Lost & Found: The Ski Hills Of N.H.

Dec 21, 2012

Years ago while chasing my then- toddler  around a small hillside park in Derry, I found a large chunk of iron; It was an odd site, this hulking engine block in the brush and undergrowth at the top of the hill. Then I noticed the telephone poles.  They were several feet back in the woods. Two of the poles had wheel hubs displaying just a hint of the yellow they were once painted. A thin wire bowed between two of them.

This was a rope tow.

Suddenly the picture snapped into place. Standing at the summit of this little hill overlooking the rooftops of downtown Derry, I imagined a bustling local attraction with skiers in wool hats and socks dotted along the tow, pushing off for the quick run over the two bumps that make up the slope, and getting right back in line for another trip up.  Just another winter afternoon down at the hill.

It’s a romantic and quaint notion, but it was a very common sight in New Hampshire towns in the middle decades of the 20th century. In the days before Interstate highways, getting to the large ski mountains in northern New England took some effort- a long ride by car or, early on, train.  Heading up to the North Country for a weekend ski trip simply wasn’t possible for many.

Meteorologist and author Jeremy Davis has been fascinated with lost ski areas for years. Davis runs the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, a website devoted to collecting and sharing stories and pictures of these once beloved but often forgotten places.  Since starting the site in 1998 and posting some areas he explored himself, he’s assembled photos and remembrances from hundreds of people with fond memories of late afternoons and early evenings spent at their local ski hill.

“It’s an interesting slice of Americana. People started emailing me stories. As technology improved, they took digital pictures of these areas, scan old postcards and pictures and articles, and really start putting the history of some of these places together. The site really grows by people submitting information and stories and memories and really bringing these places to life.

Some are so obscure, that you think you won’t find anything about it, and then all of a sudden the grandson of the founder of the area or the people who used to own the land, we’ll hear from them. “

Jeff Leich is the Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum in Franconia. He says the small ski hills of New Hampshire often got their start with a tract of open pasture land:

“One of the things that got skiing more popular was the Boston and Maine Ski Trains, through the Appalachian Mountain Club. The first ran in 1931, to Warner NH. They picked a likely spot where the train was parked on a siding, served as a base lodge, people skied all day and went back home. As time went on in the 30s, the first rope tow in the US was built at Woodstock Vermont in 1934. People from other towns went and looked at it and said ‘we could do the same in our town’. And the effect of the rope tows was to spread the sport. It created what we call feeder areas. It certainly had an economic impact on the farmer who put up a rope tow in the field. Have a little money to help with the taxes.”

Many of these areas were on private or town land founded by local ski clubs, Kiwanis, Lions Club, or PTA groups. From the 1930s through the '60s, these areas provided an outlet for the community when not much else was going on. It was a vehicle for community involvement.  These groups would often build the tow, install some lights for night skiing, and staff all by volunteer.

“These really started popping up in the mid to late '30s, then there was a break during world war two, and they really came back after that in the '50s and '60s and started to decline after that. About 70 percent of the areas in New Hampshire were these smaller community ski areas.”

As Davis explains, the rises of these areas parallel the rise of the sport in the middle of the century.  Then the really big resorts started to develop.

“There were a few started in the late '30s, you had Cranmore start to develop with their Skimobile, you had Cannon Mountain develop with their Tramway as examples. And you had all these smaller areas as well- they all were breeding grounds for people to learn how to ski. They developed in conjunction with bigger resorts- as feeder resorts.”

Throughout the 1950s and into the '60s, the growth of the sport supported the growing resorts as well as the small community areas. By the'70s however, the competition caused many of the local and smaller areas to start to falter.   Community hills closed down because of higher insurance rates and, says Davis, lifestyle changes:

“Less time to volunteer to help run these areas, and a slow decline began by 1970. Easier access to larger resorts because of the interstates and more people having cars too- you could now get on the highway and be at a major resort in 2 hours or less. In some cases, the interstate actually went through these areas- Mt. Eustis in Littleton was sliced in half by I93. The Interstate was definitely not the best thing to occur for the smaller areas, but it was probably one of the best things to occur for the larger resorts.”

The tiny one-tow hills are mostly gone, but a handful of small areas have survived, and others have reopened in recent years.

Kathy Fuller is the treasurer of the Franklin Outing Club. Her father was one of the founding members of the Franklin Veteran’s Memorial Ski Area, and the club continues running it today.

“That’s a lot of work, and commitment to groom the hills, cut the brush, and do the training that’s necessary.” 

Smaller areas have an interesting role in the industry now because they’re usually more affordable tickets. Season passes are cheap - so a family can afford to go.

"As long as you can maintain your mission. Because I think the mission of the Franklin Outing Club has always been to provide safe, affordable skiing. It’s a wonderful opportunity for young families with little kids that are just starting out.”

Still, small areas are at the mercy of Mother Nature; during the winter of 2010 and 2011, a snowy winter meant Veteran’s Ski Area could stay open through March; last season, without the resources of snow making equipment, they were operating for just one weekend. That uncertainty makes it hard to plan ahead and pay the bills, but volunteers - and enough skiers - keep coming back to the community hills that are still going. As Jeremy Davis says, it's precisely that - community - that makes them so important:

“It’s just a fraction of the areas that once existed, but they’re treasured now by their communities. People know each other, the kids go to school together - it’s a great place for the community to gather, especially at a time of year when it’s a little harder to get outside.  The burgers are usually 3 dollars instead of ten. There are places that have survived if you want a taste of what it was like to ski these lost areas from 30, 40, 50 years ago. And nostalgia plays a roll. Often you’ll see grandparents at these areas, saying I learned to ski here, and I want my kids and grandkids to have the same experience.”

Davis enjoys skiing some of those small ski areas that have managed to continue, but he also loves exploring those little hills and slopes of the long-forgotten. He’s spent many a summer’s day traveling to and documenting what those old areas look like now:

“It’s amazing when you can look in an area from 30 or 40 years ago and you have pictures of it, you see this thriving ski areas with everyone having a good time, you see the lifts, you see the lodge, the place packed, and then you go to it today; there’s hardly anything left, or there’s just a few relics. It’s amazing how fast the transition can be back into wilderness."

The larger resorts have expanded operations into other seasons in recent years, with the addition of zip lines, bike trails and other activities. Some of New Hampshire’s mid-size ski mountains have also evolved, and somewhat ironically, the popularity of snowboarding has actually given new life to many smaller ski operations. Jeff Leich says bigger was better, for a while:

“More vertical, more lifts, big northern areas started putting snow making in in the 1980s and in the 90s in became critically important.”

With the rise of snowboarding, that’s changed somewhat; half pipes and terrain parks don’t require huge vertical and widespread snowmaking capability.

“So some of these ski areas that shut down earlier, Whaleback for example, all of a sudden becomes viable again. So there’s been a little resurgence.”

The areas that continue to survive as ski operations are those with strong community support. Jeremy Davis points out some success stories:

“You’ve really got to have that community support to keep things going. We’ve had some closed areas come back- Mittersill with Cannon Mountain annexing it, Crotched Mountain in southern New Hampshire coming back… so some closed areas have come back.”

The one-lift town slopes have also evolved, with many becoming community parks, with trails and playgrounds for round-year use.  Derry’s former ski hill is now a town park with the old ski slope used for sledding, and the former base lodge is often open with a snack bar and lots of families drinking hot cocoa on winter weekends.

There are at least two surviving small one-lift hills; the Dublin School has reopened an area on campus in recent years and Mt. Prospect in Lancaster has operated occasionally.

Could there ever be more? Jeremy Davis says it’s not as easy as it once was to open a community ski area: “there’s permitting, insurance… but could it happen? Sure, if there’s still an open field and there’s enough people that want to do it, theoretically it could happen.”