|A rope tow, like the one seen here at High Pond Mountain in Vermont, was the main conveyance during skiing's early years. (Bill Jenkins photo)|
"And there used to be a ballpark
Where the field was warm and green,
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I'd never seen."
Frank Sinatra's nostalgic song decrying the loss of small local ballparks has a seasonal counterpart. In almost every town in New England with a frozen hill, there once very likely was a ski area.
It had a rudimentary rope tow that ran off a car engine. The rope eventually tore your mittens. The patrons - kids and families mainly - wore jeans and sweaters. Specialized ski wear was still in the future.
In fact, most of what we now see in the skiing and snowboarding industry was not even envisioned as the sport experienced its first boom in the middle of the last century.
There were names like Brandy Brow in Haverhill, Breakheart in Saugus, Cat Rock in Weston, The Charlie Abel Ski Slope in Braintree, and Furnace Brook in Quincy. These and dozens more around Boston were as familiar as Blue Hills and Nashoba Valley are today.
For the last decade a small group of ski history buffs has been researching, mapping, and cataloging hundreds of defunct ski hills around the Northeast, and the New England Lost Ski Areas Project has been chronicled at www.nelsap.org.
Though NELSAP is affiliated with the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, N.H., it is the pet project of Jeremy Davis, a meteorologist who first skied at Nashoba Valley in 1989 as an 11-year-old.
Always fascinated by the remains of ski areas in farm fields and overgrown woods, Davis, a former Boy Scout with a broad love of outdoor lore, remembers the first time he explored a defunct area in Jackson, N.H.
"We were skiing Conway and Black. And I noticed Whittier, which had closed a few years back," he said. "We walked around it and checked out the old lifts, and the gondola. I got a real bang out of seeing an area that just closed up like that."
Davis soon began looking through old road maps and photos of areas that flourished in the first decades of American skiing, and about 10 years ago he began a website to pull all the information together.
"Then it just exploded," he said. "People sent old photos from their attics, old trail maps and letters talking about areas that had once been in a farm field. That kind of thing."
What Davis discovered, he said, was an extraordinary reserve of nostalgia throughout ski country for the sport's formative years. From the 1920s to the World War II era, college outing clubs were one of the main wellsprings of skiing's popularity.
After the war, Davis said, the industry exploded in a country ready to have some fun after two decades of deprivation. It was then that small areas with rope tows dotted the countryside.
"They were just everywhere in New England," said Davis. "But there were no marketing budgets, and everything was word of mouth. They were family areas, mostly. There wasn't a lot of challenge, but they were lots of fun."
At the height of Alpine skiing's popularity, in the 1950s and '60s, some 625 ski areas were operating in New England, many of them no more than a single rope tow up a sloping farm field.
Today, just 85 ski areas operate in New England, with only a few survivors of skiing's early period among the modern mega-resorts. One of the oldest continuous ski clubs in the region is at Mount Greylock, which owns its own acreage in the Massachusetts Berkshires.
The club lodge has no electricity or phone lines. No bathrooms, only outhouses. It is heated by three wood stoves. But it does have the fastest rope tow in New England, powered by a gas engine that whisks you 1,300 feet up Mount Greylock at 18 feet per second.
The area is not open to the public, but people can apply for club membership. Members are expected to help with the operations of the area (basically manning the rope tow and ski patrol) as well as spending a few days doing trail maintenance and other volunteer duties.
In 1934, the Greylock Ski Club lay one of the most famous trails of its day - Thunderbolt, a 2,000-foot racing trail on the east side of the mountain. Steep and gnarly, Thunderbolt was the site of some of the hairiest downhill races staged in the 1930s and 40s, and it remains an expert backcountry ski run.
"If you want to get a real feel for the early ski days in this country, Mount Greylock is the authentic area. It's just like it always was," said Davis.
For those with trained eyes, old ski areas seem to pop out of the winter landscape. Along Route 89 in New Hampshire, for instance, trails of the onetime favorite King Ridge - since developed as real estate - are still well defined.
And along Route 8 in Vermont, the once busy area known as Little Stowe - Dutch Hill - closed 25 years ago. But you can still make out the winding trails and lift towers that serviced skiers for more than 40 winters.
"Skiing at Little Stowe was just like second nature," said Brie Matson of Burlington, Vt., who grew up near Dutch Hill. "There was never any question what you were going to do for fun on the weekend. Everyone would be there. Oh, I've missed those days. I think about them often. It still can break your heart."
What killed off the hundreds of small ski areas like King Ridge and Dutch Hill?
A combination of forces, said Davis. Smaller areas could not afford the expensive lifts and snowmaking systems that large resorts like Killington and Sugarloaf built. Pressure from real estate development doomed other areas.
"It all just crashed in the '70s," said Davis. "High insurance cost, a few bad snow years, a lot of areas run by clubs relied on volunteer help, and that became harder. Everything just peaked in around 1970 and then the crash came after that in the number of ski areas. People's lives just seemed to change. There were energy problems and a general malaise in the country. That's when most of those areas disappeared."
Indeed, the record shows several bad snow winters in the early '70s. The energy crunch came in the middle of the decade, and some landmark court cases against ski areas caused insurance costs to soar. The mom-and-pop areas and family farm slopes simply couldn't keep opening, especially as crowds began gravitating to larger modern resorts.
The picture of change is easy to understand, said Davis, who began his search for lost ski areas as a college student at Lyndon State. But the emotional residue left in the wake of their passing still stuns him.
"It's kind of sad because so many great old places full of memories just vanished," he said. "People made deep and personal connections to their ski areas. I can tell by the things, the old photos and stuff, they send me. They just don't want to let go."
For more information, go to www.nelsap.org.