A Catskill Catalog: Dec. 23, 2009
Skiing came to the Catskills in the wake of the 1932 Winter Olympics, in the Adirondacks’ Lake Placid, an event, which made outdoor winter recreation a sudden sensation. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was enlisted by the New York State Conservation Department to cut trails on Catskill peaks suitable for summer hiking and winter skiing. In the mid-’30s, trails were created on Pakatakan Ridge behind Margaretville, on Hunter Mountain, Diamond Notch, and Woodland Valley.
The few intrepid souls who wanted to ski had to climb up to ski down. That changed in 1936 with the opening of Simpson’s Memorial Ski Slope on Romer Mountain in Woodland Valley, the first Catskill Mountain slope with a mechanized means of ascent.
Simpson’s was an example of a creative public-private partnership. The Simpson brothers. James, Carroll, and Mickey, donated six acres of family land to the state. This allowed the CCC to clear the two-and-one-half mile ski trail, which was dedicated as a memorial to their father, Jay, who had been the state forest ranger in the region. On adjacent family-owned property, the brothers constructed a rope tow, powered by a 1929 Buick engine, to haul skiers uphill.
Pay to go up. Ski free on the way down.
Simpson’s was not only a pioneering ski area in the Catskills, but an early outpost of skiing in the nation at large. Ski trains out of New York began, in January 1936, to bring hundreds of weekend skiers to Phoenicia. The first such ski trains in America had been launched only seven years earlier, bringing skiers out of Boston to a New Hampshire slope.
In fact, skiing had been in America for only 30 years, or so, when the Simpson brothers began their Catskill Mountain operation. In 1905, Michigan’s Carl Tellefsen, a Norwegian-American, founded the National Ski Association, making him the “Father of organized skiing in America,” kind of the Abner Doubleday of the U.S. sport. In 1911, C.A. Lund started the first American ski factory in Minnesota, and nine years later Norwegian Henrik Jacobsen became the first paid ski instructor in America, up in Lake Placid.
So when skiing came to the Catskills, it was still in its infancy, or at least toddler-hood, in America.
World War II had a profound effect on American skiing. Many Austrian ski instructors came to the U.S. in the prewar period to escape the German annexation of their country. After the war, American veterans of the 10th Mountain Division returned home eager to continue to ski as they had been trained in order to fight in Alpine conditions.
Here at home, in the 1940s, the Davenport family opened Highmount Ski Center, on the northwest side of Belleayre Mountain. Like Simpson’s, Highmount was close to the railroad, accessible for weekend skiers. But waiting for the snow to fall can make the ski business a precarious one, and Highmount, like so many other small ski centers, couldn’t afford expensive snowmaking equipment. Unable to compete in a business dependent on Mother Nature, Highmount closed in the early ’90s.
Man-made snow made its public debut in 1952 at Grosinger’s Resort in Sullivan County. A snowmaking machine had been invented two years earlier by Wayne Pierce, a Milford, Connecticut ski manufacturer distressed by a drop in ski sales during a dry winter. Pierce combined a paint-spraying compressor, a nozzle, and a garden hose to create frozen hexagonal crystals – snow.
Plattekill, in Roxbury, is one small family-run center that continues to operate. The 3,500-foot mountain has 35 ski trails, a number of which double as mountain bike trails in the warmer months.
As early as 1936, ski enthusiasts began to talk about skiing from the 3,429 foot summit of Belleayre Mountain, down its north face, perhaps all the way into the Village of Pine Hill. Belleayre seemed like a perfect ski mountain. Only problem: the mountain was contained in the Catskill Forest Preserve, proclaimed “forever wild” by the New York State Constitution.
After the war, the wheels were set in motion to amend the constitution to allow the state Conservation Department to build a ski center at Belleayre. After legislative approval, voters, in 1948, passed an amendment to Article 14 of the state constitution allowing for the construction of a ski center in the forest preserve. Belleayre was born.
Belleayre opened in the winter of 1949-50, with five trails, a rope tow, a lodge or two, parking for 300 cars, and the state’s first chair lift. Today, after multiple expansions, Belleayre boasts 47 trails, eight lifts, four lodges, and 96 percent of its 171 skiable acres covered in man-made snow. As a state facility, Belleayre serves as an economic stimulus for the Catskill region, as well as a provider of recreation.
In 1959, Orville and Israel Slutzky, Hunter businessmen, proposed the construction of a ski center to boost their village’s sagging economy. They advertised in the New York Herald Tribune for backers and got financing from lyricist Oscar Hammerstein’s son and a consortium of Broadway and Hollywood figures. The Slutzky brothers’ construction firm did the work. Today Hunter has 12 lifts and 58 trails and is a major economic engine on the Mountaintop.
The Catskills have been good for skiing. Skiing has been good for the Catskills.