The Story of Skiing in the North Country; Whiteface Mountain Ski Center
By Patricia & Robert Foulke
Sunday, February 13, 2011
How did it all begin? Ski areas attract people who love the thrill of graceful turns, speed and daring, as well as the breathtaking sparkle of trees loaded with fresh snow. Since most major ski areas are now more than half a century old, we have begun looking into how they started, who got them going, what obstacles had to be overcome. And we’re finding that most areas have interesting stories to tell.
Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen
Herman Smith-Johannsen, known as Jackrabbit, often thought of as the man who brought skiing as a sport to America, disagreed: “I can’t take credit for being the first man to bring skis to America. I’m not even the first Norwegian! Good God, man, Snowshoe Thompson came here from Norway on a sailing ship in 1837! He was using skis to bring the mail across the Rockies in 1856!”
Jackrabbit was born in Norway in 1875 and spent his childhood roaming the forests and enjoying life outdoors. He remembered having barrel staves for skis when he was two years old. In 1899 he came to the U.S. and worked for a machinery company in Cleveland for eight years, meeting Alive Robinson while skiing in a park. They were married in 1907 and then he decided to start his own business selling heavy machinery.
He especially loved skiing into the Canadian forest with his dog pulling his gear, one of the few who would bushwhack as a salesman and make money. When working with the Cree Indians he couldn’t understand why they used snowshoes while he used skis. Some gave skis a try and a few years later they were all skiing. How did he get the name “jackrabbit?” He played “hare and hound” on skis with Cree friends and he was so quick that they named him “Chief Jackrabbit.”
He designed the cross-country trails on Mont Tremblant, then Stowe, and later was called to help create the trails on Whiteface Mountain that became the predecessor of the current ski area, Marble Mountain. Jackrabbit continued to ski until he died at age 111.
Seeds in the 1930s
Downhill skiing lagged behind cross-country and jumping, just as it had in Scandinavia. George Martin, once a ski jumper, was involved in planning and cutting the cross-country trails for the 1932 Olympic Games. He remembered that fourteen men cut three fifty-kilometer courses. The night before the race it would be decided how the race would proceed. One loop went to Heart Lake, another over the Sentinel Range, and the third loop around Whiteface. But because the snow had melted on race day the course had to be shortened.
Another major boon to the future of downhill skiing came from an unrelated project, the eight-mile road up Whiteface. With Colorado’s road up Pikes Peak as a model, the push to create a comparable road in New York began. In 1929, Governor Franklin Roosevelt’s spade started construction in the month before the stock market crash, and in 1935 then President Roosevelt dedicated it during the depths of the Great Depression. Today the Veterans Memorial Highway closes after the snow flies in October, but in the late1940s it became a major source of uphill transportation for downhill skiing.
Before that would happen, interest in downhill skiing continued to develop in Lake Placid. Otto Schniebs, a German instructor who was certified in the Black Forest, arrived in Massachusetts in 1927 and began teaching skiing to members of the Appalachian Mountain Club. He coached college teams at Harvard and then Dartmouth. In 1936 he ran the ski school at Lake Placid. He claimed, “Scheeing iss not a schport, it iss a vay of life.”
Hotels in Lake Placid had rope tows to teach downhill skiing, and in 1938 Otto Schniebs and Hal Burton from Keene laid out a Class A downhill racing trail at Wilderness. The trail had a 2,700 foot drop through the terrain of Little Whiteface. It started at the top of the Wilderness Trail and went down almost to the Ausable River.
In November 1941 the New York electorate approved altering the state constitution once again—as they had earlier to build the Whiteface highway—this time to create a ski area at Marble Mountain. A month later the war put the project on hold until 1948. Marble Mountain, one of the Whiteface subpeaks, is near the highway and thus became a prime site for ski development.
Marble Mountain had two sites, the lower one at 2400 feet with a T-bar and four rope tows on five trails cut by Jackrabbit. The 4400 foot site had two rope tows, and a connecting trail linked the two sites, Tucker Sno-cats and Army trucks took skiers up the Whiteface highway to reach it, and the highway also served as a beginner’s trail.. However, as Douglas Wolfe recalls, Marble was known for a “hellacious wind problem.” In the same year, 1948, a trail was cut from another subpeak, Lookout Mountain, down to Wilmington, which is now the Bear Dam recreational trail.
For a decade Marble Mountain flourished, perhaps helped by the ambience of Lake Placid to compete with New England resorts and attract both serious skiers and celebrities. In 1959-60, two seasons after Whiteface opened, Marble closed because its outmoded trail design and windswept surface could not compete with the new area. The Marble lodge was at first a museum for Adirondack artifacts until it became a station for the Atmospheric Science Research Center (ASRC) in 1961.
Governor Harriman and Whiteface
In many ways a series of lucky coincidences led to the current ski area at Whiteface. In the 1930s Henry Wade Hicks thought that there should be a racing trail at Whiteface. he spoke with Arthur Draper, later the manager of Marble Mountain and Bellayre, who advised that he should find out how Europeans judged trails both fit for Olympic competition and safe. Caroline Lussi, Draper’s daughter, reported that her father favored the area where a racing trail had been built in 1938.
Averell Harriman, who as chairman of Union Pacific Railway had built Sun Valley in Idaho, met Draper at Bellayre. After Harriman became governor of New York in 1954, he worried about the deficits at Marble Mountain and consulted Draper. They skied together at Marble and discussed other sites in the state, finally selecting the east face of Whiteface for development. In 1957 $ 2.5 million was approved to cut trails, erect two chairlifts and build a base lodge.
On January 25, 1958 Harriman dedicated the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center. Riding the chairlift on the first run of the day, Harriman was stuck high in the air and rescued, which made the national news.
In 1966 Whiteface received a major facelift with more snow-making facilities. A lift on the main peak’s face brought skiers to the highest trails. In 1980 $14.5 million enhanced the mountain for the Winter Olympic Games. In this major effort, lifts were replaced and added, trails were prepared for downhill and giant slalom competitions, and a new one cut for slalom. Much more snow-making equipment was added, and the size of the base lodge was tripled. The original vision that built the 1938 racing trail came to fruition in a site that could support all alpine events of the 1980 Winter Olympics.
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