Finding New Hampshire’s Lost Ski Areas

Gone but not forgotten, Jeremy Davis’ WebSite captures the history of New Hampshire’s closed and abandoned ski areas
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Mount Whittier, shown here, circa the 1960s, was the original inspiration for Jeremy Davis’ New England Lost Ski Areas Project. Of historical significance: The first four-person gondola in New Hampshire was installed at Mount Whittier in 1962.

There’s a distinct irony at the intersection where Jeremy Davis’ vocation meets his favorite pastime. At his real job, as operations manager for Weather Routing Incorporated in Upstate New York, Davis forecasts the future, helping to guide enormous tankers and cargo ships over the Seven Seas. But in his free time, Davis celebrates the past, embracing his avocation — the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, or NELSAP.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the way things change over time, how things evolve through history,” Davis says from his home outside Saratoga in  New York. That concept of change is key to a second irony, central to Davis’ fascination with lost ski areas. By putting his hobby on the internet, Davis has employed a modern, ever-expanding technology to capture and preserve a time that existed long before the World Wide Web was an integral part of our lives.

The 43-year-old Massachusetts native has written several books on the topic, including “Lost Ski Areas of the White Mountains.” But the website came first, and Davis readily admits it is better suited for the subject’s fluid nature.

“Things change, and I wanted to be able to record those changes,” he says. “So the website is always evolving.”

Davis, who graduated with a degree in meteorology from Lyndon State College (now Northern Vermont University), acknowledges that the timing of the NELSAP launch more than two decades ago couldn’t have been more fortuitous. During his sophomore year in 1998, just as the digital tidal wave was cresting, Davis unveiled the site on a free GeoCities site, using rudimentary Netscape Composer software. The inspiration was a childhood curiosity with closed ski areas, such as Mount Whittier in New Hampshire and Mount Agamenticus in southern Maine, which his family came across during their travels.

 

“Mount Whittier was the first lost ski area that really got my attention. My family was going to North Conway for our first ski vacation in 1990, and we passed the area on the way up on Route 16,” says Davis. “At that time, it had been closed for only five years, so the trails were still clear, and the lifts visible. I was fascinated by its gondola, which went over Route 16 — and still stands to this day — along with the boarded-up lodge. Why had it closed? What happened to it?”

At the time, Davis was only 12 years old, had just learned to ski, and it was long before you could simply pull out a phone and Google the answers. “On that same trip, we skied at Black Mountain in Jackson, and saw the abandoned Tyrol across the valley,” he adds. “All of these lost areas made me very curious to find out what they were all about. I loved being outdoors, hiking and exploring, and was starting to really love skiing, so all the interests tied together, and I started searching for more of them.”

The idea to put NELSAP on the internet sprung from an online newsletter penned by “The Colorado Skier,” an anonymous columnist who waxed eloquent on lost ski areas in the Rocky Mountains. Davis was already accessing the internet to further his meteorology studies, and “I just put what material I had out there,” he says.

The marriage between New England lost ski areas and cyberspace proved an instant hit. Davis started with six defunct areas, and expected to find another hundred or so. Maybe 200, at most. Instead, he uncovered more than 400 in just the first few years, revelations made possible by the internet’s extensive reach. He’s now recorded more than 600 lost areas in New England, and 172 in New Hampshire alone.

“I figured no one was interested in the stuff, but when I started the site, I was pleasantly surprised,” Davis says. “People started emailing me with their stories, or sending pictures. They got scanners, and digital cameras, and before you knew it, I started getting volumes of stuff, almost too much,” he says.

“It seems like an obscure topic — closed ski areas — but there’s a huge interest in it. Without the internet, I would’ve never been able to find all these people. Now, people can share what they know, and it becomes a real collaborative effort.”

 

Ingrid Carlson DeWitt of Freedom, New Hampshire, understands. The daughter of Scandinavian parents, the 65-year-old was born in Massachusetts, and moved to Jackson when she was only 8. She lived just a half-mile from the base of Tyrol, and her father taught skiing at Black Mountain’s Arthur Doucette Ski School. Jackson’s Thorn Mountain had already closed in 1956.

As a teenager, DeWitt began racing at Wildcat and Cranmore, and spent weekends hiking Mount Washington and skiing Tuckerman Ravine.

“That was our fun in the late ’60s, early ’70s,” DeWitt says. “To me, it’s the evolution of skiing, how far we have come, and the great times we had as families skiing together, that is so nostalgic. Most of my fondest childhood memories are from the sport of skiing.”

 

Within months of launching the NELSAP site, Davis embraced an entire demographic that shared his love of New England ski lore. The fledgling site set off an avalanche of memories among thousands of skiers, young and old alike, and particularly baby boomers now taking the time to look in their own rearview mirrors at bygone winters.

“People like that lost-Americana stuff, like lost diners, lost railroads, lost amusement parks. This idea fits into that,” Davis says. “It’s all fun, all positive memories. We’re representing the good times from the past for a lot of people.”

Glenn Parkinson, former president of the New England Ski Museum in North Conway New Hampshire, appreciates the deep vein that Davis has struck. Parkinson coined the phrase “lost ski areas” in “First Tracks,” his book on Maine ski history. He added a final chapter on lost ski areas as an afterthought.

“It really struck a chord, and made ski history local and made it personal.Jeremy took it one step further by putting it on the internet,” says Parkinson. “What Jeremy has done with NELSAP is tap into people who are in their teens, 20s and 30s, as well as their 50s and 60s,” he says. “It brings people into see their own personal history, and that sparks an interest in the broader context of ski history.”

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Guidebooks, brochures and ads from the ’50s and ’60s enticed skiers to the area with their amenities, country charm and low prices.

 

Narrowly defined, Davis’ site catalogs these lost ski areas by state, ranging from tiny backyard slopes to larger resorts. Many were cozy hills with a surface lift or two, maybe a lodge or warming hut, and about a half dozen trails. Each has its own link, and corresponding page filled with whatever material Davis has gathered. The site isn’t fancy, and that was by design.

“I purposely kept it very simple and clean, without a lot of flash and dash,” Davis says. “But it’s well organized, loads quickly on most computers, and people can find things very easily. If I spent all my time devising all of this crazy imaging or discussion boards on every page, it would become unmanageable, and I wouldn’t have the time to do the research.”

Still, relegating NELSAP to narrow definitions is a disservice. In reality, the NELSAP site is a vibrant, teeming community, a living history of a sport that, for many, is synonymous with New England winters. At its most popular, the site averaged close to 1,000 visitors daily. Today, the corresponding NELSAP Facebook page has more than 5,000 followers, with some posts having more than 10,000 views. The average reach of a NELSAP post is between 1,000 and 2,000 views.

That’s because, with each ski area, the site captures a place and time capable of unleashing a torrent of tales. NELSAP mends a frayed connection strained by the passing of decades — a cyberworld where temperamental lifts run from sunrise to sunset, snow flies forever, and cups of hot chocolate are bottomless.

Across the six-state region, particularly New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, today’s mega-resorts advertise images of graceful turns on manicured slopes. It’s easy to forget that Alpine skiing as we know it, either as a sport or livelihood, didn’t exist a century ago.

 

In those 100 short years, the sport has undergone a dramatic transformation. With the advent of rope tows and chairlifts, ski areas began popping up like drive-in theaters. Soon, ski trains started hauling well-heeled adventurers from the urban centers of Boston and New York to northern outposts like Stowe, Vermont, and Plymouth and North Conway, New Hampshire. Small local areas — true mom-and-pop operations — sprouted everywhere, spawning a new generation of skiers and establishing a relatively inexpensive feeder system for the big resorts.

Most of those small areas, sadly, have vanished. The 1970s were especially harsh on local slopes, when the confluence of high gas and electricity prices, a spike in insurance premiums, and several severe snow droughts forced many to close. Some areas that were once thought to be deceased — Mittersill near Cannon, Snow Mountain at Waterville Valley, Whaleback alongside I-89, and Tenney Mountain outside Plymouth — have managed to be resuscitated. Highlands in Northfield, shuttered in 1995, is now a dedicated mountain bike park.

But more often, a padlock was slapped on the base lodge, and owners simply walked away. For others, equipment was auctioned off. All left behind spectral trails that grew dimmer, or simply more overgrown, with each passing year.

Yet, like any history, evidence of these “lost areas” remains, and Davis is posting every piece of proof he can on NELSAP’s website. Visitors will discover sepia-toned photographs and illustrated trail maps, brochures and patches, newspaper accounts and magazine articles. Much of the proof is ephemeral and elusive — it’s memories and oral tales passed on to generations, recollections of those who braved Old Man Winter to don leather boots and strap on bear-trap bindings and wooden boards. In recent years, many libraries have started digitizing old microfilm collections, providing even more raw material for Davis to mine.

There are also tangible vestiges of these bygone slopes — base lodge foundations, lift shacks and engines, tower stanchions, and sometimes entire lifts. These remnants, distant cousins of the hand-built stone walls that lace old farms dating back to Colonial times, are cables tying us to the past, and New England’s ski legacy.

“You can almost see all the people having fun, the way things used to be,” says Davis, acknowledging that the kinship that once defined the sport is fading. “It’s definitely different experience now, and a lot of these areas are catering to the upper-class vacationer, rather than the neighborhood kid.”

 

Azra Palo, a native of Bosnia who came to the United States when she was 4, first learned about NELSAP in 2009 while still in high school, when she collaborated with the Laconia Historical Society to create a ski exhibit. She now has a much more intimate relationship.

“When my husband and I moved to Londonderry in the summer of 2021, the sellers mentioned we had a lost ski area on our property, and I was so excited,” says Palo. “While it may technically not be on our property — my husband looked at the property lines and disagrees — I still would like to think we’re connected to Birchwood. One of my co-workers at the Nesmith Library in Windham told me that her children learned to ski at Birchwood.”

Birchwood ski area operated for two decades, from 1965 to 1985, on a 175-acre lot “originally purchased by my grandfather, Edward Misiaszek,” says Peter Miciaszek Jr., whose parents Lillian and Peter ran the operation. The hill featured seven trails and three lifts.

“The main reason why the ski area was opened was to keep all the employees of the family construction company, Derry Paving, busy in the winter. The ski area was definitely a family-run business,” wrote Misiaszek in a note to Davis.

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The Thorn Mountain base area and chairlift, viewed from the top, circa 1960s.

“My mother Lillian ran the snack bar, hence the name ‘Lil’s Snack Bar,’ which offered a full range of food and snacks for breakfast through dinner,” he wrote. “We also offered a ski school — every local elementary school participated — a rental shop, and night skiing.”

Birchwood even sponsored a race team — the “Birchwood Bombers” — that consisted of 30 to 40 local children, ranging from ages 7 to 16, and hosted an annual winter carnival.  The area closed after the 1985 season, in part because thieves, during the subsequent summer, “stole the snowmaking pipes right off of the ground,” wrote Misiaszek. “My father tells me that the Londonderry police saw the trucks leaving with the pipes, but thought they were workers from the construction company.”

That’s exactly the type of unique memories readers can expect to find on the NELSAP site. And Birchwood is just one area plucked from dozens throughout the Granite State. Today, the flow of photographs, memorabilia and written recollections that Davis receives continues unabated. “The floodgates are open,” Davis says.

“But the great thing about emails is that they never go away. I have all that information, and it’s all great stuff,” he says. “This is what the internet should be used for, taking things that would otherwise be long forgotten, and making them available for everyone.”

 

Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum, first met Davis at the International Ski History Congress in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002.

“He was the youngest guy there by decades. By then, he had built up NELSAP into a phenomenal resource. I recall thinking that he’d identified something analogous to the huge interest that existed, and still exists, in western ghost towns,” Leich says.

“Abandoned ski areas and ghost towns both elicit a strong response,” he adds. “My guess is that it has to do with nostalgia for a simpler past, mixed with a connection with the physical landscapes of the West and snow. And, in the case of ski areas, it’s perhaps connected to memories of family mixed with love of the sport.”

Davis is now a member of the ski museum’s board of directors, and he credits the organization with working hard “to preserve this history for future generations. The museum has a tremendous reservoir of materials and information that has been permanently saved.” Leich adds that the museum and NELSAP have since developed a nice symbiotic relationship.

“We currently have an interactive Lost Ski Area display in our North Conway branch that uses Jeremy’s database to track the opening and closing of the 600 or so areas over time by means of a sliding bar that visitors use to go forward or backward in time,” Leich says. “It’s very popular, and it’s fascinating to see the lights representing ski areas blink on and off as time goes along.”

Davis also loves sleuthing lost areas year-round, on skis, snowshoes and on foot, and occasionally organizes NELSAP outings. What’s the attraction? “Why do you go to a ghost town?” Parkinson replies. “It’s the mystery.”

Many abandoned areas, Parkinson says, are worth visiting any time of year. “When was the last time you saw ski area built in an ugly place?” he asks. “They tend to be in beautiful settings.”

 

For Davis, seeing the slopes in person brings them to life, strengthening that bond.

“When I visit these areas, I always try to find pictures from newspapers and magazines, to see what they were like 20, 30, 40 years ago,” he says. “You can just use your imagination, like a Polaroid camera, to erase the trees, and eventually see the place as it looked back then.”

Improved technology is also making virtual visits easier. Davis accesses satellite photography from TerraServer and Google Earth to zoom in on abandoned resorts. “The quality and accuracy is just amazing,” he says. “I can now measure exactly how long the lift line was at a ski area, and the vertical drop, and the width of the trails. It’s crazy.”

Aside from Mount Whittier and Jackson’s tandem of Tyrol and Thorn Mountain, Davis has several favorite lost areas, including King Ridge in Sutton, which closed in 1995, and Brookline Ski Area/Big Bear/Musket Mountain in Brookline, an area that operated, off and on, from 1936 to 1984, and is now New England’s largest outdoor sculpture park — the Andres Institute of Art.

“Wendy’s Slope/Frontenac/Lynx Creek in Plymouth was a lost area dating back to the 1930s, founded by Wendy Hiltie, a Swiss ski instructor. The area eventually merged with Frontenac on the other side of the hill. The [Frontenac] side closed, but the Wendy’s side stayed open with the Frontenac name,” Davis says. “It had one of the steepest T-bars in New England,” he adds. “It closed for a time, then reopened for just a few weeks under a new name, Lynx Creek, in 1995.”

A night-skiing ticket was only $5, and Davis discovered, much to his consternation, just how incredibly steep the T-bar was.

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The remains of the ski lift at Frontenac, before it was dismantled and reinstalled at Cosmic Hill, Vermont.

“My friend Dave accidentally tripped the safety gate at the top, stopping the lift, leaving me hanging on for dear life on the steepest section,” he says. “It was so icy, getting off would have been dangerous. It took 15 minutes for them to fix the lift.” When they finally got to the top, he says, the soft snow from earlier in the day was frozen solid, and it was almost impossible to get an edge.

“We took a run down one of the woods trails that looked easier, but the lighting ended halfway down, so we had to try to ski in the dark. Needless to say, we only got a few runs in that night, and the area closed a few days later, never to reopen.”

Time’s inexorable march continues to claim ski areas, bringing a sense of urgency to Davis’ efforts that technology can’t remedy.

“Time is running out to document a lot of the areas, particularly the more obscure ones,” he says. “They’re either being developed, or they’ve grown in so much that they’re totally indistinguishable.”

There’s also the human component. Memories fade, and the oldest skiers get, well, older. Many of them are now gone, taking their memories and stories with them.

“It’s definitely a rush against time,” says Davis. “There are very few people left now that owned or managed ski areas in the ’40s,  ’50s, or even the  ’60s. However, lots of the family members still are.”

“At some point in the next 10 to 20 years, it will be even more difficult to get firsthand information from that time frame,” he says. “Collecting and finding material, even if it can’t be used right away, is so important.”

For those of us who remain, and remember, NELSAP offers a welcome run down Memory Lane, long after our cherished childhood areas have faded from the New Hampshire landscape.

Categories: Family-friendly things to do, Winter Sports