to take you all day to ski.”
Gross readily agrees, adding that improvements in equipment and clothing further enhance today’s ski experience. He adds that today’s skier, in general, may be a little more particular, but chalks that up to the ski areas being a victim of their own success. They’ve promised outstanding ski conditions, and then delivered on that promise. Which brings skiers back to the common thread that skiers from every generation have shared.
“The speed of the lifts is better. You get up the mountain faster. You get more runs in. The snowmaking is better, the grooming is better. It creates an overall pristine experience,” Gross says. “But you get those days when you get a little powder, and those are the same as they were 50 years ago. Your skis are under the powder, and you don’t even know what you’re skiing on. You could be on your old boards with a big leather strap wrapped around your Lange boots.
“The overall experience of coming down a mountain is the same as it was 50 years ago,” he says. “When you put the skis on and you look around, it’s the same visual that you had 50 years ago — the same mountain range, the same peak, the same beauty, the same crisp air. While there have been changes, the ultimate reason you’re there stayed the same. It’s those breathtaking views, no matter what mountain you go on, the smallest one or the highest one, each one is different.
“These resorts, they’ve got such history and tradition. You can just love each one of them,” Gross says. “In New England, there’s a treasure-trove of ski areas within an hour and a half. That’s what makes New England skiing so cool.”
Today, just like yesteryear.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Ski Journal.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org