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Stowe History

The article below was written by long-time member of Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol and local historian, Brian Lindner and first appeared in the Burlington Free Press.

 

STOWE MOUNTAIN RESORT
Ski Capital of the East started in a rough old lumber camp

By BRIAN LINDNER
For the Free Press

STOWE — Of the more than 100 trails, two famous ski trails at Stowe are named after visionary men who, more than eight decades ago, saw Mount Mansfield as the ideal location to promote an entirely new industry in Vermont. Another trail is named after the man credited with eventually making Stowe “The Ski Capital of the East” and a fourth is named for the man who helped finance major improvements.

Stowe Mountain Resort had its earliest beginnings in a rough old lumber camp in Ranch Valley to the west of today’s Vermont 108 — several miles from today’s main resort. The only ski trails remaining near the former site of Ranch Camp are those from the resort’s Cross Country Center. All downhill skiing long ago migrated further up the road to where the resort sits today at the south entrance to Smugglers Notch.

Nobody knows exactly when the first skis glided across the winter snow in Stowe but it was almost certainly in the mid to late 1800s. Stowe was a farming and logging community after the Civil War and loggers sometimes traveled through the winter woods on long boards with upturned tips.

Dartmouth librarian made history on mountain
What is known is the first date on which a person skied down Mount Mansfield purely for recreation. It was on Feb. 1, 1914 when Dartmouth librarian Nathaniel Goodrich hiked up the Toll Road and skied back to the base. His trip remains well documented in the archives at Dartmouth College.

Very little documentation remains to tell the story of anyone downhill skiing at Stowe again until the 1930s. It was then when men such as Charlie Lord and Ab Coleman caught the skiing “bug” and began exploring places to ski. Likewise wealthy Roland Palmedo of New York began looking for a suitable mountain to develop for the new sport.

The Great Depression was in full swing which lead to Lord being laid off from his job with the Vermont Highway Department. At the same time President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to employ young men in forestry and other conservation projects. Future Commissioner of Vermont Forests and Parks Perry Merrill had returned from college in Scandinavia where he saw ski areas being built as forms of both employment and recreation.

A number of important pieces then began to fall into place at the beginning of the 1930s. Merrill was appointed to direct the CCC in Vermont and he needed to find projects for the thousands of CCC “boys” who would be coming to the state. Lord was unemployed.

Merrill soon took steps to bring Lord to Stowe along with a crew of CCC men. Merrill directed them to live at Ranch Camp and begin the construction of Vermont’s first purpose-built ski trail. On Nov. 1, 1933, Lord’s crew began clearing a new trail from Ranch Valley up to the Toll Road near the site of today’s Octagon Restaurant. The trail was named The Bruce after Horace Bruce of Waterbury who had once logged this area of the Mount Mansfield. (The resort exists on a combination of state and private lands.)

Throughout that winter the CCC “boys” used axes and crosscut saws to manually construct The Bruce. Each morning they hiked up in the winter snows to continue pushing the trail uphill. It was backbreaking work to say the least. Finally, on Feb. 1, 1934 they finished. CCC “boy” Paul Barquin was the only skier on the crew and became the first person to ski down this new trail after he had carried his equipment up on the last day of cutting.

Now with a “base lodge” at Ranch Camp and a true ski trail tourists began to arrive. At best a person could hike up and perhaps get in two runs each day. Upon return to the old logging camp at night guests were fed such staples as baked beans. It was rough. The outhouses were not heated.

During this same time the Toll Road was also being used as a ski trail. The Toll Road began as a horse trail in 1850 and underwent periodic improvements until 1922 when it was finally upgraded to permit automobile traffic. If cars could climb up then skiers could glide down.

Built primarily to house a toll collector for the Toll Road a simple base station was constructed in 1919 a few feet to the west of Vermont 108. By 1935 this became the first true base lodge even before any lift was constructed. (This building still exists but is now fully incorporated inside the current Toll House Inn.)

On Jan. 16, 1934, Palmedo and others formally incorporated the Mount Mansfield Ski Club (MMSC) with language that created the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol, which remains as the oldest patrol in the U.S. With a patrol established they now needed a ski school.

The arrival of Sepp Ruschp
Dec. 10, 1936, was a milestone date in the history of the resort when Sepp Ruschp arrived from Austria. During November a rope tow had been constructed at the Toll House on a side hill of the former Darling farm. Unfortunately, there was no snow and no pupils for Ruschp to teach in his new ski school, which featured the Arlberg technique.

Ruschp had arrived without his wife who would follow later as funds allowed. He had been hired by the MMSC to come to Stowe and promote the new and growing sport. He moved into the Toll House but it was a season with no snow. It wasn’t until Feb. 10 that enough had accumulated to open the new rope tow and begin teaching. MMSC struggled to pay Ruschp but both parties were determined to make the arrangement work. To make ends meet Ruschp took ski instructing jobs at competing ski areas such as Pinnacle Park Ski Land in Waterbury.

Following the work of Lord and the CCC “boys” it soon became obvious to all that after the cutting of The Bruce at least one more trail was needed. During the winter of 1934/35 the CCC cut the Nose Dive trail with its famous Seven Turns. Lord made his first skiing descent of this new expert trail on April 4, 1935.

At the same time the CCC had built The Stone Hut near the summit for skiers to get inside or even spend the night. The Stone Hut remains on the summit as a beautiful example of the high quality work completed by the CCC.

Eventually, important ski races were being moved to Stowe because of its reliable snow. On March 5-6, 1938, the National Races came to Mount Mansfield leading to what is probably one of the three worst traffic jams in Vermont history. It took weeks before the last car was finally freed.

Palmedo, then president of the Amateur Ski Club of New York, heard racers complain of having to hike the Nose Dive in order to race down. He began to look at raising funds to build a chairlift. He soon had the first $75,000 and on June 4, 1940, construction began of the world’s longest and highest chairlift. This was the famous single chairlift which remained in service until 1986.

With the completion of the single chair the movement of the resort’s activities fully shifted to where we see them today. The lift was an engineering marvel of its day. The construction was done by shipfitters who riveted the towers together with red hot rivets — no nuts and no bolts.

In 1943 Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius V. Starr visited Stowe and he was disappointed at having to wait in line for two hours for a ride up the single chair. He was guided, hosted and instructed by Sepp Ruschp and the men became close friends. As chairman of the American International Group, Starr had vast resources at his disposal and offered to put up 51 percent of the funds for another lift. Thus began AIG’s involvement in Stowe which eventually led to their ownership of the resort. Stowe Mountain Resort today has the distinction of being under the same ownership for longer than any other North American ski resort.

In 1946 the five different companies under five different ownerships of various parts of the resort were beginning to be consolidated. Sepp Ruschp was named president of the new Mount Mansfield Company and he more than ever became the driving force to build skiing in Stowe to where it could claim to be the Ski Capital of the East.

In 1960 a double chair was added next to the single to more than double the resort’s uphill capacity. Eight years later a dream of Lord’s from the 1940s was finally realized when the resort built a new four-person gondola up the shoulder of the mountain below The Chin.

Starting in 1949 the area across Route 108 known as Spruce Peak began to be developed. Ruschp’s vision was to take advantage of the south facing and sunny slopes. In 1954 a new double chair was constructed on Big Spruce. This lift was the highest capacity lift in North America when built in 1954 and serviced The Outlook Restaurant perched on the summit with stunning views to the south.

Spruce Peak in the spotlight
The Spruce Peak area underwent a series of incremental improvements until the 2000s. Facing a declining pool of skiers in America it became more and more evident that Stowe needed to take full advantage of Spruce to cement its leadership position in the industry.

Given the environmental concerns of undergoing a massive expansion of buildings, lifts, parking and snowmaking the resort reached out to dozens of environmental groups and regulating agencies to come together with a plan which all could support. It was a long process but proved to be an example of working cooperatively for the benefit of all — especially the environment.

With permits issued, old buildings were razed, lifts torn down, trails recontoured, roads built, and new mountain cabins with a new base lodge and luxury hotel built. All were designed with environmental concerns in mind thereby conserving both bear habitat and even historically significant CCC lean-tos and fire places from the old Smugglers Notch state campground.
The revenue from the construction at Spruce has provided the funds for Stowe to upgrade its snowmaking systems to be among the best in the world. A long series of new lifts in all areas of the resort has meant the near elimination of lift lines giving skiers and riders the best chance of getting in as many runs as they wish without standing in line.

Construction continues at Stowe Mountain Resort with a new Adventure Center and even underground parking as just two examples of ongoing projects. A new Zip Tour is coming in 2015.

Stowe village has also undergone continual improvements over the decades but has worked hard and successfully to retain its feeling of a place to come for memorable family vacations. Skiers from decades ago return year after year to the same restaurants, businesses and motels as when they first came to Stowe.

And now about those trail names mentioned earlier. Stowe has long had trails named after Perry Merrill, Charlie Lord, Sepp Ruschp and C.V. Starr. Millions of people have enjoyed skiing at Stowe because of their work so long ago. Likewise thousands of Vermonters have found employment both with and around Stowe Mountain Resort. The expansion continues.

Brian Lindner is a member of the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol and historian for the Stowe Mountain Resort.

Stowe Mountain Resort Firsts

America’s oldest organized ski patrol — founded 1934
One of America’s oldest organized ski schools — founded 1934 at The Lodge
World’s longest aerial tramway — Single Chair 1940
World’s highest aerial tramway — Single Chair 1940
First double chair in the U.S. — Big Spruce Double Chair Lift, 1954
Highest capacity chair lift in the U.S. — Big Spruce Double Chair, 1954
Home of America’s first male Olympic Alpine ski medalist: Billy Kidd, silver 1964
First 4-person gondola in the East — 1968
Highest year-around restaurant in the East — 1968
World’s Fastest 8-person gondola — 1991
Highest and longest night skiing in the East — 1990s
Resort with the most 1+ mile-long lifts in the Eastern U.S. — 2007
First resort in Vermont to heat an entire building from waste heat off an electric drive of a chair lift — 2011
Largest Geo-Thermal Array in Vermont (90 – 500′ wells) — 2014
Only ski resort in America under same ownership since 1949
Only ski resort in the east to open a lift regularly at 7:30 a.m.