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Ghost Stories

Remembering lost Adirondack ski areas

TODAY’S DOWNHILL SKI AREAS have little in common with their ancestors: During the 1940s you could schuss for an entire winter for the price of a lift ticket now. The clientele has changed, too—have you heard the one about the fallen skier lying under the chair lift? She was buried alive by an avalanche of business cards dropped by personal-injury lawyers riding overhead. Perhaps most telling is a sign posted at the base of a prominent New England mountain that lists summit tem­perature, wind speed, groomed runs and the previous day’s closing stock price.

Many—myself included—did not fall in love with downhill skiing on the mani­cured trails of super-size resorts; it happened on the rounded contours and squeaky T-bars of triple-digit-vertical-drop mom-and-pop areas. On its way to becoming big business, the sport left a lot of these places in its wake. Hills that once hopped with wintertime activity now lie dormant—or even scarcely detectable, shrouded by shrubbery and second-growth woods—all across the Adirondack Park.

Lake Placid Ski Areas

The roots of recreational skiing date back to the last years of the Great Depression, when across America people had more leisure time and increased interest in the outdoors. In the Adirondacks, some maintain that the third Olympic Winter Games, in Lake Placid, put the sport in the spotlight and made it grow.

Whatever the cause, there’s no disputing that the 1932 Olympics established Lake Placid as the hub of North Country skiing: Within a short time there were more than two hundred miles of cross­country and downhill trails. At a few points along this network, enthusiasm for sliding downhill was married with emerging rope-tow technology, and people began leaving the rolling trails for the ones that just went down. Why spend an hour slogging uphill for a quick schuss when, with gravity on your side, you could make fifteen or twenty runs in a day?

According to Lake Placid his­torian Mary MacKenzie, the vil­lage’s first ski lift was a rope tow installed in the mid-thirties, on the golf course at the Stevens House, not far from Main Street. In 1938 North Elba’s first public ski area was carved out of the northwest slope of Scott’s Cobble, with a base area that bordered what is now Craig Wood Golf Course.

The vertical drop at Scott’s Cobble was a sizable—at least for the times—five hundred feet. A ski map of Lake Placid, published in the late 1930s, trumpeted Scott’s slalom course, open slopes and two downhill trails rated ex­pert and novice. “It was the only really big ski center we had at the time,” MacKenzie points out. “We had to compete with Vermont,” which was well on its way to be­coming a major ski destination.

Lake Placid resident Laura Viscome first tried Scott’s Cobble in the late forties as a vacationer. She remembers skiing the slope, which was “narrow at the top and packed by ski or foot” since the area had no grooming equipment. Around 1959 the Town of North Elba trad­ed in the rope tow for a then-mod­ern Poma lift. “The very first victim to ride the new lift was the granddaughter of [North Elba town supervisor] Bill Hurley,” recalls Viscome. “She was so light that it picked her right off the ground and spun her around.”

As with many community ski areas, local chil­dren were a substantial audience: for a time Scott’s Cobble operated in the late afternoon on school days and all day on weekends and holidays. Only right after a storm would children stay away from the hill; those who didn’t were pressed into ser­vice foot-packing the runs. Weather permitting, the season lasted from Christmas until March.

In 1973, after thirty-five years of operation and with intensifying competition from larger resorts, the Town of North Elba shut down Scott’s Cob­ble. Viscome estimates that by then the town could have been losing up to ten thousand dol­lars a year at the area. “I always said that if I ever won the lottery, I’d put Scott’s Cobble back on the map,” she says wistfully.

Soon after Scott’s Cobble opened, two places that were originally used for cross-country ski­ing—Fawn Ridge, west of Main Street, and Ruisseaumont Golf Links, along Old Military Road—put up tows. An advertisement in the December 27, 1940 Lake Placid News read: “Skiers—some­thing new this winter. Fred Fortune announces the opening of his new club house Ski Top Lodge and ski tow on Ruisseaumont Golf Links.” The two were joined by a three-quarter-mile-long cross-country trail.

Though Ruisseaumont’s ski business did not last long, Fawn Ridge, a benign-looking bump behind the present-day Lake Placid Center for the Arts, was popular for thirty-seven years. Skiers were hauled uphill by a thousand-foot-long rope tow; in the mid-sixties a slightly longer Poma lift was added. Ski brochures published annually by New York State listed the vertical drop at a scant 135 feet, but in some publications, like the 1965 National Survey Eastern Ski Atlas, the figure mirac­ulously ballooned to two hundred feet.

After-school hours usually buzzed with activi­ty, remembers Viscome, who first skied Fawn Ridge in 1947, but the easy terrain may have bored more nimble, adventurous skiers. “It was a wider hill than Scott’s Cobble, but it didn’t have the steepness,” she says. “It was harder for kids to get the speed up to do parallel turns.” For this rea­son, Fawn Ridge was ideal for novices and inter­mediates.

Natalie Leduc, a ski historian from Saranac Lake who has introduced the sport to thousands of people, taught many of them at Fawn Ridge. Now that it’s gone, she regrets the loss. “The aver­age skier doesn’t have opportunities that were once available. Lift tickets are exorbitant, equip­ment costs are ridiculous,” she grumbles.

Now a subdivision of high-end homes, Fawn Ridge reveals faint traces of its earlier incarna­tion: an arrow-straight path through the woods tells where the Poma ran and open slopes are slowly being reclaimed by trees.

A third player in Lake Placid’s early downhill picture was the Lake Placid Club’s Mount Whitney, although for its first thirty years it was open only to club members. Trees were felled in 1935, when a mile-long downhill racing trail was cleared from Whitney’s 2,600-foot summit to nearby Tom Peck Pond. In 1938 the first real slope was cleared and about two years later a rope tow was built.

A T-bar was installed in 1947, marking the start of a small wave of improvements. The sum­mer of 1948, noted an article in the New York Herald Tribune, was spent clearing a second open slope as well as a twisting trail through the woods. The paper also described a small lodge at the base, “where luncheons are served to the hungry ath­letes … and clam broth to those who claim they are cold.” Outside the hut were “open brick and wood fireplaces with grilled tops, where the zestful ‘hot dog’ is cooked to the skiers’ taste.”

The next big leap forward was in 1962, with the addition of a larger ski lodge, a second T-bar and still more terrain.

By the 1960s Whitney’s ski school had devel­oped quite a reputation. “They had a great dedication to good skiing,” says Viscome. Echoes Leduc, who taught there in the late fifties and sixties, “It was very well-run. The ski-school directors were great.” One of the instructors was Otto Schneibs, an Austrian who came to the North Country via Dartmouth College and eventually coached at St. Lawrence University. Schneibs had a hand in many ski-area developments around the region, including Wilmington’s Marble Mountain, the precursor to Whiteface. (See “The Whiteface Chronicles,” Jan­uary/February 1993 Adirondack Life).

Mount Whitney’s heyday was also marked by visits from two famous radio personalities, Arthur Godfrey and Lowell Thomas. Godfrey was said to have been terrifically fond of skiing Whitney’s slopes and even broadcast his show from the lodge (and from Fawn Ridge at least once); Thomas learned the sport at Whitney and made news reports from Lake Placid in 1969.

Mount Whitney eventually opened its trails to the public, but soon after the 1980 Olympics the Lake Placid Club was insolvent. In December of 1993 the lifts were fired up for one more season, in deference to an Adirondack Park Agency rule that would have forced the property owner to apply for a new permit had the facility not been used. In May 1995 the attractive log lodge was completely destroyed by fire.

Harvey Mountain, North Creek

As with Lake Placid, the area around North River and North Creek experienced a boost in ski enthusiasm following the 1932 Winter Olympics. Starting in 1934, passenger trains—some traveling through the night— came from as far away as New York City to deposit skiers in North Creek. Once there, they bought rides up Barton Mines Road in converted buses and trucks and skied a network of steep, narrow trails. It was billed as “Ride Up—Slide Down” by the Gore Moun­tain Ski Club.

Lifts soon became part of the local scene: Two rope tows were installed in 1934 near North Creek. Originally called Gore Mountain Ski Area, this venue added another rope tow and a T-bar in 1946. However, a combination of poor weather, rising insurance premiums and the state development on another portion of Gore Mountain caused the area to operate only sporadically in the seventies and eighties. (The T-bar was resurrected in 1988 and North Creek Ski Bowl, as it’s now known, continues to operate.)

Though the ski trains stopped running by World War II, along the Upper Hudson interest in the sport remained high. Bill Butler, now a Glens Falls resident, tapped into it in 1961. “I bought property on the north face [of Gore Mountain, off Barton Mines Road] from one of the Bar­ton Mines executives,” he recalls. By the next year he had carved trails and slopes out of the woods and installed a fifteen-hundred-foot T-bar. Butler ran Harvey Mountain for the next fifteen years, along the way adding several more runs. Lessons were offered for groups or by private ap­pointment, and in 1965 an entire family could buy a season pass for seventy dollars. Though Har­vey’s vertical drop was only 350 feet, the foot of the area was at a lofty 2,380 feet, easily the highest base elevation of any Adirondack ski center, past or present. “We didn’t allow buses up there because there was always some­one who wanted to sue us,” Butler explains, but he put up  with the headaches of running his hill nonetheless. Like others who had poured their hearts—and pocketbooks—into a few trails and lifts, all was done for love, not financial gain.

The beginning of the end for Butler’s enter­prise was the inflation-ridden, energy-crunch years of 1973 and 1974. “To get to Harvey Moun­tain, people had to drive by West [Mountain, in Glens Falls] and Hickory [Hill, in Warrensburg]. By the time they got here, they were out of gas,” he says. In 1977 Harvey Mountain also ran out of gas, and Butler sold his land to New York State. But Harvey’s impact on skiers, Butler tells me, was far less fleeting than its brief life: “We still run into people all over this place who say that the happiest times of their lives were spent at Har­vey Mountain.”

Sky View Ski Center, Harrietstown

Sky View was an excellent example of the rel­ative ease with which early ski areas were devel­oped. In September 1946 Joe Perry and brothers Curtis and Raymond “Pappy” Wamsganz, from Saranac Lake, got permission to open a ski slope on a hillock behind Martin Donnelly’s Crystal Spring Dairy, on Route 86. Instead of clearing bureaucratic hurdles and cutting red tape, Curt, Pappy and Joe cleared brush and cut trees.

In a four-page-long memoir about the project, Curt Wamsganz describes how Donnelly agreed to let them build the operation on his land. For twenty-five dollars the trio purchased a 1936 Ford V-8 engine and frame, which was grafted onto a truck frame that had a transmission, drive shaft and rear differential to power the tow. Second­hand telephone poles were planted as lift towers, with thousand-watt lights on their tops. Two small buildings were put up, one to house the rope-tow engine and ticket window, the other to serve as a warming hut.

Just five days before opening on Christmas, Perry and Curt Wamsganz tested the rope tow and found that “at a little past half throttle we [were] traveling … up the hill at thirty-five miles an hour!” After some fine tuning, Sky View opened with a bang, thanks to a full-page adver­tisement in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and local radio announcements.

When the first tour bus arrived, the entrepre­neurs realized that they had overlooked some­thing important: Rest rooms. Donnelly then gra­ciously allowed vacationers to use his first-floor bathroom—once they took off their boots.

Sky View ran for four winters. It wasn’t the weather that undid the area, however. “One year we were open on Thanksgiving Day and one time we were still going the last week of April,” Curt Wamsganz wrote. By 1950, Sky View’s last year, Marble Mountain, with its miles of trails, had been in business two years; and closer to home, the Saranac Lake village board was set to acquire the Mount Pisgah ski center. Part of Sky View lives on in the 1990s, though, and likely will for many years: the tiny base lodge that once warmed chilly skiers now dispenses Donnelly’s famous soft ice cream in the summer.

Sugar Loaf, Tupper Lake

A precursor to Big Tupper Ski Area, which is located on Mount Morris, south of Tupper Lake village, was mighty-sounding Sugar Loaf Mountain, which operated for about fif­teen years.

During the depression, gentle slopes had been cleared near Moody bridge, and a truck-motor-powered rope tow was installed. Not long after, snow bunnies set their sights higher, and moved their sport a few miles away, to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Tupper Lake mayor T. J. Collinson, along with Altamont town supervisor Paul Martin, proposed a community ski area to G. P. Hull, vice-president and general manager of Oval Wood Dish Corporation, which owned the land. On October 16, 1940, loggers began clearing a seven-hundred-foot-long main slope, and side trails through the woods were cut. Next, a six-hundred-foot rope tow was added to the modest trail network, and a temporary base lodge was fashioned using a caretaker’s cabin that had been moved from Setting Pole Dam.

Jo’el Kramer, a Lake Placid resident who grew up in Tupper Lake, recalls learning to ski at Sugar Loaf, and in particular, battling with the rope tow. Slick and thick with ice, it slithered along the ground and was difficult to grasp. “If you were the only one on the lift, you couldn’t pull up the rope because it was so heavy,” Kramer says. “Once you were on your way uphill, especially on warm days, your leather mittens—and you had to wear leather to protect your hands—would freeze to the rope,” she recalls with a laugh. At the top, the tow would yank the gloves off her hands and send them around the pulleys.

Sugar Loaf went by the wayside in the 1950s, a victim of the same ambitious forces that had created it: Tupper Lake officials began studying the feasibility of a much larger ski area on the north side of Mount Morris, further up the hill from Sugar Loaf. On December 26, 1960*, Big Tupper Ski Area began operations with a T-bar and chair lift, and Mother Nature began reclaim­ing the trails of Sugar Loaf. A swath of dark-green conifers, the only sign of the former ski slope, is still visible from near the third hole of the Tup­per Lake Country Club.

Paleface Ski Center, Jay

Located on Bassett Mountain, off Route 86 between Wilmington and Jay, Paleface was for twenty years the only self-contained ski resort in the Adirondacks. People came for the eighteen trails and two lifts, and then stayed in a lodge at the base, which had motel rooms, an indoor pool, restaurant and full bar.

Howard Trumbull’s construction company built the complex for Boylan Fitz-Gerald. “The con­tract was signed in September of 1961 and open­ing day was January first. We had forty men work­ing three shifts a day,” explains Trumbull, who lives in Wilmington. When they were finished, Paleface Lodge “was the largest A-frame build­ing in the Northeast. Probably still is,” he says.

Though most of the trails were quite narrow, Paleface was very kid friendly—a ski-school rate schedule referred to them as “pixies,” and unlike most small areas it offered day care. According to Wilmington resident Joan Dreissigacker, whose husband, John, was the only full-time ski patroller there, “It was a really wonderful family place, great for young children who weren’t ready for bigger mountains.”

Faithful families returned for vacations year after year. Trumbull says they were dubbed “ski weekers.” When the sun went down, there was still plenty for weekers to do: For the absolute ski nut, as if a full day weren’t enough, there was ski’ ing under the lights on Wednesdays and Fridays; for adults, night life was a quick sashay away at the lodge bar; or a relaxing dip could be had in the pool. Teetotalers or nonswimmers were also in luck: Joan Dreissigacker says she and other locals used to model in fashion shows at the lodge. When winters turned mild in the 1970s, “we built a snowmaking system,” Trumbull says. “It worked until we ran out of water, so we’d wait for the water to come back, but in the meantime the temperature would go up. By 1980 or so,” he con­tinues with a hint of sadness, “Paleface had gone by. If we’d built it ten years later, it probably would’ve been more successful.”

Otis Mountain Ski Center, Elizabethtown

Recent topographic maps still show a ridge off Route 9N labeled “Otis Mountain Ski Cen­ter,” which operated from 1966 to 1979. The place got its start with a corporation formed in early 1965 that acquired 225 acres on the western flank of Otis Moun­tain, two miles south of Elizabethtown; the land was purchased with shares of ski-center stock. For the first few years a single rope tow, powered by an automobile chassis that still sits in a tiny building at the foot of the hill, brought skiers up a short slope. Tickets cost three dollars a day, two dollars for a half-day.

“It was never a money-making operation,” says Jane Hildebrandt, from Elizabethtown. Nonethe­less, when management decided that it could no longer afford to operate the mountain, her late husband, Herbert, took over, and the Hildebrandts ran Otis Mountain for nearly a decade, which included a two-year closure.

“In 1970 the T-bar was purchased from Windham [an area in the Finger Lakes] for six thousand dollars. It cost another twelve hundred dollars to move the lift,” remembers Hildebrandt. Almost four thousand more was spent bringing the T-bar up to state safety specifications, an expense that contributed to the long hiatus.

When the area reopened, the vertical drop had been bolstered to 375 feet, with three trails and two open slopes. Hildebrandt describes Otis as “a very challenging slope.” To help local downhillers—especially youngsters—meet that challenge, the Hildebrandts began paying instructors to come over from Whiteface Mountain to give lessons. She remembers busloads of kids, subsi­dized by local youth organizations, arriving from Westport to ski for the day at little or no cost. For many residents of the region, a day of skiing at Whiteface was simply too pricy; Otis Mountain made skiing accessible to virtually anyone.

Though expenses always outpaced revenues (“We had to sweep the snack-bar floor,” says Hildebrandt, “to pay the three men running the tows.”), it was a string of mild winters that final­ly broke the bank. A year before the Olympics, says Jane Hildebrandt, “God forgot to snow,” and that was the end for Otis Mountain.

The area served its last skiers in March 1979, but Jane Hildebrandt didn’t realize the effect that Otis Mountain had had on the community until 1991, when her husband died. People from all over “came out of the woodwork,” she says, and overwhelmed her with fond memories of Herbert and the ski area he had rescued from extinction.

Silver Bells, Wells

If there ever was a first family of downhill ski­ing in Hamilton County, it would be the Novosels. Thomas Novosel built Silver Bells, just off Route 30 in Wells, in 1960, and operated the area with his family until 1970. Under the Novosels’ direction, “Silver Bells was very suc­cessful,” Thomas’s wife, Millie, reports. “We’d get some bus tours from New York City and people from Amsterdam and Gloversville.”

Geography was favorable, with the runs—recognizable today from the road—fac­ing north. Ski seasons often ran into April, which was late for low-elevation areas whose snow came exclusively from the clouds.

Alicia Miller, a Wells real-estate agent, laments the passing of that hill. Though Silver Bells was small in stat­ure—vertical drop was four hundred feet, with one T-bar, a rope tow and seven trails—Miller remembers it be­ing “a wonderful place. The skiing was excellent. There was a nice lodge with good food, and there was night skiing.” Experts were challenged by runs named “TNT” and “Whip”; in 1965 an adult weekend lift ticket cost four dollars and a single-ride ticket—once a common option but now extremely rare—was pocket change, just forty cents.

By the time New York State opened Gore Mountain—the beginning of the end for Silver Bells, says Millie No-vosel—the family had assumed opera­tion of Oak Mountain, a ski area in Speculator owned by the town of Lake Pleasant. The Novosels’ daughter, Nancy Germain, who fondly remem­bers schussing Silver Bells as a teenag­er, continues the family’s legacy of bringing affordable downhill skiing to fellow Adirondackers: she and her hus­band, Norm, will celebrate Oak Moun­tain’s fiftieth season next winter.

Maple Ridge, Old Forge

Still plainly visible behind the Town of Webb Central School, in Old Forge, are the remnants of Maple Ridge. Carl Ehrensbeck, who manages nearby McCauley Mountain Ski Area, says that in the forties and fifties kids would ride and slide a series of two rope tows and runs from the school to the base of McCauley, where there then was a downhill run but no lift.

“If you had the right guy running the tow, he’d speed it up and you could let go and keep going over the top of the ridge,” adds town supervisor George Hiltebrant, who learned to ski at Ma­ple Ridge. A local club called the Polar Bears installed lights and would fire the tow up at night. “It was no cost to the town, just gas for the truck that powered the rope,” explains Hilte­brant. “We’d start it on our own.”

In 1959 the town, which still owns Maple Ridge and McCauley, replaced the rope tow nearest the school with a T-bar, and though “it never was a com­mercial venture, as long as we had snow, we’d run it,” says Ehrensbeck.

While Maple Ridge’s primary pur­pose was to give Old Forge youngsters the opportunity to learn the sport, the town did sell tickets to the public. Ver­tical drop, according to Ehrensbeck, was no more than 150 feet.

A major problem for the hill was a boggy approach area that turned swampy during thaws and in spring, making getting to the lift—not to mention skiing—a messy proposition. “About halfway up the hill there are a bunch of springs,” says Hiltebrant, and the school itself acts as a dam that thwarts drainage. Though the hill nev­er dried up, skier visits did. “You can’t close the General Electric plant in Utica and expect day traffic,” says Eh­rensbeck. The town operated the T-bar for schoolkids until just five years ago, when officials wisely decided to con­solidate their resources and bus skiers to McCauley.

Even more ski areas have vanished into memory, marked by scrubby hill­sides with a lift pole or two or the pages of a well-thumbed brochure in a library file. Among the phantoms are Kobl Mountain, on Lake Placid’s Cobble Hill; Alpine Meadows, near Corinth; Hidden Valley, in Lake Luzeme; and St. Lawrence University Snow Bowl, in South Colton.

The good news is that small-town, small-scale skiing—while overshad­owed by bigger mountains with bigger budgets—is not yet a thing of the past. Places like Mount Pisgah, in Saranac Lake; Royal Mountain, in Caroga; Hickory Hill, in Warrensburg; and Ti­tus Mountain, in Malone, work hard to keep the tradition alive.

*The original printed version of this article gave the incorrect opening year for Big Tupper Resort. The online text has been changed to reflect the correct date.

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