Third of an historical series by contributors Patricia and Robert Foulke
This year Whiteface/Lake Placid was named the top ski resort in the East in SKI Magazine's reader survey. But that's only the latest chapter in a long and complicated story with many starts and stops. It includes two Winter Olympics, the first without alpine skiing, a handful of key figures who drove the development of the mountain, a false start on the north face, and repeated dodges around the "forever wild" clause of the Adirondack Park.
Herman Smith-Johannsen, known as Jackrabbit, often thought of as the man who brought skiing as a sport to America, disagreed: "I can't take credit for being the first man to bring skis to America. I'm not even the first Norwegian! Good God, man, Snowshoe Thompson came here from Norway on a sailing ship in 1837! He was using skis to bring the mail across the Rockies in 1856!"
Johannsen was born in Norway in 1875 and spent his childhood roaming the forests. He remembered having barrel staves for skis when he was two years old. He continued his life outdoors after emigrating to the U.S. in 1899 while he worked selling machinery in northern Ontario. He especially loved skiing into the Canadian forest with his dog pulling his gear and made money as one of the few salesmen who would bushwhack.
While stopping with Cree Indians on these trips, he tried to convince them that they would move faster on skis than snowshoes. He played hare and hounds with Cree friends and was so quick that they named him "Chief Jackrabbit," a nickname that stuck throughout his life.
Johannsen moved to the Adirondacks in the 1920s and became instrumental in designing cross-country and downhill trails throughout the Northeast. He designed trails for the Lake Placid Club, Mont Tremblant, Stowe and, with Hannes Schneider and Otto Schniebs, Marble Mountain, the first development on Whiteface. Jackrabbit stayed on cross-country skis throughout his first hundred years, placing third in the Stowe Derby at age 72. He died in Norway in 1986 at age 111.
Rope tows were operating in the Lake Placid area throughout the 1930s and 1940s, mostly on hotel property. Yet downhill skiing lagged behind cross-country and jumping, just as it had in Scandinavia. George Martin, once a ski jumper, was involved in planning and cutting three 50 kilometer cross-country trails for the 1932 Olympic Games, one of which looped around Whiteface. But because the snow had melted on race day the course had to be shortened.
Otto Schniebs played a part in the development of downhill skiing at Lake Placid. He was certified in the Black Forest, came to Massachusetts in 1927 and began teaching skiing to members of the Appalachian Mountain Club. In 1936 he ran the ski school at Lake Placid. And in 1938 he and Hal Burton from Keene laid out a Class A downhill racing trail with a 2700-foot vertical drop on Little Whiteface. In a famous one-liner, he anticipated the world of a later generation of dedicated skiers. "Scheeing iss not a schport, it iss a vay of life."
Another major boon to the future of downhill skiing came from an unrelated project, the eight-mile road up Whiteface. With Colorado's road up Pikes Peak as a model, the push to create a comparable road in New York began. Earlier, in 1895 a law guaranteed that the Adirondack Forest would remain forever wild. So to build the Whiteface Memorial Highway, an amendment to the state constitution had to be passed by two legislatures and approved by a statewide referendum, a process completed by 1927.
In 1929, Governor Franklin Roosevelt's spade started construction in the month before the stock market crash, and in 1935 then President Roosevelt dedicated it during the depths of the Great Depression. In the late1940s it became a major source of uphill transportation for downhill skiing at the new Marble Mountain development on the north slopes of Whiteface.
In November 1941 the New York electorate approved altering the state constitution once again, this time to create 20 miles of ski trails on the mountain's north and east faces. A month later the war put the project on hold until 1948. Marble Mountain, one of the Whiteface subpeaks, stands near the highway and thus became a prime site for ski development.
The first Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, had two sites, the lower one at Marble Mountain (2400 feet) with a T-bar and four rope tows on five trails cut by Jackrabbit. In April, 1949 he also submitted a plan for the 4400 foot site off the Wilmington turn of the highway. It had two rope tows serving an open slope, and the Wilmington trail linked the two sites. Tucker Sno-cats and Army trucks took skiers up the Whiteface highway to reach the upper site, and the highway also served as a beginners trail.
However, as meteorologist and historian Douglas Wolfe recalls, Marble was known for a "hellacious wind problem." He pointed to a one-sided flag tree outside the lodge window to illustrate his point. By 1955, the joint legislative committee in Albany considered the Marble development "a flop," and Governor Averell Harriman authorized an experimental trail on the eastern slope of the mountain.
Yet Marble Mountain, perhaps helped by the ambience of Lake Placid to compete with New England resorts, attract both serious skiers and celebrities. But in 1959-60, two seasons after Whiteface opened, Marble closed because its outmoded trail design and windswept surface could not compete with the new area.
Averell Harriman, who as chairman of Union Pacific Railway had built Sun Valley in Idaho, met Arthur Draper, manager at Bellayre, while skiing there. After Harriman became governor of New York in 1954, he worried about the deficits at Marble Mountain and consulted Draper. They skied together at Marble and discussed other sites in the state, finally selecting the east face of Whiteface for development. In 1957 $ 2.5 million was approved to cut trails, erect two chairlifts and build a base lodge.
On January 25, 1958 Harriman dedicated the new Whiteface Mountain Ski Center. Riding the chairlift on the first run of the day, Harriman was stuck high in the air and rescued, which made the national news and drew attention to the area.
The subsequent story of Whiteface unfolds variations on a single theme-expansion. The first major expansion in 1966 brought the vertical drop to 3,216 feet, the highest in the East. A second costing $14.5 million prepared Whiteface for the 1980 Winter Olympics. Under ORDA (Olympic Regional Development Authority) from 1998 to 2008 more than $26 million has been spent on expansion and improvements.
During these years, Whiteface has become a major venue for World Cup, North American and National competitions, as well as a training mountain for racing skiers. More than 70 years later, the legacy of the 1938 racing trail on Little Whiteface continues to grow.