Laurel Mountain Reborn
By Rob Davis
Laurel Mountain ski area is a Pennsylvania State Park comprising over 400 acres; approximately 70 miles east of Pittsburgh on the Laurel Ridge. The soon to be reopened ski area consists of about 80 acres of cut trails with about 30 acres of snowmaking. Infrastructure includes a fixed grip quad chairlift, a fixed grip double chair, two rope tows, a lodge building, and a maintenance building. The lodge sits at the 2900 foot summit provides food service and rental facilities as well as ticket sales, snow sports school and administrative offices.
In 2008 the Pennsylvania legislature approved funding Laurel Mountain's rebuild and allocated $6.5 million after a due diligence study by the Jack Johnson Company of Park City, Utah. The study concluded that the resort could be run profitably with proper investment. The funding came from the state's capital projects budget and was released by former Governor Ed Rendell.
The Jack Johnson report recommends that approximately $8 million be spent on upgrades to Laurel's infrastructure. The design phase of the project is now complete. Although construction bids were expected to be opened late in 2011 with a reopen date planned for December 2012 it is now reported the construction bids will not be taken until late summer 2012 at the earliest. Christina Novak, press secretary for the PA Department of Conservation and Recreation (PA Bureau of State Parks) stated that Laurel might open for the 2013-14 season but the 2014-15 season was more likely.
Nearby Seven Springs Mountain Resort bought the existing privately owned assets on the mountain in November 2008 and entered into a 10 year lease with the State to run the ski operation. The extent of their capital contribution is not know at this time. It is reported that Seven Springs officials are involved in the current redesign. Seven Springs operated the ski area for one season in 2004 after the previous concessionaire was foreclosed.
The State will replace the double chair with a fixed grip quad or triple which will then be realigned. Snowmaking impoundment ponds will be expanded and snowmaking capacity will be increased. At this time the path of the new chair lift alignment has not been made public. There are indications that this new chair will be the sole operating chair lift and Lower Wildcat will be re-graded across the bottom to make egress from the Deer Path novice trail to the new lift easier for beginners. The existing fixed grip quad installed by the previous concessionaire is inoperable due to vandalism. The quad chair lift is owned by Seven Springs and is not eligible for State funding to make repairs. There will be no significant increase in snowmaking (from 27 acres increased to 30 acres) to trails previously not covered according to a discussion at a Laurel Mountain Village Property Owners Association meeting.
Laurel Mountain was originally designed by skiing legend Hannes Schneider. Laurel founder,Pittsburgh financier Richard King Mellon, contacted Harvey Gibson of New York's Manufacturers Trust Company and owner of Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, NH for help in designing a ski area. Schneider was released from Nazi arrest the year before through Gibson's efforts. Hannes was a renowned ski instructor and developed the Arlberg Method which is recognized as the forerunner of modern alpine ski technique. Beginning in the 1930s alpine skiing in the US was heavily influenced by Austrian ski instructors trained by Schneider. Hannes was arrested by the Nazis because of his opposition to the annexation of Austria. Gibson sent Schneider to Ligioner and in the winter of 1939 the plan for Laurel Mountain Slopes was begun.
Laurel was a noted destination during the 40's and 50's and was served by ski trains from the Pittsburgh and Cleveland area. Laurel was the first Pennsylvania ski resort to install commercially successful snowmaking and the first to use snow grooming machines. The resort enjoyed its heyday under the direction of 10th Mountain vet Ralph "Doc" DesRoches during the 1950s.
Laurel remains much as it was in Doc's day. There is no private lodging on the mountain, only the ski lodges and maintenance buildings. Midway Cabin, Laurel's first lodge built in 1940, still stands and is located on Lower Broadway, the first trail cut by Schneider. The main lodge, Laurel Lodge, sits at the summit commanding panoramic views of the Ligonier Valley. The trails are classic old school style hugging the contours of the mountain offering the skier the experience of skiing through the forest. Lower Wildcat, named for the tributary of Rolling Rock Creek at the bottom of the trail, was cut before World War 2. It is the steepest trail on the Laurel Ridge.