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Skiing Hither and Yon


January 06, 2011
The title is "Skiing Hither and Yon," and it reflects my intentions. Most of this column's attention will focus on "hither" -- meaning the Mount Washington Valley proper plus the surrounding region, roughly defined as within about an hour's drive. I'm both an alpine and nordic skier, having gotten addicted in the 1980s when I had season passes at various places, including Jackson Ski Touring, Bretton Woods cross-country, Wildcat and Attitash.

I'm very much aware that I'm writing for an incredibly interested and informed audience, and many readers have enjoyed skiing experiences far beyond the Valley -- the "yon" in my concept. I'll be sharing a few outside-the-Valley experiences with you in this space, too.

I also mean "yon" in the temporal sense, as in "days of yore" in the quaint old phrase. I'm a member of the New England Ski Museum and serve as the research director of the Ski Museum of Maine. So I'm really interested in skiing's rich heritage, particularly as it relates to broader issues of history.

Which brings us to 2011. This year marks the 75th anniversary of some of the most important developments in skiing's history in many geographical areas. Let's mention a few.

Locally there were two notable ski lifts that went into service in 1936. Best-known here in the Valley was the overhead cable lift at Edwin Moody's ski slope in Jackson, which subsequently morphed into Black Mountain. The design was similar to a rope tow, except that the moving cable ran above skiers' heads, and they hung on for the uphill ride using short lengths of rope that dangled below the haul line. After Bill and Betty Whitney purchased the slope the following year, they ordered dozens of shovel handles, which replaced the hanging ropes. This was Whitney's famous Shovel Handle Tow.

In Fryeburg in 1936, the Winter Sports Committee was looking for ways to promote the sleepy farm village as a beehive of midwinter activity. They'd already persuaded the Maine Central Railroad to run Sunday snow trains, which had been well patronized in 1935. For the 1936 encore, ten committee members pitched in $25 apiece and built Maine's first ski lift, which was located on Jockey Cap. At the time, the southeastern slope of this Fryeburg landmark was mostly clear-cut.

The Fryeburg Ski Tow wasn't Maine's only lift for long. Two weeks later a second rope tow was operating in Bridgton. Two years later, in January 1938, this tow was moved to the lower slopes of Pleasant Mountain and began turning for the public on January 23.

Elsewhere in New Hampshire, the Dartmouth Ski Tramway, a J-bar style lift, was turning in the winter of 1936 in Hanover. In the spring of 1936, ground was broken on Belknap Recreation Area in Gilford -- today's Gunstock. When completed in a couple of years, Belknap offered four ski jumps and hosted a national competition. The first chairlift in the East was also built here.

Outside of New England, 1936 saw construction of America's first destination ski resort: Sun Valley, Idaho. It was conceived by Averill Harriman, Wall Street financier and chairman of the Union Pacific Railway, as a means to build traffic for his trains -- and satisfy his own personal love of skiing. Sun Valley's many innovations included the world's first two chairlifts, invented that summer and built at the railroad's locomotive maintenance shops in Omaha, Nebraska.

Europe was falling part in 1936. Adolf Hitler was fully in charge of the Third Reich and persecution of Jews and other minorities had begun in earnest. The German military fought in the Spanish Civil War. Hitler's Axis ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was also involved in this conflict, which foreshadowed World War II.

One of the few European bright spots was the introduction of alpine skiing events at the 1936 Olympic Winter Games, held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. There was only one competition, today known as the combined. A downhill run was followed by a slalom run and the two times were added together to determine a winner. Medals were awarded for men and women.

Ironically this original alpine Olympic competition was where Bode Miller won his gold medal last year in Vancouver.

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