Gone but not forgotten
New England Lost Ski Project preserves memories of defunct ski hills
by Tony Chamberlain/
At age 80, Al Fletcher still keeps an eye on things at the ski area he opened in 1964 — Nashoba Valley in Westford, Mass. — though it is now owned by son Al Jr. and marketed by daughter Pam.
As Fletcher reflects on it, Nashoba is a survivor, of sorts. When he started Nashoba Valley on a 250-foot hill near the high population area of metro Boston, there were dozens of hills where local people tried out the relatively new sport of skiing. Now, almost all of them are gone, except for the survivors.
There were names like Brandy Brow in Haverhill, Breakheart in Saugus, Cat Rocks in Weston, Charlie Abel’s Ski Slope in Braintree and Furnace Brook in Quincy. These and dozens more were as familiar as Nashoba and Blue Hills are today.
Skiing has been going on for centuries — everywhere a human finds snow-covered vertical terrain. But as a middle-class sport, it was beginning to get noticed in the first half of last century, then really took off in the 1960s, the sport’s largest decade of growth.
And the first runs most people made were on one of these now-lost ski hills that dotted the New England landscape. There was a familiarity to them. The hill had a rudimentary rope tow that ran off a truck or tractor engine, towing a rope that eventually ate your mittens out in the palms. Most skiers — kids and families — wore jeans and sweaters. Specialized and breathtakingly expensive skiwear was well in the future — as was snowboarding.
For the past decade or so, a small but dedicated group of history buffs has been researching, mapping and cataloging hundreds of defunct ski hills around the Northeast, and the New England Lost Ski Project has been well chronicled at www.nelsap.org. Though NELSAP is affiliated with the New England Ski Museum in Franconia N.H., it is the pet project of meteorologist Jeremy Davis, who first skied at Nashoba Valley as a 12-year-old.
Davis always was fascinated by the remains of lost ski areas in farm fields and overgrown woods, often leaving concrete hulking tower footings, and sometimes remnants of the rusted towers themselves.
As a former Boy Scout, Davis remembers when he first poked around a long-defunct ski area in Jackson, N.H. He remembers: “We were skiing Conway and Black. I noticed Whittier, which had closed a few years back. We checked out the old lifts and gondola. I just got a real bang out of seeing an area just closed up like that.”
This experience led Davis to prowl through old road maps and photos that flourished in the first decades of American skiing, and soon he began compiling the information into a website.
“It just exploded,” he says, “with people sending us old photos from their attics, old trail maps and that kind of thing.”
What he had discovered was a rich mine of nostalgia from throughout ski country describing the sport’s early years. From the teens through the WWII era, skiing mostly was done by college outing clubs and a few adventurers. But along in that era, the local areas were getting themselves established nearly everywhere there was a hill high enough.
Fletcher — who skied many of the hills from Groton, Mass., where he grew up, to the Boston area — has an idea why most did not survive. In the year he opened Nashoba Valley in 1964, the season ran less than three weeks, because of the uneven weather and snow conditions.
“When you’re near an ocean, you just can’t rely on the weather,” Fletcher said. “So a lot of those areas just couldn’t build business if they couldn’t rely on natural snow. The worst thing about skiing is inconsistency in the snow. Some places would be powder, others ice. You’d have to ski from one to another.”
The first major purchase he made around 1970 was a tiller — a large machine with teeth on the bottom that would grind up the ice and mix it into the snow. Before, the only grooming was done by workers ski-packing the surface. Fletcher remembers he brought the tiller machine to the Boton Ski Show, and it caused such a sensation that everyone wanted to see how it worked. In fact, it was on the cover of a ski magazine.
And how did the ice-grinder, groomer work out? Fletcher does not equivocate on the answer: “It was the most important single change in skiing.”
To Fletcher, those areas that could put money back into developing the snow product had a chance to thrive. The others just petered out and now remain the subject of Davis’ historic project. In the decades after the war, the real demarcation was happening. As the sport exploded in popularity, the small farm hills strung with rope tows slowly faded as the mega-resorts took hold in the sport.
From post-war through the 1960s, more than 620 ski areas operated in New England. Today, just 87 remain. Many of those, such as Blue Hills and Wachusett, date to the FDR era when the Civilian Conservation Corps were building such projects.
One such area that seems somewhere between the modern mechanized resort and the forgotten areas is the Greylock Ski Club that has operated in the Berkshires since 1937, the height of the CCC ski projects. Because it operates on natural snow only, this winter has been rough on the club, whose members come out only in skiable natural snow.
The club has no electricity or phone lines. Bathroom facilities are still unplumbed outhouses, though it does have three wood stoves to warm up by. And, in an age with few rope tows, Greylock sports one of the fastest — powered by a gas engine that whisks you 1,300 feet at 18 feet per second.
Greylock also boasts one of the famous trails from the annals of skiing antiquity — Thunderbolt. This steep and hazardous run drew the best racers of the era for downhill competitions down the treacherous, 2,000-foot run. This trail still has bragging rights. Ski Thunderbolt, you have arrived in the sport.
Says Davis: “If you want a feel for what the real early ski days felt like, Mount Greylock is the authentic thing. Just like it always was.”
For those who have trained their eyes to see them, the old ski areas sometimes pop out of their overgrowth or realty developments. King Ridge still is visible in the Sunapee area along Interstate 89 in New Hampshire, and along Route 8 in Vermont the trails and towers of “Little Stowe” Dutch Hill still are visible near Burlington.
According to Davis, these small areas couldn’t compete as the ante rose in the cost of lift systems, snowmaking, groomers, creature comforts.
Dr. Jennifer Peters, who skied with her family at Suicide Six near Woodstock, Vt., remembers: “It was harder to ski then. It took more of an effort to get to the ski area and it was just harder to ski. There was more personal commitment.”
Indeed, Suicide Six — which boasts the first motorized ski tow in the United States (1937) — might have gone the way of the lost area had it not become one of the amenities attached to the Rock Resort of the Woodstock Inn.
Pam Fletcher is living proof that it needn’t take a mega-resort to produce a mega-skier. As she used to bomb the slopes of Nashoba Valley, “Fletch” as teammates called her, developed a passion for speed, though the runs spill down just 250 feet of vertical.
Still “Fletch” grew up to be a national champion downhill racer, World Cup winner and Olympian who led her team’s hopes into the 1988 Games before being injured in a training crash. Now she is back at Nashoba, and though the area is not large, it boasts some of the best snowmaking and grooming, the largest tubing track, and a thoroughly modern base area with cafeteria and restaurant.
“This started out as a hobby,” Al Fletcher says. “And there were plenty of little ski areas all around here, and they’re all gone now. But when we started making the snow and growing with our lifts (in the ’70s), that’s when things really got going here.”
For the others — it takes a long trip into the annals and fading memories of skiing’s archives, kept alive by aficionados and historians such as Jeremy Davis and the New England Ski Museum.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of New England Ski Journal.
Tony Chamberlain can be reached at email@example.com