Vail Ski Museum column: Rope tows, chairlifts transformed skiing
VAIL, Colorado – As a result of the growing popularity of collegiate skiing and a larger European influence during the 1920s and ’30s, skiing grew from a local to a regional sport. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran the first “snow train” from Boston to mountains in New Hampshire in 1931. The success of snow trains created a boom in the number of skiers throughout the 1930s, since ski mountains were now accessible.However, many of the passengers to mountains for the weekend were still young, affluent people with an appetite for outdoor recreation, creating a social prestige associated with snow trains and tanned faces. This popularized skiing more widely among upper and middle class citizens.In January of 1934 The Rutland Herald claimed that Woodstock, Vt., had installed the first motor ski-tow in America, which “ushered in the modern era in American downhill skiing,” according to Vermont Life, and dramatically changed the ski industry across the country as rope tows, chairlifts, and aerial tramways attracted more skiers. An increase in rope tows across Vermont sharply increased the learning curve for beginners and skiers could complete more runs in a day than they could before the ski tows.As more people took up the sport, a weekend environment developed throughout ski areas in Vermont. Many ski clubs and individuals who built rope tows did it for the love of the sport, not for profitability. Snow trains began carrying more skiing enthusiasts for weekend trips, centralizing the local Vermont ski industry. Small towns adapted in order to capitalize on the increasing number of winter visitors. Resorts were built closer to train stops and the physical composition of the mountain was altered as the idea of “ski areas” capable of making a profit developed. As the influx of new skiers required more qualified instruction, European ski instructors filled the need, greatly influencing the culture of the sport. In 1937, Vermont decided to make Stowe into a “destination resort” with the best terrain, uphill transportation, and the most comfortable facilities, drawing in the greatest number of skiers. The area turned into a mecca for Eastern skiing. Sun Valley became America’s “destination resort” in 1936 when the Union Pacific railway developed a ski resort only accessible by their transportation, and the area replaced the Alps as the destination for America’s upper class skiers. The same year, Sun Valley revealed the world’s first chairlift and became a model for a successful ski resort. A similar trend towards centralization of ski areas was occurring in the Colorado Rockies. Up until the 1930s, Colorado ski hills were almost exclusively for local populations. As Ralph Lafferty, a 10th Mountain veteran said, “In the wintertime probably there would be maybe 15 to 20 people up in our snowcountry and that was it. … To ski we would climb a slope, pack it out, and have short runs downhill – if you want to call it ‘downhill.'” Centralization of ski areas in Colorado did not occur until ski areas attracted Denver residents and provided them with easy and reliable transportation to the mountains. In 1936, this is exactly what the snow train in Denver did, and it turned skiing into a regional activity. While Colorado’s mountains held better snow and steeper terrain than the Northeast, it lacked easy accessibility. In 1940 the state set out to create a recreational ski area near Denver: Winter Park. Until World War II began, Winter Park existed as Colorado’s most successful ski area without a chairlift or expert terrain.Throughout the 1930s, there was incredible growth in the American ski industry. Wealthy Northeastern skiers, transportation advances and European ski instructors all helped to produce a modern, centralized ski industry in both Colorado and Vermont. The sport of skiing was promoted and available to young, enthusiastic outdoorsmen, many of whom would soon join the ranks of the 10th Mountain Division, and revive the ski industry after they returned from the war. To learn more about the history of skiing in the 1920s and ’30s, as well as the beginnings of the 10th Mountain Division, visit the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum in Vail Village.
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