Pages of skiing’s past
When we think of Adirondack ski areas, it’s usually the charismatic ones that come to mind: Whiteface, Gore Mountain, and McCauley Mountain for downhillers, Lapland Lake and Mount Van Hoevenberg if your tastes run to Nordic. These and a handful of others can be counted on from year to year, either because they receive sufficient natural snow, even in an era of less-reliable “white gold,” or they have the wherewithal to make the stuff. But there have been lots of other, smaller areas over the years, and while they were beloved by some they have not survived the erratic meteorological and economic conditions of the past few decades.
In fact, you’ll be surprised at how many have come and gone just between the High Peaks and the St. Lawrence Valley when you flip through Jeremy K. Davis’s entertaining new book Lost Ski Areas of the Northern Adirondacks. The Lake Placid region alone sports fourteen abandoned ski areas. Altogether, Davis chronicles forty-seven sites from Long Lake to Ellenburg. No doubt there are more, known but to a handful, obscured now by regenerating forests and fading memories.
Davis, a meteorologist who runs the New England/Northeast Lost Ski Area Project website, is the author of three similar books pertaining to the White Mountains, southern Vermont, and the southern Adirondacks.
The Lost in the book’s title may send readers off on the wrong foot. “How do you lose a ski area?” one might reasonably ask. But the attractive cover quickly straightens us out. The old-fashioned typeface, images of period brochures, and the photo of a small hill with skiers and a rope tow that are anything but modern demonstrate that these areas have been lost in time, not misplaced.
Davis conveniently divides the ski areas geographically into five regions. The story of Lowenberg, in the Northern Tier section, is illustrative both of how he presents his stories and of the fate that befell so many ski areas.
Lowenberg (German for Lyon Mountain, on whose slopes it was envisioned) was the brainchild of Plattsburgh developers who hoped to hijack Canadian traffic heading for Whiteface. It was to be one of the biggest resorts in the East, with “up to thirty chairlifts, fifty ski trails, numerous chalets, a European-style village and a marina,” Davis writes. Limited construction followed, but after three years of fitful operation the place shut down in 1969 and was abandoned for good soon after, due to “financial problems [and] over-ambitious plans,” Davis explains. He concludes the chapter with a section on “Visiting the Area,” and Lowenberg turns out to be one of the easiest and most interesting to explore, with remnants of a T-bar and even some derelict structures semi-intact. The former trails, while increasingly overgrown, have become popular among glade skiers.
Davis also includes a short section on two restored areas: Big Tupper and Otis Mountain (in Elizabethtown). The chapter on Big Tupper gives a thorough history of a site poised to become the star attraction of a major but controversial new development, the Adirondack Club and Resort.
He also has a section on ski resorts still in operation. That there are only seven of these (including the two just mentioned), compared with the nearly four dozen that have vanished, is telling. But the fact that all seven are downhill-oriented illuminates the major flaw in this book: it practically ignores the cross-country branch of the sport. Mount Van Hoevenberg and the Cascade Cross Country Center, both located between Lake Placid and Keene, are solidly in operation but are granted no appearance. Among the folded, Nordic trails are mentioned only in passing. A more forthright title of this book would have been Lost Alpine Ski Areas of the Northern Adirondacks.
As is the case with most products of the History Press, one of the strengths of this book is the high-quality reproduction of vintage photos, some of them seventy-five or more years old. From these we can get a real feel for what skiing was like as far back as the 1940s, when it was still in its adolescence in the Adirondacks and when many of today‘s deceased areas commenced operations, partly as an antidote to the economic worries of the 1930s and the emotional pressures of World War II. A panorama of Fawn Ridge, one of the numerous Lake Placid “dearly departeds,” indicates that trees stood square in the middle of the wide, gentle slopes. Other images portray what we today would consider clumsy, heavy, and probably not terribly safe clothing and gear, along with the always adventuresome T-bars and rope tows.
The most poignant pictures show us what remains of once-grand hopes and ambitions: a concrete lift tower foundation nearly overcome by forest; crumbling outbuildings; a Poma-lift counterweight rusting back to nature. Like shuttered mines and rotting lumber camps, they speak silently of an era that is fast receding into history.