Gregory Dennis: Remembering the ‘lost’ ski areas
When the definitive history of Vermont is written, skiing may not be much more than a footnote.
But the New England Lost Ski Areas Project ensures it will be a lively footnote. And the project reminds us that skiing is an inextricable part of the history of Vermont and even Addison County.
NELSAP.org began as a sideline for Jeremy Davis when he was a Lyndon State student in 1998. It’s blossomed into a multifaceted effort documenting 608 former New England resorts, an online store (anyone want a Snow Valley poster?), a Facebook page, a series of four books — even web sections on “lost” ski areas in Germany and Afghanistan.
The website attracts substantial traffic and, judging by chairlift conversations, is known to every Vermont skier over age 40.
What explains the enthusiasm for stories about ski areas that are now just memories? After all, their old lift towers are rusting, the base lodge roofs have collapsed, and the hillsides are overgrown with witch-hobble and balsam fir.
“I liken it to the nostalgia people have for old diners, drive-ins, and hotels,” Davis told me. “It goes back to a simpler time of skiing at these places. They were family oriented, and a lot of people learned to ski there.”
The ghosts of some of Vermont’s 119 closed ski areas are still visible to motorists in parts of this state.
The abandoned Hogback Mountain lodge is often enshrouded in fog at the high point of Route 9. Along the southern end of Route 30 near Brattleboro, Maple Valley appears as if all someone needs to do is flip the switch — and then you could ride the T-bar to the top.
Indeed, Maple Valley is for sale if you’ve got a few million you want use to invest in a new playground for you and your friends.
But with the exception of a few ski areas such as Magic Mountain, these places never reopen. “When you’ve got to bring them back, it’s pretty difficult,” Davis said. “It takes big bucks to get it going again.”
Many local residents know that the Middlebury College Snow Bowl had an impressive ski jump (with the judges’ shack still visible through the trees from the triple chair). Prior to that, college competitors soared off a jump on Chipman Hill in Middlebury, during competitions that required the temporary closing of Route 7 because it was in the landing zone.
Among the other local lost ski facilities are ones in Bristol, Lincoln, Goshen and Hinesburg.
The ski hill in Bristol opened in the late 1930s and was located across Mountain Street from the elementary school. It even offered night skiing.
A book called “Ski Trails in the East and How to Get There” had this to say about the Bristol facilities: “The resort has two trails and several open slopes for practicing. The skiing area is in town and the trails are reached by automobile. A tow located on a hill with two slopes has excellent terrain for novice and intermediate skiers. Mountain Top Run, for experts, is 1-1/2 miles long … A first aid station and a skiing instruction school are nearby.”
In the mid-1970s, Lincoln had a rope tow on a site near the center of town. The facility in Hinesburg was a rope tow, too, powered by the engine of a late-1940s automobile. In Goshen near the renowned Blueberry Hill Inn and Nordic ski center, the Pine Mountain rope tow ran in the late 1940s. A few years ago, a Goshen fellow revived the name and installed a private rope tow.
Over the hill in Rochester, the big attraction was an enormous natural ski jump. “The 70 meter jump was off a rock outcropping which is still visible,” Tucker Cruickshank wrote on the NELSAP site. “It was a completely natural formation which just happened to make a great ski jump. I remember hearing stories about some of the better jumpers in the U.S. coming to Rochester just to jump because it was a great spot.”
So if small ski facilities were such a big deal in Vermont, why did so many close down?
High Pond Ski Area (advertised as being in Brandon but actually in Hubbardton) went by the slogan, “Not the Biggest but Among the Best.”
But for High Pond and scores of others, not being among the biggest became a huge liability.
The coming of the interstates made it much easier for out-of-staters to get to Vermont. Those folks were not going to drive six hours to ride a muscle-busting rope tow.
Many local families lost interest in neighborhood slopes. As the state got richer, Vermonters could afford to spring for more expensive lift tickets, even as they rose in price like snowfall in a blizzard.
Other factors included higher insurance rates for ski areas. The uncertain weather that came with climate change — plus the lack of cash for expensive snowmaking — forced many into shutting down the lifts.
As one reads through the oral history of these areas, it’s also obvious that they just weren’t built to last.
Five families installed the Hinesburg rope tow to be used by the neighborhood kids. In Castleton, Birdseye was cursed by annual snowfall of less than 90 inches. Lacking the wealthy backing of an institution like Middlebury College, the ski hills at Norwich University, St. Michael’s College, Rutland Junior College and Green Mountain College were all abandoned.
It’s also clear from some of the areas’ names that they didn’t put a lot of thought into catchy branding.
Woodstock alone had Suicide Six (still in business) and a long deceased facility known simply as The Gully. Over in the Adirondacks, there was a mountain with the politically incorrect name of Paleface.
In West Townshend, Vt., a group of friends got together in the 1980s and had their own private little hill for a few years. You can tell from the name of the place that they didn’t have to worry about attracting tourists.
They called it Buckturd Basin.
Gregory Dennis learned to ski at a long-lost ski hill with a rope tow powered by a car engine. His column appears here every other Thursday. Email him at [email protected]. Blog: www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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