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Big ideas that never quite peaked

Resorts would have changed ski landscape

Borderline, a proposed seven-mountain ski area that would span the Maine-New Hampshire border, never got off the ground in the 1930s. Borderline, a proposed seven-mountain ski area that would span the Maine-New Hampshire border, never got off the ground in the 1930s. (Photo Courtesy of Newenglandskihistory.Com)
By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2010

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Imagine a vastly different New England skiing landscape featuring expansive resorts built on public conservation land, stretching through the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and into Maine, firmly entrenched atop the northernmost portion of the Appalachian Trail.

The highlights of such a mega-development might look like this:

■Borderline: A sprawling, seven-mountain network spread over 20 miles on the New Hampshire-Maine state line, would feature Alpine skiing on the steep, open ledges of Evans Notch, a secluded pass often referred to as “the best-kept secret in the White Mountains.’’

■Willard Basin in New Hampshire: Anchored by hotel-topped Mount Starr King, would lure skiers worldwide with its revolutionary aerial tramway, monorail system, and 2,000-foot wide skiing gulf, clear-cut specifically to rival Tuckerman Ravine.

■Bigelow Resort: With its bustling new international airport, it would transform the sleepy Dead River area of western Maine into “the Aspen of the East,’’ with a two-decade development goal of luring the Winter Olympics.

If the outlandish scope of these commercial plans has you environmentally alarmed, relax. None of them are under consideration.

Yet at one time, these long-forgotten proposals were all considered viable visions of the future for New England skiing.

Grand schemes that now appear audacious with the benefit of hindsight, Borderline, Willard Basin, and Bigelow each reached various stages of planning and construction between 1936 and 1976 before being abandoned. Examining why these resorts never got built reveals how attitudes about the use of public lands shifted as skiing morphed from fad into full-blown industry.

Two-state plan “The year 1936 was a pretty incredible year in many aspects of skiing,’’ said Scott Andrews, curator and research director for the Ski Museum of Maine. Rope tows were popping up all over New England, and ski trains carried thousands of people to small mountain villages not used to — but eager to serve — a winter influx of tourists. “The Great Depression still burned in people’s minds. Skiing was viewed as an economic boon, for sure.’’

The Civilian Conservation Corps had put men to work in the White Mountains cutting trails, and in what would today be considered an unlikely partnership to spur economic growth, the US Forest Service, Appalachian Mountain Club, and the CCC jointly prepared an ambitious blueprint of trails on seven Maine and New Hampshire mountains, with expansion projected onto five additional peaks.

“Although lifts were not included in the original proposal, this scheme could have been the forerunner for a vast and sprawling ski resort that far exceeds anything in New England today,’’ said Andrews. “It’s hard to believe that 75 years ago a ski development on the scale of Big Sky, Heavenly, or Vail was seriously proposed for the Maine-New Hampshire border.’’

The Jan. 14, 1936, edition of the Portland (Maine) Evening Express was quick to key on potential economic benefits. “Maine towns are watching developments in this region carefully, realizing that because the only access to the vast wilderness area is through Maine, they will profit as the influx of snow sports enthusiasts begins.’’

The town of Fryeburg, in particular, had designs on becoming the Northeast’s skiing gateway. It was already home to Maine’s first ski tow, and featured an impressive network of cross-country trails. As the Evening Express put it, “Fryeburg promises to profit from its advantageous position as the last town of any size en route to the borderline region from either Boston or Portland.’’

Jeremy Clark, who documents “cancelled’’ ski resorts on NewEnglandSkiHistory.com, contrasted Fryeburg’s enthusiastic embrace of Borderline against the not-in-my-backyard attitude that would scuttle any development of comparable size today.

“Fryeburg saw Borderline as a way to be closer to civilization, as a way to become the headquarters for New England skiing,’’ said Clark. “They were definitely pushing for this. They saw this as the next logical step. Remember, this was all back before the image of tourists as outsiders in SUV’s who annoy locals.’’

Clark and Andrews agreed that the way government agencies partnered with an outdoor recreation club is something we’re unlikely to ever see again.

“In many ways, it’s the exact opposite,’’ said Clark, noting that the government’s focus now seems to center on restricting access. “To try and get even a hiking trail cut nowadays, it’s amazing.’’

Within three years of its proposal, Andrews said Borderline “died a deserved, eventual death.’’ Neighboring ski areas had opened with increasingly elaborate lift service. The more Borderline was studied, the more apparent it became that the project would be plagued by steep ledges that wouldn’t hold snow. The hurricane of 1938 uprooted trees and created an impenetrable thicket, effectively ending the endeavor.

“The rest of the ski world just passed it by,’’ said Clark.

A new challenge By 1960, skiing’s geographic seats of power were well established in New England: The Route 100 corridor in Vermont and the Mount Washington Valley in New Hampshire, plus emerging Sugarloaf and Sunday River in Maine. But in 1963, plans were announced for a gigantic horseshoe-shaped ski bowl ringed by seven mountains across 5,000 acres in Lancaster, Kilkenny, and Jefferson, N.H. This new resort would dwarf them all.

“Some of that era’s canceled ski areas were pipe dreams,’’ said Clark. “But Willard Basin was a serious proposal. They were talking massive proportions.’’

The most striking feature of the $5 million project was to be the clear-cutting of an entire ravine, creating the widest, steepest commercial ski slope in the East.

“In New Hampshire, the gold standard was having something to compete with Tuckerman’s,’’ Clark said.

By 1964, Willard Basin had gained lease approval from the US Forest Service. An open house in 1965 drew 1,300 interested skiers and job-seekers. But there were problems with zoning and topography, and surveys revealed the development sat atop the area’s drinking water supply. Today, the gondolas, hotels, and monorails exist only in faded artists’ renderings.

Eyeing the Olympics Right around the time Willard Basin was regressing from reality, another bold bid was hurtling toward it. A world-class resort on the Bigelow Mountain ridge in Maine, just north of Sugarloaf, was the $250 million brainchild of a group of Massachusetts developers. By 1967, the governors of the six New England states had been persuaded to support a Bigelow bid to the Olympic selection committee for the 1976 Winter Games.

“The idea was the skiing events would be held in Maine and the arena events would be held in Boston,’’ said Andrews. “And as a resort, they were talking 15,000 skier visits per day. Bigelow was going to be the biggest, in terms of skier visits, in the world.’’

The pockets of the Bigelow developers were deeper than those of previously failed ski resorts. But by the early 1970s, a new roadblock loomed in the form of highly structured opposition from people who wanted to keep the 12-mile range undeveloped.

“It’s one of the first times environmentalists got really organized against business interests in Maine,’’ said Andrews.

On a bracing February day in 1974, members of the Friends of Bigelow climbed West Peak and planted a flag, symbolically claiming the mountains on behalf of the public. The photo got worldwide press, and the publicity caused the state to step in to try and work out a sale to protect up to 40,000 acres of wilderness.

As a result, Austria was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics. But backcountry enthusiasts were rewarded with the Bigelow Preserve Act.

Today, the only evidence of commercial activity at Bigelow is the remains of a small ski lodge, hastily constructed as part of a grandiose plan, but now destined to revert back to nature in the largest state-owned ecological preserve in Maine.