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  • Tom Eastman

The White Mountains' Early Ski Trails

Skiing down the Sherburne Trail from Mt. Washington's famed Tuckerman Ravine or down the Gulf of Slides trail has been an annual rite of spring for so long in the Mt. Washington Valley that it's hard to imagine a time when ski trails in those areas did not exist.

Prior to the Depression of the 1930s, however, few trails in the state of New Hampshire had been specifically cut as ski trails. Consequently, skiing took place on old logging roads, hilly pastures, or in areas that had been cleared by mountain avalanches, a far cry from today's expectations for skiable terrain.

The Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's subsequent actions to deal with the nation's high unemployment rates changed all that, however, as men were put to work in national forests via the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC's). The CCC was established by Roosevelt to provide work for unmarried, unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25 as part of a national program for the conservation and utilization of the country's natural resources of timber, soil and water. Men involved in the program, known as "enrollees," were housed in conservation camps across the country, seven of which were located in the White Mountains.

The predominantly urban and inexperienced young men comprising the corps and based in the White Mountains performed a variety of tasks during their stay at the camps, including the building of roads, fire prevention projects, and the improvement of the national forests. The camps also built numerous ski trails throughout the forests, particularly in the Pinkham Notch area, including the Sherburne and Gulf of Slides trails. Most of the others built by the CCC during their 10 years of existence no longer are discernible, as they were allowed to grow in after the Corps had been disbanded when World War II broke out.

The CCC became involved in the work of building ski and hiking trails largely through the requests of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the U.S. Forest Service. At the time, the A.M.C. boasted some of the East's finest skiers as its members, and they helped advise the Forest Service in the selection and clearing of trail sites under the program. Although it was an independent Federal agency, the CCC worked in conjunction with the Forest Service and other federal groups, with the work which the men did in camp outlined and supervised by Forest Service personnel.

Ski trails on Black Mountain, Carrigan, and in Bear Notch, one of the better ski areas in the mountains during the '30s and '40s, were built by the Bartlett CCC camp, located at the base of Mt. Stanton on the Saco. The Cold River Camp in Stow, Maine, constructed 66 miles of ski and foot trails in their section of the National Forest where previously only 44 miles existed. Gorham hosted two camps, with the one adjacent to the Dolly Copp Campground credited with constructing most of the campsites and roads in the area, performing work around the Glen Ellis Falls, as well as the clearing of trails for skiing in Pinkham Notch.

Work began on the Pinkham Notch region's ski and hiking trails in the summer of 1933 as part of a widespread trail clearing and improvement program sponsored by the N.H. Development Commission (predecessor of today's Department of Resources and Economic Development) and the Appalachian Mountain Club's Committee on Skiing. At the time, ski trails in several different other sections of the state had been laid out by Charles Proctor, a Dartmouth professor who is credited as being a leader in ski trail development.

Proctor designed the renowned Wildcat Trail, as well as others in Pinkham Notch such as the Hopper Trails (North and South side), the Wildcat Col Trail, the Katzensteig, the "Go-Back", as well as the Pinkham Notch Trail. All except for the Wildcat Trail have been allowed to grow over, and even that famous testing ground for skiers and thrill seekers during the 1930s, '40s and early "50s has not survived the passage of time unaltered -- the old trail was incorporated into the trails built by Wildcat Ski Area in 1957.

Dick May, publicity director for Wildcat, remembers the former Wildcat Trail as a steep and narrow course that required good skiing ability for those attempting to negotiate it. An avid skier and hiker during the years that the CCC was busy in the White Mountains, May says that the current Wildcat Trail, parts of which pass over the same section of the mountain as its namesake, pales in comparison.

"The old Wildcat trail was known throughout the East as being one of the toughest courses. The new course is still an expert trail, but it's much wider, better graded, and less steep," May related, noting that he once fell on the older course's sharp "s" turns during a run. The spill cost him a twisted knee and a sprained ankle, but he says that he was able to limp down to Pinkham Notch in reasonable good shape, carrying his 220 cm. hickory Netherlands under his arms.

May said the old Wildcat Trail varied in width from 15" to 55" and was designed as Class I, or advanced terrain. Numerous races were held on the course over the years, the first taking place on March 3, 1934. The course setter for the race was a fellow named Tom Cabot, while legendary mountain man and A.M.C. leader John Dodge acted as both starter and timer by virtue of a short-wave radio from the finish line. That particular race had two runs, with the first three places going to three A.M.C. racers, among them Kevin MacLaurin, known for his trek across the Andes on a pair of simple wooden skis during the 1920s.

MacLaurin may have placed well in that first race, but May stated that the all-time course holder for the Wildcat Trail was none other than Brooks Dodge, son of Joe. "Brooksie grew up on that course, and he skied it better than anyone else at the time. He had the best time ever for any racer, which was really something when you consider the trail's reputation among skiers," May commented.

The CCC had an auxiliary camp for about 20 men at the Hermit Lakes area just below Tuckerman Ravine, the spring skiing mecca for thousands of skiers. Those men, along with additional corps members stationed at the Dolly Copp camp, helped blaze the Sherburne Trail, originally known as the Tuckerman Trail, which leads up to the Ravine. Bulldozers operated by LEM"s, the code name given to the usually older and more experienced local men, cut the paths, while the axe work on the Sherburne and some of the other smaller trails in the Notch was completed by the younger CCCs. As former CCC member and current Saco Ranger District information officer Warren Hill related, the young men from the cities, unaware of which end of the axe to hold at the beginning of their term with the Corps, learned how to do trail work fairly quickly thereafter.

"Personally, as a kid from Lawrence, Massachusetts, I learned more in my years with the Corps than I had in all the years prior to my arrival at the 117th Company's camp in Conway. It was an amazing learning and training experience for me. I think it awakened in a lot of us an awareness of the woods and appreciation for nature, which we carried with us for the rest of our lives," Hill said.

He described the camps as being relaxed living areas fully equipped with good food, medical personnel, and recreation halls. Each CCC member was issued clothing appropriate for the woods, and usually put in a five- to six-day workweek. For their services, each member was paid from $5-10, depending on their pay grade. "The money was more than adequate at the time, and it usually was sent directly to our parents living at home in the cities to help them. The CCC was probably one of the best programs ever initiated in the country," Hill continued.

The Corps was gradually phased out toward the end of the decade as world war seemed imminent. Prior to the outbreak, though, many of the ski trails built earlier in the decade were abandoned due to the lack of use. Examples of those trails in the Pinkham Notch area were the "Go-Back," "Hopper," the White Road, and the Katzensteig trails, the latter of which was located behind the Glen House site across from the Mt. Washington Auto Road. According to Dick May, many of the abandoned trails were simply left to grow over after the Hurricane of '38 had made a shambles out of the Franconia and Pinkham areas. "These trails such as the Wildcat Brook, which used to be located on the south side of Wildcat down to Prospect Farm in Jackson, were not cleaned up after the hurricane because they had been little used. As a result, the forest just filled them back in, and now a lot of foresters and A.M.C. people, let along skiers, aren't even aware of where they were located," May remarked.

Those that do remain have been improved upon over the years since the young city youths first set to work clearing them, and continue to provide exciting skiing for those pursuing some of the latest spring skiing in the East. The Sherburne Trail was improved upon 10 years ago by the Forest Service, and the Wildcat and Gulf of Slides promise fine skiing as well. The CCC may have long since been disbanded and some of their efforts covered by the forests, but the efforts on trails that remain are a reminder of skiing's earlier days, as well as of their builders' dedicated talents.

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