The following article, by Gordon DuBois, was published by the Laconia Daily Sun
Laconia — February 6, 2017 — Many travelers driving on Route 16 in Ossipee must wonder about the large stanchions sitting near the junction with Route 25, in the McDonald’s parking lot. They probably ask themselves, “What are those towers used for?” Those towers are recollections of the past, when small ski areas dotted the New Hampshire landscape. The towering relics of a bygone era carried skiers to the summit house of the Mt. Whittier Ski Area. (Mt. Whittier is actually a misnomer as the ski area sits on the side of Grant Peak and Mt. Whittier lies further to the west).
It was common to find ski hills in most every community, sometimes several. In New Hampton, where I live, there was the New Hampton School ski area on Burleigh Mountain and Mail Box Hill on Old Bristol Road. Remnants of these areas can still be seen, including the tow houses that held the car engines which ran the lift. I remember an older resident of New Hampton who used to ski Mailbox Hill telling the story of her scarf getting wrapped around the tow rope and being dragged up the hill, almost into the engine gears, before the tow was stopped.
From Colebrook Tow in Colebrook to Morris Hill in Hampstead, family and locally owned ski areas were the places where children learned to ski and families spent weekends enjoying winter fun together, without having to spend a lot of money. There were over 200 small and medium size ski areas that operated throughout the state. Locally, the Arlberg Inn ran a small operation in the 1950s. The Gilford Outing Club operated a rope tow on Route 11A near Gunstock from 1950 to 1992. In the 1930s, Fred Weeks used his dairy farm on Weeks Road in Gilford to bring skiers from Boston and ski the west side of Mt Rowe. A few small ski areas still remain such as Mt. Eustis in Littleton and the Red Hill Family Ski Area in Center Sandwich, but these are rare.
In the 1970s and early ’80s I used to drive by the Mt. Whittier Ski Area on my way to Maine. The parking lot on Route 16 was filled with cars and the tram was busy shuffling would-be skiers up the mountain to the summit. Since Mt. Whittier closed in 1985 the area has fallen into decay. Trails have become almost completely overgrown. Lifts have degraded to the point that they could never operate again. Despite all this, the gondola cable still remains, along with the towers, including one in a McDonald’s parking lot. The owners tried to resurrect the area in the form of an amusement park, but could never seem to make a go of it. The towers are a reminder of times long past.
Having wanted to explore the abandoned Mt. Whittier Mountain Ski Area for many years, I decided to head up to Ossipee and see what I could find of the once thriving ski resort. I was accompanied by several friends, Steve, Beth, Ken and Karen who were also intrigued by the idea of revisiting the defunct resort. We were not to be disappointed. We arrived at the parking lot off Route 25 near the junction of Route 16 and followed Newman Drew Road. Just past the Bear Camp Campgrounds, we found the gondola towers climbing up the side of the mountain. We pulled off, put on our winter hiking packs and snow shoes and headed up the lift line. The Mueller four-person gondola was installed around 1963 and was one of the first of its kind to be built in this country. It was unique because it started at the parking lot on Route 16 and picked up skiers at a mid-station. The area was started in 1949, and at its height operated rope tows, several T-bars, and the gondola lift on 80 acres of terrain.
After a short time climbing the lift line, we spotted the gondola base station, now decrepit and falling into disrepair. However, the cables, gears, pulleys and large geared wheels were still in place, as well as the loading platform. We continued climbing the steep incline following the still existent cable and towers to a sharp ice covered rock ledge. Here we made our way into the woods to bushwhack up the side of the mountain. After returning to the lift line, we eyed the summit gondola station along with the snack bar perched at the summit. Once we reached the top of the mountain we were stunned by the amazing views: the Sandwich Range, Mt. Kearsarge, Ossipee Lake and the hills of Maine. I could understand why the gondola ran year-round, carrying summer tourist and winter skiers to the summit restaurant to experience the fantastic views. We found relics laying around the station: signs, cables, lift machinery and even a rusted tank truck with an unknown purpose. The ski trails from the summit were obscured by trees that had grown back since the area was closed. The forest was in the process of reclaiming what had been taken away over 60 years ago. Nature always has a way of filling a void.
After our explorations on the summit, we began a slow and tedious climb down the mountain, trying to find the once wide open, steep slopes. The slopes, which cascaded down the mountain, are now covered with trees and bushes. We cautiously wove around stands of trees, shrubs and rock ledges trying to find even a semblance of a ski trail. We stumbled into an abandoned T-bar lift station, with cables and T-bars still in place. The steep terrain made footing tricky. As we lumbered our way along down the mountain, I pondered on the closing of Mt. Whittier. It was in an ideal location, right off a busy highway, great views from the summit and one of the first gondolas in the country. Why did it close? Several reasons: the steep and rocky terrain was not friendly to the beginner skier or a family, snow-making equipment was never installed, and the lift equipment was not upgraded or modified. Most importantly, the ski industry changed dramatically in the 1980s. The larger, more attractive ski resorts were only an hour’s drive further north. People wanted “more bang for their buck.”
When we reached the base of the mountain we discovered the T-bar tow house along with a map of the ski area and a few other relics. I looked up the mountain, toward the summit, and envisioned hordes of skiers racing down the slopes, the base lodge bustling with activity, skiers waiting in line to catch the next T-bar to pull them up the mountain, cars jammed into the parking lot, screams of children as they took their first spill on the beginner’s hill. As I stood on the abandoned grounds of Mt Whittier, the utter silence was mesmerizing. The stillness was briefly interrupted by a gentle breeze whistling through the empty, dilapidated buildings. Standing in this deserted lot, I only saw the wreckage of a ski area that at one time thrived. Mt. Whittier is among the many corpses of ski areas that used to flourish throughout New England. Now most of them are obscured by the forest that have overtaken their slopes and decomposed buildings.
We had a wonderful time exploring the ski area, looking at the past through the lens of the ruins we found on Grant Peak. In some ways it was a nostalgic hike, remembering the past when I skied the slopes of Sunday River, spending only $6 for a lift ticket and riding the T-bar. Now Sunday River is a sprawling, mega ski resort. Maybe you would like to explore Mt. Whittier or a lost ski area close to home. If you do, check out the web site: The New England Lost Ski Area Project. Perhaps you’ll have a chance to relive a blast from your past.