Back then there may not have been a single mile of downhill ski trail on the continent, according to the Jan. 25, 1935 Ski Bulletin. Those first Appalachian Mountain Club skiers finished 20 miles of trail in the southwest corner of New Hampshire.
Then, in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, the Winnipesaukee Ski Club finished trails on what is now Gunstock. The Works Progress Administration further developed the Belknap Mountains Recreation Area.
Much early New England skiing took place at mom-and-pop ski areas. Putting up a tow rope and taking in lodgers was a way for farmers to earn a little more money in the off season.
Enthusiasm for skiing spread to a farm in Lisbon, N.H. , in 1936. Farm Security Administration photographer Marion Post Wolcott took pictures of local teenagers skiing on Dickinson’s farm in March 1939. She described the photos:
On Saturday afternoon many high school students come to Dickinson’s farm to ski. Mr Dickenson built a ski tow on his farm three years ago at a cost of one thousand dollars. This is the first year he had made any money, although business is increasing rapidly now. He has a small dairy farm and until the hurricane last year destroyed his entire grove of maple trees he made and sold maple syrup. Lisbon near Franconia, New Hampshire.
New England skiing wasn’t just a way for farmers to make money. It also allowed innkeepers to extend their season into winter. Kate Peckett, the daughter of the owners of Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill, persuaded her parents to run a ski school on Cannon Mountain.
Kate is also credited with inspiring the Taft Slalom trail on Cannon Mountain, which the Civilian Conservation Corps cut in 1933 as the first racing trail in North America.
In February 1933, the Ski Bulletin called it a “ski run equaled by nothing in the East.”
The CCC also built a parking lot and ski trails on Cannon Mountain. And in 1938, the state of New Hampshire agreed to finance an aerial tramway on Cannon, completed in 1939.
The first tow rope in New England was constructed on Jan. 28, 1934 in a former sheep pasture near Woodstock, Vt. Made out of rope, pulleys and an old Model T engine, it gave birth to the White Cupboard Skiway (named after the nearby inn).
The Civilian Conservation Corps played a big role in developing Vermont’s ski industry. CCC enlistees built 11 ski trails, mostly in Stow. All but one still exist.
Two Vermonters affiliated with Dartmouth College also helped popularize skiing in New England. When a Swedish student challenged the school’s carpenter, Fred Garey of Thetford, to make a pair of skis, he rose to the occasion. He figured out how to make the eight-foot-long skis from seasoned ash in his kitchen. When he showed them to the Dartmouth students, he realized he had a hit on his hands.
Another Vermonter, Fred Harris of Brattleboro, founded the Dartmouth Outing Club in 1909 as a student. National Geographic ran a story about skiing in New Hampshire in 1920 that featured the club, and Dartmouth’s admissions tripled.
When Maine’s first tow rope opened in Fryeberg in 1936, 200 people came to ski and 3,000 came to watch.
Maine’s first Alpine skiing resort, Shawnee Peak in Bridgton, opened in 1938 with a 1,100-foot tow rope.
Today, Maine has more than 100 abandoned rope tow sites.
For more information about New England skiing history, check out the New England Ski Museum at the base of Cannon Mountain or on their website. All photos by Marion Post Wolcott in March 1939, courtesy Library of Congress. This story about New England skiing was updated in 2019.