Forth of an historical series by contributors Patricia and Robert Foulke. Photos supplied by the resort and RRB.
How did a pass in Vermont get stuck with a name that might have come from an adventure story by Rudyard Kipling or James Fenimore Cooper?
There was no village around to name until 1967, but the pass between Mount Mansfield and Madonna Mountain earned the title in the first decade of the 19th century. And the rugged topography of the pass itself provided just the sort of place real smugglers might like.
They did when President Thomas Jefferson enforced an embargo in 1807 and 1808 forbidding trade with England. To break it, the British sent supplies to Canada, and they were filtered down Vermont's Long Trail through Smugglers' Notch. Smugglers made good use of the caves in the area, including "refrigerator cave," to hide goods. In this first era of evading trade restrictions, the goods were mundane but prized. Potash, used to make soap, went from Vermont to Canada, and clothing, food and medicine from Canada to Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
In the second era of Notch smuggling, during the 1920's, alcohol was the commodity and the style of the operation became more flamboyant. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution forbade the production or sale of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. But many inventive citizens refused to become teetotalers, and the caves were a perfect hiding place that even kept the alcohol at room temperature. Now hikers can explore some of those caves during the summer.
Linking Stowe with Jeffersonville through mountainous terrain, the Notch invited development as a ski area, but there was (and is) a hitch: the narrow road winding through the pass is not plowed. In the winter one can only go through on cross country skis or snowshoes, so independent ski areas developed on both sides of the Notch.
In 1954 a small ski area began north of the Notch, at the base of Sterling Mountain on the Jeffersonville side. At first it operated only on weekends as Smugglers' Notch Ski-Ways, owned by a group of Cambridge businessmen. Dr. Roger Mann was president of Ski-Ways, and local children learned to ski there.
By 1956 two Poma lifts had been installed. Warren Warner was general manager, overseeing all operations from ski patrol and grooming to ticket sales and the base lodge. He was one of the pioneers of Vermont skiing, blazing trails at Mt. Mansfield, Okemo and Smugglers' Notch. His favorite trail at Smugglers' Notch was the Rum Runner because it always held good snow.
In 1959 skiers could link both Smugglers' Notch and Stowe. The Southwest Passage, a touring trail, cuts across Sterling Pond at the top of the mountain and ties in with the Sterling trail on Spruce peak. Skiers approaching from the other side of the Notch can take Northeast Passage, a one-half-mile touring trail along the crest of the mountain that leads to Sterling's trails. Some years ago we took that route to Stowe, skied one run on Spruce Peak, and returned to Sterling.
The next year Tom Watson, Jr., Chairman of the Board of IBM, skied over from Stowe and looked down on an open area that was a potato field. He decided it was the perfect place to create the "Vail of the East" and bought Ski-Ways. He put in chairlifts at Sterling Mountain and one that reached the summit of Madonna Mountain, then the longest double chairlift in the East. Watson also began to build a resort village at the base of Morse Mountain and renamed the whole area Madonna Mountain in 1964.
Vicky Vautour, as a child in 1963, grew up skiing there, as did all of her siblings. Her father, Roland Vautour, was general manager under Tom Watson. She remembers that her brother Greg liked to ski continuously, and as a child when the lifts closed he would cry until the lift operator opened the lift for one more ride. She has a sports wall in her house with photos of the family skiing in rubber galoshes, bear trap bindings and mittens caked with ice.
The kids learned to avoid rocks, stumps, ice and grass and became very adept at turning. The old New England trails were narrow and everyone had to learn how to handle them, as well as the lifts. The upper Poma at Sterling was notorious because the raised trestles had two iced tracks that went over compression bumps. Vicky's mother complained that something should be done--and it was.
In 1972 Stanmar Inc. acquired the resort and renamed it "The Village at Smugglers' Notch." Stanley Snider of Stanmar continued the concepts of Tom Watson and expanded the village. The self-contained village became the center of a year-round resort with swimming pools, ski lifts, cross-country trails, skating rink, tennis courts, shops and restaurants.
Watson's plan put Smugglers' Notch at the leading edge of a new concept in ski resorts, one that spread throughout the French Alps and the American and Canadian Rockies. Rather than develop an existing town or string of lodges, shops and restaurants along an access road, all facilities are clustered together and integrated in a genuinely "new" walking village at the base of the mountain.
The British call such resorts "purpose built" because they are designed to support and enhance recreation. Families come to enjoy a vacation together and find they are able to choose activities for each age, giving parents some time off by themselves.Through the late 1980s and early 1990s word of that family emphasis spread beyond ski magazines to publications like Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens, firmly establishing Smuggs, as it is now familiarly called, in the ranks of premier year-round family resorts. In 1996 William Stritzler bought the resort and continued that legacy.
When asked why the resort did not move into high-speed lifts, resort president Bob Mulcahy responded: "Smugglers' elected many years ago to focus our energy on families and year-round activities. We have developed award-winning winter and summer programs and a balance of facilities so we can service families during all seasons. We have multiple swimming facilities, water slides, disc golf, miniature golf, a fabulous Fun-zone, and many other facilities serving a wide range of activities.
"Smuggs has also emphasized the importance of having a trail capacity much larger than uphill lift capacity. Therefore our skier density is one of the lowest of any major resort in the East. This combination of family programming, year-round facilities, and low skier density has allowed us to maintain our competitive edge."
So mountains were not forgotten throughout this resort development. Smuggs has three, all linked and served by eight lifts, connecting trails and a shuttle: Morse (2,250'), Sterling (3,040') and Madonna (3,640') with 78 trails and 750 acres of glades. The skiing terrain includes 19% for novices, 50% for intermediates, 25% for advanced skiers, and 6% for experts. The classic trails on Sterling, now widened, get their names from the history of the Notch: Rum Runner, Treasure, Black Snake (a smuggling vessel on the lake), Snake Bite, Smugglers' Alley, and Bootlegger.
Smuggs celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006. The festivities included a huge Snow Ball dinner dance. And the sky played its part too. Before the dance was over, it opened up with a spurt of the long-awaited white stuff to make the occasion.