Vermont Skiing: Making History

by Jonathan D. Robinson

The sport of downhill skiing will always continue to evolve. From the leather-strapped barrel staves to today’s shaped skis and snowboards, from the humble rope tow to the 100-passenger tramway, the progression of equipment design and the desire to improve the experience has always been at the forefront of the industry. It just so happens that, in the story of skiing, Vermont has made history.
In the very early 1900s, Woodstock Inn manager and winter outdoor enthusiast Arthur B. Wilder began to entice guests up to enjoy skiing, among other winter pursuits. Shortly thereafter, in 1909, Dartmouth College student and winter pioneer Fred Harris started the Dartmouth Outing Club, and two years later, as a college senior, inaugurated the first Dartmouth Winter Carnival. By 1922 he had built a ski jump on a Brattleboro hillside that would eventually bear his name, and the annual jumping competition that started in February of that year continues to this day. In its heyday during the 1920s and 30s, crowds of up to 10,000 spectators were not uncommon, as the public’s interest in skiing – and visiting Vermont – grew.

By 1933, skiing in Vermont had taken off and the state found itself at the center of attention with a succession of skiing “firsts.” The first uphill ski tow in the country, a rope tow, was opened on Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock on January 28th, 1934. The lift put Woodstock on the map in a way that few could have foreseen. Skiers flocked from near and far to try out the new device, often filling every empty bed in town during the busiest times. Within the next three years, there were four ski areas in the vicinity, with seven tows in operation. Woodstock was established as the birthplace of American skiing.
In 1933, state forester Perry Merrill was in charge of Vermont’s Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps, and the first task he had for his men was to cut ski trails on Mount Mansfield, Burke, Okemo and Ascutney. The first was the Bruce Trail on Mount Mansfield. For years local skiers had hiked up the Toll Road and skied down, but Merrill, along with Charlie Lord, the leader of the 25-man crew, saw an opportunity to create a network of trails that would eventually be the genesis of today’s Stowe Mountain Resort. After the Bruce trail was finished, they cut the Nose Dive, Chin Clip, Perry Merrill, Teardrop, and Lord trails, rounding out the first six trails that make up Stowe. Stowe also had the distinction of having the state’s first chairlift installed for the 1940-41 ski season. It was in that same year that Vermont had another first: the first T-bar lift installed at Pico Peak, home to Andrea Mead, who later won two gold medals in the 1952 Olympics at Oslo, Norway.
It was also at Stowe’s Mount Mansfield, that Charles Minot Dole fell and broke his ankle while skiing with friends on the Toll Road in 1936. The lack of any organized rescue gave him the idea to start what would become the National Ski Patrol in 1938. By the early 1940s he had also spearheaded the effort to enlist ski troops into the war effort, creating the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most storied fighting forces in all of World War II.
All throughout the late 1930s and 40s, rope tows were being constructed on nearly every local hillside and pasture, and the proliferation of ski areas seemed to have no end. But soon larger ski areas began to squeeze out the smaller tow areas. Between 1943 and 1958, Vermont saw the birth of Big Bromley, Mad River Glen, Mount Snow, Okemo, Smugglers’ Notch, Jay Peak, Sugarbush, Killington, Burke and Ascutney. This expansion of larger ski mountains continued into the 1960s with Magic Mountain, Stratton, Glen Ellen (now Sugarbush’s Mount Ellen) and Bolton Valley. All the while, the rope tow areas winnowed away until only a handful of small, community ski areas were left. According to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, 116 Vermont ski areas have gone by the wayside, leaving barely two dozen still in operation.

The rich history of skiing in Vermont lives on in the efforts of the Vermont Ski Museum in Stowe, with detailed exhibits meandering through the years, depicting Vermont as it grew from its rope tow infancy to the modern day industry it has become.

Of course, no history of skiing in Vermont could be written without mention of the great skiing competitors that have come from the Green Mountain state. Besides the aforementioned Andrea Mead, we can’t forget Billy Kidd, Rick and Suzy Chaffee, CB Vaughn, Martha Rockwell, Marilyn, Barbara Ann, Lindy and Bobby Cochran (and Bob’s son Jimmy), Donna Weinbrecht, Hannah Kearney and snowboard pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter.

Ski historian and archivist Jonathan D. Robinson has been amassing one of the largest collections of ski archives in the country over the past 40 years. He is currently working on a book on the complete ski history of Woodstock, VT, due out this winter to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Suicide Six.