The Whiteface Chronicles

by Ed Hale | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. Ed Hale, former co-owner and editor of the Lake Placid News, wrote in 1993 about the birth of the ski center at Whiteface. Hale died in January 2018, at the age of 92.

Whiteface Mountain stands almost alone,
nuzzled by the lesser peaks of Esther, Marble and Lookout mountains, rising sharply from the Wilmington valley and the waters of Lake Placid. The sight of the 4,867-foot mountain, New York’s fifth highest peak, is enough to stir the imagination of any visitor, but the mountain holds a particular fascination for the skiers who flock to its high country and steep trails. The history of this place, though, doesn’t play out in a straight line from the top of the mountain to its base, nor does the story of Whiteface’s development as a ski center open, as some might imagine, with a tale of an inspired schuss down a majestic virgin run. It begins, instead, at the bottom of the hill, with the enormous task of cutting of an Olympic cross-country trail around the mountain—a trail that would never become part of Olympic lore.

George W. Martin sits in the living room of his home overlooking Lake Placid. He’s ninety-three years old but looks twenty years younger. Martin, a former ski jumper, planned and helped cut the cross-country-ski trails for the 1932 Olympic games. (At the time the Lake Placid-Wilmington region was a labyrinth of some 250 miles of ski trails.) He can still recall the building of the thirty-mile Whiteface loop.

“They wanted three different fifty-kilometer courses.” he said, “and the competitors wouldn’t know which they’d use until the night before the race; they wouldn’t even know in which direction the race would go. I used some of the existing trails. After the state approved the courses, I had a crew of fourteen men cut them—over a hundred miles of trails.”

Martin’s crew created three loops: one to Heart Lake over a shoulder of Nye Mountain, a second over the Sentinel Range to Clifford Falls, in Keene, and the third around Whiteface.

“We made use of an old logging road there;’ he remembered. “We cleaned out the brush through the notch between Mount Alton and Whiteface over old lumber roads to where the tollhouse is now. It was wild country.”

During the project, Martin found an abandoned lumber camp near the trail junction with the present road to Franklin Falls. “It was in poor shape,” he said, “but it didn’t leak. So the crew and I camped there for four or five days. We even had a cook to prepare our meals.”

From the logging camp, the trail led down to Wilmington, then followed the west side of the Ausable River past the site of the present ski center, through Sunrise Notch between Moss Cliff Mountain and Whiteface, through trails west of Connery Pond, east of Mount Whitney and west of Cobble Hill to the stadium in Lake Placid.

“We went through territory where no one had been in a long, long time,” Martin said.

In the end, though, Olympic competitors never had the chance to run circles around Whiteface. Warm weather on race day melted the snow, and so a shortened course through the Sentinels was used. Martin himself had the chance to lead only one group of cross-country skiers along the com­pleted Whiteface trail. “I took a group of thirty-five people around the moun­tain to Wilmington;’ he told me. “Then we were picked up by a bus.”

That was the only half measure George Martin ever took with his Olympic trail.

The next pivotal event in the development of Whiteface came in 1935, when the eight-mile highway up the mountain was completed. Marcellus Leonard, an area businessman, had driven up Colorado’s Pikes Peak in 1900, and the trip spurred his dream of providing a similar experience for Adirondack motorists. In 1927, sixty-four percent of New York voters favored amending the state constitution to build the road, and on September 11, 1929, Governor Franklin Roosevelt turned the $1.25-million project’s first spadeful of earth.

Naturally, the presence of the toll road, winding within three hundred feet of Whiteface’s summit, had a major influence on the location of the ski area. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Lake Placid region had an array of small ski hills with rope tows—Scott’s Cobble, Fawn Ridge, Mount Whitney—as well as liftless trails, such as the Rimrock, on Mount Jo, and the Wright Peak ski trail. But they didn’t rank with New England’s emerging ski mountains and their major racing trails.

In 1938, in an attempt to compete with those burgeoning ski centers, residents of Lake Placid financed the cutting of a Class A racing trail with a 2,700-foot drop across J. & J. Rogers Company land on Little Whiteface Mountain. The twenty-foot-wide swath began near the top of the present Wilderness Trail and snaked two miles through the woods, nearly to the Ausable River.

Lake Placid businessman J. Vernon Lamb Jr. remembered skiing the trail when he was in high school. “We used to say ‘Three hours up and three minutes down,'” he said, “because we had to pack the trail out on the way up.”

James A. Goodwin, a pioneer climber and veteran Adirondack moun­taineer, spent the first day of his honeymoon, April 11, 1941, on Whiteface. “My wife, Jane, and I skied it the day after we were married,” he said. “They’d built a footbridge over the river to make it accessible. You had to climb, of course. If the snow was deep, you used skins; if there’d been a lot of traffic, you could walk up carrying your skis.”

On that Friday in April, snow covered the mountain down to the river, and it took the newlyweds the better part of an hour to climb it. “I don’t remember whether it took fifteen minutes or half an hour to get down. I’m sure racers did it in three or four minutes. But we weren’t in any hurry,” he said.

That year of 1941 was to shape the future of Whiteface as a major ski development. On November 4, New Yorkers narrowly approved—by a margin of 9,944 votes—a constitutional amendment allowing construction of ski trails there. For the late Harold Burton, then of Keene Valley, the successful referen­dum was a dream come true. He’d pushed for the ski center since the 1930s, and had obtained Governor Herbert Lehman’s support for it. But he credited the support of radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas for the victory.

“I’d say Lowell was the guy who put us over the top,” Burton said in 1983, “because there were certainly more than nine thousand people listening to his show.”

On December 5, 1941, with war looming, the Conservation Department shelved plans for the ski center. Then, in 1944, jurisdiction of the ski center shifted from that department to the Whiteface Mountain Highway Commission and, eventually, to its successors, the Whiteface Mountain and Adirondack Mountain authorities. At the same time, the original area to be developed on the east face of Whiteface was scrapped in favor of Marble Mountain.

Vernon Lamb, a student of those times, recalled, “Hubert Stevens was head of the Whiteface highway commission and wanted to use the highway as access to the ski center, so a site on Marble Mountain was chosen. “Of course;’ he continued, “the people in Wilmington wanted that too, because they felt that Whiteface was their mountain.”

Stevens also wanted the three-quarter-million-dollar center to be a safe place to ski. “Buttons will be issued to skiers based on their ability.” he said in 1946. “The better skiers will be permitted to ski on the steeper slopes and novices on slopes within their skiing ability.”

But his concept was never implemented; in fact, after its opening, in the winter of 1948-49, the Marble Mountain development became known for its steepness and difficulty, as well as for its winds and lack of snow cover. Two sets of trails had been built: one off the Whiteface highway at the two-thousand-foot level and a second at the four-thousand-foot level, below the turn overlooking the pres­ent ski area. At the lower level, workers built a handsome stone­-and-wood lodge. (This building would burn to its foundation on May 6, 1951, and be rebuilt with blown-down logs from the hur­ricane that had swept through the area in November 1950.)

The lower level also included parking areas, a garage, a bunkhouse and a beginner’s area with a rope tow, as well as a second tow to get skiers up the steep slope to the lodge from the T-bar’s base.

In those days, weekend skiers packed Steinhoff’s Sportsman’s Inn, in Wilmington, where a room and three meals cost six to eight dollars. The truly budget-minded could sleep at Mrs. C. W. Alford’s, or a score of other such places, for two dollars a night, no meals included.

But in 1958, in the face of new developments on neighboring Whiteface, the Marble Mountain ski center closed down, except for weekends. The reconstructed lodge became first a museum for Adirondack artifacts and then, in 1961, a station for the Atmos­pheric Science Research Center (ASRC).

Douglas Wolfe, of Wilmington, is the ASRC operations manager; his father and grandfather were also from Wilmington. “My father was the night watchman here,” he said, sitting at a large wooden table in the Marble Mountain research center, “and he was laid off two weeks before the place burned. If he’d worked a bit longer, the old lodge might have been preserved.”

Wolfe also recalled a family story of an earlier fire, the date and details of which are lost in time. “My grandmother and grandfather were caretakers up here one winter when the place caught fire,” he told me. “My grand­father jumped on a sled and slid down to town to the closest telephone to report the fire!”

He laughs about that story, and then talks about the siting of the ski center. “The thrust to get it built on Marble Mountain was that the Whiteface highway was here;’ he said. ”And this area had already been logged, disturbed and changed over the years.”

Wolfe looks out the window at a towering evergreen arched against the down-mountain winds, its branches reaching leeward. “But that flag tree tells you that this is not the place to build a ski center. It’s telling you there’s a hellacious wind problem.”

John Dreissigacker first skied Whiteface in 1939, and he liked it so much that he bought thirty acres there in 1948 and went to work at nearby Marble Mountain. He’s earned a living and raised five children on Whiteface, and, at seventy-three, he’s a lean six-feet-four, tempered by winter cold. In his home, just off the Whiteface highway, he recalled the early years when the Marble Mountain center was being built and he was its ski-patrol leader.

“We’d take the skiers up to the Wilmington turn in old four-wheel-drive Army trucks before we got Tucker Sno-Cats,” he said. “Out they’d go and down the hill. We’d follow them to see that no one got in trouble.”

The patrol covered the slopes systematically, skiing each trail every fif­teen minutes. In those days of bear-trap ski bindings, with their toe irons and heel cables and lack of safety release, accidents were frequent. “We had a lot of them,” he remembered, “bad ones, spiral breaks, backs. And then skiers started to wear long thongs, wrapping them around the boot so they tied themselves right to the ski.”

Snow conditions, not just primitive equipment, also af­fected the number of accidents. “On a weekend with heavy wet snow,” Dreissigacker said, “we’d get five to ten bad in­juries, most of them breaks above the ankle. We picked up a skier … but I couldn’t tell which way to turn his leg, because his foot was on backwards. His leg had turned inside the ski pants without even wrinkling them.”

Back then, rescue sleds were of two types: toboggans, the flexibility of which made them unsuitable for back in­juries, and rigid sleds with three runners, which held them six to eight inches off the snow. “The rigid sleds were huge and heavy and horrible to control,” said Dreissigacker.

Two patrollers at the rear of the seven-foot rigid sleds would belay the descent with ropes. “I’d get in a snowplow in front,” the former patrol leader said, “with the rope up real tight so I could lift up the front to guide it down the trail. It was heavy. It was hell.”

Dreissigacker also worked with Herman “Jack Rabbit” Smith-Johannsen on the mountain’s trails and snow depths. “We put snow gauges in the valley where the ski center is today,” he said, “and the results were so bad we couldn’t convince anyone to build there.” Smith-Johannsen, who skied until he died at the age of 111, worked at Whiteface in 1948-49. “When you worked with Jack Rabbit, you had to be in damn good shape,” Dreissigacker says. “He was seventy-five years old then and I was twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Yet it was all I could do to keep up with him.”

One day after setting snow gauges, they found themselves in the woods at the bottom of the mountain, where the Kids Kampus now stands. “Jack Rabbit said, ‘What a beautiful day. We’ve got to eat lunch at the summit,'” said Dreissigacker, grinning and shaking his head. “We had lunch on top. We climbed that mountain in no time, putting in snow gauges as we went.”

It was Smith-Johannsen who urged that Tucker Sno-Cat freighters be used at Marble Mountain for everything from skier transport to packing slopes. The huge Sno-Cats, which looked like GMC Carryalls on tracks, towed trailers which had a capacity for sixteen passengers. Smith-Johannsen wrote to the Conservation Department in 1948 that “they may most likely prove to be a better investment than chairlifts in the future as it is quite possible to reach all the sections of the whole development from the 4,000-foot level:.”

New York Timesman Arthur Draper was the early manager of three New York State ski areas—Marble Mountain, Belleayre Mountain, at High­mount in the Catskills and, finally, the present Whiteface development. In the 1930s, Harry Wade Hicks talked to him about a racing trail on Whiteface. Caroline Lussi, of Lake Placid, Draper’s daughter and a former ski racer, has their correspondence, which shows that her father, who died in 1960, had Olympic hopes for Whiteface in the 1930s.

“My father told Mr. Hicks that ‘because of the Olympic games, you should find out how the Europeans would look at the trail so it can be homologated.'” In ski jargon, Lussi explained, “homologate” means to ap­prove a trail as safe for competition. It seems that her father didn’t just want any old trail; he wanted an Olympic-caliber trail.

After World War II, the Conservation Department, acting on its 1941 mandate to develop Whiteface for downhill skiing, sought out Arthur Draper. “The department said it’d been pressured to develop a ski area on Marble Mountain,” Lussi said, “and my father replied, ‘You know that’s not the best place for a ski area; the best place is where the racing trail was built in 1938.’ Nevertheless, they asked him to go to Marble.” And he went.

But, Lussi said, her father became increasingly distressed over political pressure during the ski area’s development, and he left to edit The Conser­vationist magazine and subsequently to manage the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center. Draper, though, still dreamed about developing Whiteface.

After W. Averell Harriman’s elec­tion as governor in 1954, he often skied Belleayre, and he became friends with the Drapers. (Harriman’s Union­Pacific Railroad had built the first major ski area in the United States, at Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1935-36.) The governor, worried about Whiteface’s financial troubles (the deficits from 1949 to 1957 amounted to more than $292,000), sought Draper’s advice. Why, he asked the Belleayre manager, isn’t Marble Mountain successful? The thing to do, Draper replied, is to go look at it in person.
And so they did. The governor and the Belleayre manager drove from Albany to Whiteface, skied the moun­tain and returned.

“In those private hours,” Caroline Lussi says, “they had a lot to talk about. They had the same philosophy on skiing—in wanting to do things correctly. He wanted the best for New York. They talked about other mountains, even Marcy. But if you’d already scarred one, you sure don’t need to scar another. Those are the things they philosophized about.”

At Marble Mountain, they had skied the sidehill trails scoured by icy winds which blew the snow away, had ridden the T-bar and rope tows. “After that,” Lussi said, “you don’t need to say anymore.”

A joint legislative committee on winter tourism and a Conservation Department advisory group on skiing agreed that further development at Whiteface should take place on the east face of the mountain and on Lit­tle Whiteface. In 1957, the legislature approved $2.5 million to complete ski-­trail development there. It included two chairlifts, a $300,000 base lodge and an array of trails.

Ronald MacKenzie, of Lake Placid, tramped the mountain, using his woodsman’s skills to locate trails. He braved bad weather, even a bobcat at­tack, to accomplish his task.

Finally, on January 25, 1958, a blus­tery, subzero day, Harriman dedicated the new Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, with Arthur Draper as its manager. But that momentous day was not without glitches.

“On its initial run,” wrote a reporter who covered the event, “the chairlift broke down. I was hung up there with Miss Priscilla Snow as my companion. Gov. Harriman was two seats in front of me. They tried to rescue him, but we were too high in the air. After an hour, I was shivering so much that my chair began to behave as an out-of­-control Ferris-wheel seat.”

Workers rescued the governor, who was blue with cold but cheerful. The mishap, though, was something of a blessing in disguise: it landed White­face on the national news.

In the years since that animated opening day, Whiteface has con­tinued its evolution as a significant ski resort. In 1966, a major expansion of the ski area took place that resulted in Whiteface being able to claim the East’s highest vertical drop—3,216 feet. New construction included more snow­making capability, a novice area (now Kids Kampus) and a lift up the main peak’s face to serve the Cloudspin and Skyward trails. And, finally, in 1980 Whiteface got to play a featured part in the Winter Olympic Games. In fact, $14.5 million, almost seventy-nine per­cent of it state money, was spent to develop and improve the mountain. The base lodge grew to three times its original size, two double chairlifts replaced the original lift to the base of the main face, the 1966 lift serving Cloudspin and Skyward was short­ened by eight hundred feet, with a Poma lift replacing the upper section. A new lift was constructed to the ex­pert area on Little Whiteface to serve the newly built slalom trail, and snowmaking equipment was installed to cover more than ten miles of the mountain’s 15.6 miles of trails.

Caroline Lussi, in the wake of those Olympian developments (which had been overseen by her husband Serge Lussi, the 1980 Olympic alpine chair­man), had the opportunity to reflect on her father’s dreams for Whiteface Mountain. “I could sort of say to my dad, ‘We finished something you started,'” she said.

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