As a decade, the 1930s is readily associated with a number of disturbing and negative events. It was the decade in which World War II began — a war which would ultimately claim upwards of 70 million lives. It was also the decade of the Great Depression — a time when the unemployment rate hovered around 25 percent and economic stagnation was a fact of life. But there were also a number of positive developments in the 1930s, especially if you were a fan of winter recreation — particularly downhill skiing.
The third winter Olympic games were held at Lake Placid, NY, in 1932. Lowell Thomas’s famous radio narration of the Olympic events boosted their popularity. In that same year, the first ever rope tow appeared in North America in Shawbridge, Quebec. It was run by an automobile engine!
Downhill skiing events then became part of the Olympic games in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. In addition, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — part of FDR’s New Deal — began cutting trails for skiing in the mountains of the Northeast in 1933. Suicide Six in Woodstock, VT, opened the nation’s first rope tow in 1936, thus beginning the split between resort skiing and backcountry skiing. W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, started the Sun Valley Ski Resort in Ketchum, Idaho, in that same year. A definite trend toward developing ski resorts developed in the 1930s — a trend that would soon affect Connecticut.
In an article entitled “Along The Ski Trails” that appeared 70 years ago this week in the January 21st edition of the Hartford Courant, journalist R.D. Britton had this to say about the future of skiing in Connecticut:
Among Connecticut skiers there has been some talk, or possibly wishful thinking, about a large skiing area in the state including an Alpine lift, rope tows, practice slopes, and instructors. The idea is to provide for skiers the same type of partially self-supporting recreation as many cities provide for golfers. Because of the nature of a ski area, it would have to come under state supervision. The initial outlay would be from fifty to one hundred thousand dollars.
Not surprisingly, the first part of the state that ski enthusiasts examined to develop a ski resort were the hills of Litchfield County, as that part of the state is not only the hilliest section of the Nutmeg State, but also tends to get the most snow. George C. Waldo, then the head of the Connecticut State Park and Forest Commission, thought about emulating the state-owned ski resorts developed in and owned by the state of New Hampshire.
One of the first places to be under consideration in Connecticut was Hartland Mountain in Hartland, CT. Hartland Mountain already had a ski trail that could have been further developed. In fact, Hartland Mountain also had a ski cabin known as the Tunxis Forest Ski Cabin, which is still on the Register of Historic Places. An article in the Hartford Courant in 1945 had this to say about Hartland Mountain:
The Tunxis run is seven-tenths of a mile long, drops about 700 feet, and is recommended for the intermediate class of skiers.
How serious was this proposal? No one knows for sure, but the nearby development of Mohawk Mountain by Walter Schoenknecht pretty much killed the idea.
Another area considered seriously for development as a ski resort was Haystack Mountain in beautiful Norfolk, CT. (Yes, ski enthusiasts, there is another Haystack Mountain besides the more famous mountain of the same name in Wilmington, VT.) Norfolk’s Haystack Mountain also had a ski trail with a vertical drop of nearly 500 feet; furthermore, Norfolk also tends to have the highest snowfall of any town in Connecticut. Nevertheless, nearby Mohawk Mountain’s more rapid development also killed off the state’s plans to develop the area.
A third idea involved Meriden’s proposed West Peak Ski Area. Louis Zemel, who had opened Powder Hill in Middlefield in 1959, had proposed to develop a ski area at West Peak in the early 1960s, according to the Meriden Journal in 1960:
James Barry, superintendent of parks, reported that Zemel had sent a letter here asking about the possibility of constructing a ski run on West Peak.
Zemel’s proposal included multiple rope tows and snowmaking equipment. The proposal went nowhere, as the deed that gave the city land for the park prohibited any commercial use of that land.
While the 1930s generally marked a time of economic slowdown due to the Great Depression, the opposite was true for the burgeoning ski resort industry. Spurred on by interest in the winter Olympics of 1932 and 1936 and by the help provided by the CCC in cutting trails, the ski industry gathered a great deal of momentum nationwide. Checked temporarily by World War II, momentum once again built up in the postwar period with multiple proposals for ski areas in all of the New England states including Connecticut. Three of these proposals never came to fruition for various reasons, but five viable ski areas did develop during the postwar period: Mohawk Mountain (1947), Powder Hill (1959 — name later changed to Powder Ridge in 1970 and currently inactive), Mt. Southington (1964), Sundown (1963), and Woodbury (1963).
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