The History of Cranmore
Cranmore Mountain has partnered with the New England Ski Museum to present this definitive history of the resort. You can also view a New England Ski Museum exhibit at Cranmore's main base lodge. Visitors to North Conway can also visit the North Conway Public Library to view an extensive collection of photos from the personal archives of Cranmore's founder, Harvey Dow Gibson. The library is located in North Conway Village on Route 16.
It all started with Carroll Reed
Boston insurance man Carroll Reed was injured while skiing the Wildcat Trail in 1934, and as he recovered read an article about European ski schools. He became determined to bring the concept to the U.S., and convinced the innkeepers of Jackson, NH to fund the costs of hiring a ski instructor to teach their guests to ski. Reed’s ski school, the Eastern Slope Ski School, engaged Benno Rybizka of the highly respected Hannes Schneider Ski School of St. Anton, Austria for the winter of 1937.
In spite of poor snow conditions for much of the winter of 1937, skimeister Benno Rybizka, idealized here in the poster by Tyler Micoleau, taught approximately 6,000 lessons on the pastures of Jackson. He trained a group of local youths, mostly hockey players, to assist him in teaching ski lessons, and in the spring escorted his American protégés to Austria, where they passed the rigorous and prestigious Austrian State Ski certification exam. Tyler Micoleau, J. Arthur Doucette, Arthur Callan and Francis Savard were the local ski teachers of the ESSS who became Austrian-certified instructors.
Harvey Dow Gibson grew up in North Conway, attended Bowdoin College, and became one of the foremost American financiers of his day. When his daughter spent a vacation in Jackson learning to ski in Reed’s ski school, he set his sights on developing a ski area in his native North Conway. He chose Cranmore Mountain, then called Lookout Mountain, for his ski area, and convinced Carroll Reed to sell his interest in the Eastern Slope Ski School in the fall of 1938. Benno Rybizka moved his lessons to North Conway, while a second instructor from St. Anton, Franz Kössler, was brought over to handle lessons in Jackson.
In the winter of 1936, about the time that Carroll Reed was planning for his ski school, local notables including Dr. Harold Shedd, Noel Wellman and Chuck Emerson formed the Eastern Slope Ski Club to promote the area as a skiing destination, and to ensure that all local youths would be exposed to the new and growing sport. In the winter of 1939 the club started their Junior Program that allowed all local children to obtain ski equipment and take ski lessons; that program continues to serve all elementary school students in Conway today.
Harvey Gibson's Cranmore
Harvey Gibson’s new ski resort opened in the winter of 1937-38, with a rope tow originally built by Carroll Reed in Jackson serving as the lift. Lodging was provided at the Eastern Slope Inn in downtown North Conway, the almost-new former Hotel Randall that Gibson bought to pair with the ski hill. As time went on a new annex and cottages were added to the hotel, and refinements like the Swiss Orchestra, composed of members of the Swiss Orchestra that had performed at the Paris and New York World's Fairs, were added.
At a time when the few ski areas were found in New England had narrow, twisting trails, Gibson created wide swaths of open terrain suggestive of the alpine landscapes of Austria. A grant of $15,000 from the Works Progress Administration and assistance from the town of Conway were instrumental in clearing the roughly 200 acres of open slopes.
The personable Austrian ski instructors of the Hannes Schneider Ski School added a glamorous, exotic element to Cranmore and the Eastern Slope Inn. Here Benno Rybizka, Toni Matt, Otto Tschol and Franz Kössler toast New Year’s Eve, 1938 at the Inn, about six weeks before they would be joined by their mentor, Hannes Schneider himself.
Toni Matt was a promising young racer in St. Anton whose career took off just as he arrived in America. Between his 1938-39 arrival and his 1942 enlistment in the American mountain infantry, Matt won most of the downhill races he entered. He is well-remembered for his 1939 schuss of the Tuckerman Ravine headwall in the American Inferno, but he won races on the national stage, including the US Downhill Championships in 1939 and 1941. Here is seen with Connie Davis, who with her style and flair personified for many the allure of the Eastern Slope Region. She was a businesswoman, the first female president of the North Conway Chamber of Commerce, and a devoted ski instructor in the Junior Program.
George Morton's Skimobile
Harvey Gibson consulted with his friend and fellow magnate Averill Harriman, who had just opened the definitive ski resort in Sun Valley, and was advised by him to build his resort around the best possible uphill tramway available. Having just introduced the chairlift to the world in Sun Valley, Harriman perhaps envisioned his invention installed on Cranmore, but Gibson hired a local mechanic, George Morton, who proceeded to invent a new ski lift. Morton had been a partner in building one of the earliest overhead cable lifts in Jackson in the winter of 1936, a lift form that was a great improvement over the rope tow.
Morton’s lift featured 60 cars that ascended a wooden trestle, pulled by a cable under the track. Gibson named the new lift the "Skimobile", and the ski world was introduced to a new form of uphill transportation. Here, construction of the wooden trestle proceeds in 1938.
The first Skimobile trestle ascended Cranmore to the halfway point, and its popularity in its first season, as well as Hannes Schneider’s insistence, led to the construction in the summer of 1939 of an upper trestle that reached the summit of the mountain.
At the transition point between the upper and lower trestles of the Skimobile, passengers had to change cars. This elaborate platform and pair of buildings was located where the two trestles met. This was the only Skimobile ever built with two trestles, although a similar lift, called a trestle car, was built at the Homestead resort in Virginia.
The Arrival of Hannes Schneider
Hannes Schneider built a very impressive business for himself and his town of St. Anton am Arlberg in the 1920s and 1930s, and had increased his influence with the founding, with Englishman Arnold Lunn of the Kandahar Ski Club, of the Arlberg-Kandahar Race in 1928. According to Lunn, the success of Schneider's technique of instruction "was due less to its tenets…than to the personality of Hannes, a born leader of men. He created a mystique, and it was this mystique which made the Arlberg famous throughout the world". Schneider's appearances in the mountain films of Arnold Fanck made him a sports star known in the ski world and beyond.
Schneider had never shied away from expressing his views, and when the Nazi takeover of Austria occurred in 1938 Schneider's spurning of an invitation to join the Nazis, his friendship with Walter Bernays and Rudolph Gomperz, both Jewish, his Austrian patriotism, and the grudges held by some who had once worked in his ski school resulted in his imprisonment by Austrian Nazis. Though released to house arrest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen Germany after 25 days in prison, the climate in St. Anton precluded his return there and his future was very much in doubt. Here, Schneider’s ski shop and guest house in St. Anton is seen defaced by vandalism.
When Schneider’s imprisonment became known in the US, Harvey Gibson immediately had his London representative appeal to the German government for his release. Gibson had considerable influence on the German economy by virtue of his chairmanship of the American Committee for the Short Term Creditors of Germany. Though details of the negotiations that led to freedom for Schneider are not known to this day, Gibson was able to offer Schneider a 5-year contract that included housing, and in early 1939, Schneider and his family were allowed to leave Europe. They arrived in North Conway on February 11, 1939, to a festive welcome under an arch of ski poles held by ESSC juniors.
Hannes Schneider and his son Herbert skied at Cranmore on the day of their arrival. With Hannes Schneider operating the ski school, Cranmore instantly became an important resort in the world of skiing. The Schneiders remained in North Conway despite many opportunities in other parts of the U.S. Hannes traveled widely to consult with other developing ski resorts, and on occasion to wartime Washington to consult on the concept of mountain and ski troops, but he had found a home in North Conway and did not look further. The log cabin base lodge in the background can still be found within today’s Arlberg Lodge.
The War Years
The Invention of Grooming, and Cranmore Skiers in the Mountain Infantry
In 1940 Cranmore, with its west-facing slopes, heavy skier traffic, and solid financial resources became the first ski resort to develop a serious program of snow grooming. The Magic Carpet, a chain-link mat weighing 1200 pounds, with ice caulks designed for use on horseshoes welded to the underside, was used to break up crusts resulting from rain or sun. Several forms of rollers were also used, and calcium chloride was applied to the ledges to thaw and refreeze snow so it stuck to the underlying rock.
This ski-mounted road grader dragged by a Tucker Sno-cat proved effective in slope grooming in the days before snow tractors had blades. Bromley in Vermont, owned by brewing heir Fred Pabst, was another ski area that experimented with early grooming techniques.
Even before America’s entry into World War II in December 1941, plans were made by the military for a specialized unit skilled in mountain and winter warfare. Three regiments of mountain infantry were formed, eventually combined to form the 10th Mountain Division. More than twenty skiers from the Eastern Slope Region entered the US mountain troops, including Toni Matt, left, and Herbert Schneider. Otto Tschol, Bradford Boynton, J. Arthur Doucette, Bob and Nate Morrell, Shirley Jodrie, Alec Behr, Fred Hartwell, John McDonald, Milton Porter, John D. Reid, Walter Neuron and Bernard Peters, all of them ski instructors in the Hannes Schneider ski schools of the valley at one time, served with the 10th , most of them in the elite ranks of military ski and mountaineering instructors.
The 10th Mountain Division trained for two winters at Camp Hale, Colorado prior to being sent to Italy in late 1944, where they fought with distinction in a short but severe campaign in the Apennine Mountains. Following the war, many veterans of the 10th got involved in the growing ski business. Two of the most famous ski areas founded by 10th veterans were near Camp Hale. Aspen was identified as an area with great ski potential by Friedl Pfeifer, a Hannes Schneider protégé, and Vail was developed by one-time Eastern Slope Inn golf course caddy Pete Seibert.
Postwar North Conway
Weekend snow trains from Boston provided easy access to Cranmore for thousands of skiers whose transportation options were limited by the Depression and later by wartime gasoline rationing. The trains were as much a social occasion as they were a transportation mode. Cranmore was one of the largest ski resorts in the country in the 1940s due in large part to the snow trains.
The Eastern Slope Ski Club junior racing program at Cranmore was embraced by Hannes Schneider after his arrival, just as he had always supported junior competition in St. Anton. The program developed a number of nationally competitive skiers, including Brooks Dodge, Imogene Opton, Terry and Tyler Palmer, David Currier, Abbi Fisher and Leanne Smith.
Imogene Opton, right, and Brooks Dodge, background, prepare their skis during the 1952 Olympics. Gold medalist Andrea Mead Lawrence of Vermont is on the left. Dodge placed 6th in the Men’s GS, while Opton skied to a 5th in Women’s Slalom. Dodge learned to ski with Franz Kössler in the Jackson ski school, while Opton skied at Cranmore, following Toni Matt and Hannes Schneider.
Edi Mall of St. Anton and the Cranmore ski school congratulates Leona Reny on her victory in the Gibson Race in 1956. She grew up in North Conway skiing with the Eastern Slope Ski Club, and did well at the national level in the mid-1950s. The ESSC financed her travels to races in Sun Valley and Alta, as it did for other talented racers of the area. Leona Reny developed multiple sclerosis, which ended her skiing days.