by Rob Davis
In my previous article, A Brief History of Alpine Skiing, I highlighted some of the events and people that have made our sport what it is today. The resort based Alpine Skiing we know had its beginnings in the early 1900s; growing tourism in the Northern European Alps grew the sport through the standardization of ski instruction (Arlberg Technique), media (movies, print, and radio), and mass transportation (rail and auto). By the 1920s the fad had already reached across the Atlantic. North America's ski industry was being formed. Now I would like to focus on the object that ignited my interest in skiing history, my home hill and true love, Laurel Mountain, PA. This is a part of the story that is skiing in Western Pennsylvania.
One would not typically think of Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands as among the first wave of America’s mountain communities that introduced modern alpine skiing to the public. Growing up in the Pittsburgh region it never occurred to me despite the boast made by Laurel Mountain,” … built by the famous Austrian…” Laurel was soon to become my favorite hill in the vertically challenged western ridges of Pennsylvania’s Appalachians. Every ski area around had some famous European in charge. There was that Lars fellow, skimeister at Seven Springs, which was built by that guy with the wicked first name, Adolph. Over on the eastern front of the Alleghenies, Blue Knob’s trails were designed by a guy named Otto.
To me this was just marketing hype designed to link the local hillsides trails to the real ski resorts of Europe. Even big Rocky Mountain resorts built ersatz alpine villages at their base to capture the illusion. The sport was full of masters from the old country, no big news really. As my German-born mother was quick to point out, skiing was something everybody back home did, not just for winter travel, but also for recreation and organized local competition. It should be no surprise that immigrants would bring their own customs to their new home. That’s how I learned: from my mother who skied the Austrian style first popularized in her youth.
The first Pittsburgh newspaper account of the sport’s local practice is a brief story printed in the February 12, 1922 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times. Under the headline, Why Go to San Moritz to Ski? The piece starts with the recognition of famous ski resorts such as St. Moritz or Lake Placid but asks, why not here? Photos feature three youngsters on their first day on skis from Sharon, Mercer County …” who had just got the idea this winter” …
I’m led to wonder if they just got the idea just as our ancient ancestors did or if the youngsters saw or heard of it on radio or in pictures. Perhaps they saw somebody from Northern Europe in their own neighborhood sliding along the snowy country paths.
A reply to the story was printed a week later. The local Chancellor of the Romanian Consulate, D. Dem Dimanceso asks, “…why go to Sharon when the chance is the same or better right here in old Schenley Park?” Dimanceso is pictured using a single pole. He describes a lesson he gave on a recent outing, “One day while skiing in the park I met a group of high school girls. I practiced and lectured on the ski for their benefit.” Perhaps in so doing Dimanceso chronicled the first group lesson given in this part of the country and furthered the fantasy of romantic expectations of ensuing male ski instructors worldwide.
Over the next decade skiing was popular enough to become the topic of a 1932 feature column appearing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled Pittsburghesque by columnist Charles F. Danver. He took a tongue in cheek approach implying that the sport as practiced here seemed off to a funny start. Mr. Danver jokes that for $50 a local skier can be outfitted and the family need not be ashamed when they find the body, “…that’s what it cost to be a well-dressed skier…The ensemble includes pants from $6.50 and up…Ladies’ skiing pants (We should never have left the pipe shop!) are a little higher… both include …the elastic bands at the bottom that keep them from slipping up around your neck.”... “Most skiers use two ski poles, although some have been known to use one telegraph pole.”
On the sports growing popularity in recent years--especially among the young folks of Sewickley, Coraopolis Heights, East End, and Greensburg--Danver reports: “One sporting goods man says it’s because wealthy families in those districts employ Swedish help.”
One Norwegian, who probably lived in the East End, visited a snowy farm upon the Laurel Ridge east of town. Finn Ronne was employed by Westinghouse Electric in East Pittsburgh. He asked permission from the farm’s owners to ski the open fields above the farm. Ronne had recently returned from Admiral Byrd’s 1928-1930 Antarctic Expedition. Ronne had inquired at the state capital in Harrisburg the whereabouts of the snowiest spot around. It turned out that Adolph and Helen Dupre’s Seven Springs Farms was that spot. Ronne was such a frequent visitor that Adolph built a warming hut for his use. Ronne broke the ice, so to speak, and soon others came to ski. By 1935, the winter after the famous tow at Gilbert’s Hill in Vermont, the “young folks of Sewickley” helped rig up an old Packard to build the first rope tow on the Laurel Ridge. They hosted trail clearing parties and built upon the Dupre’s budding tourist business and on snowy weekends dined on the farm’s fresh offerings prepared by Helen’s hand. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article Broad Program Planned by Pittsburgh Ski Club dated January 13, 1938 stated that in December, 1937 the Pittsburgh Ski Club was organized with founding members Lars Eckwurtzel, president, Al Black, vice president, Mary Crawford, secretary, along with Bill Albert and Finn Ronne, head of trails committee. It was announced that the club had exclusive use of Seven Springs Farms and described the ski terrain, “…the broken mountain terrain abounds with high rolling open slopes, has a number of excellent trails and additional ones are being cut…The trails range from the flat cross country types to those of 40 degrees in steepness.”
Later that year a ski tow was installed at the Summit Hotel on the western ridge overlooking Uniontown. In a 1939 newspaper ad the hotel dubbed itself “The San Moritz of Pennsylvania.” State Police had to direct traffic on US 40 caused by curious tourists eager to view the new attraction.
Seven Springs Farm Pittsburgh Post Gazette Jan. 20, 1941
Here in western PA’s Laurel Mountains banking heir Richard King Mellon, upon returning from an outing at Seven Springs Farms, decided to build a ski area of his own. In December 1939 Mellon and his bank manager, Leonard Bughman, began to plan Pennsylvania’s first purpose built, full service ski resort by seeking help from banking colleague and ski resort owner, Harvey Gibson. Gibson had just brought skiing legend Hannes Schneider to the US the winter before and put him in charge of Cranmore Mountain, NH. Schneider was arrested by the Nazis because of his opposition to the annexation of Austria. Amidst worldwide outrage Gibson leveraged his connections as an international banker to secure Hannes’ release.
The following winter Schneider was dispatch to Ligonier and was met by Leonard Bughman who called Hannes, “The brightest star in the then small universe of alpine skiing.” Together they began to design a ski area for members of the prestigious Rolling Rock Country Club. In the winter of 1939/40 a three-year plan for Laurel Mountain Slopes was begun.
Early 1940 marked the arrival of the architect of the Arlberg Technique, Hannes Schneider, then deep into his illustrious career as the pioneering star of the growing winter craze, alpine skiing. Hannes was here along with Arnold Berry to lay out the trails and slopes on Laurel Mountain just as they had done the preceding year at Gibson’s Cranmore Mountain, New Hampshire. Construction began on the trail and lodge in 1940.
Bughman wrote these accounts in an article entitled The First Years of Laurel Mountain in the Ligonier Echo Friday January 1964 edition:
“Charles Brant of Laughlintown was in charge of construction and he recalls, with a chuckle, the remarks of Schneider and Berry when they returned to inspect what they had done. They both expressed amazement that all of the stumps and stones had been removed and there was a catch of grass. “But that just isn’t done,” Schneider expostulated. However, it was done and is now being done by most areas. We think that Laurel Mountain was ahead of its time in this regard.”
The stone and rock were used for the lodge foundation and fireplaces, engine house foundations and stone retaining walls built to level the rope tow line along the uphill path. The largest wall can still be seen along Schneider’s first trail, the trail that became known as Broadway. The Underwood Ski Tow Company, Boston provided the tow. Bousquet ski tow grippers were available for sale or rent.
As the 1940/41 winter neared, Laurel Mountain Slopes, the first full service ski area in the state, was readying for business. The Midway Cabin, designed by architect James Blair, housed a rental and repair shop, food service in addition to an open lodge flanked by two stone fireplaces.
Midway Cabin circa 1942 from the Jim and Carol Darr Collection
With Hans Van Bergh, a Dutch born student of Schneider, as Laurel’s first ski meister and Lenny Bughman at the helm, official opening was January 11, 1941. The first winter the skiing consisted of that single run.
The January 10, 1941 edition of the Ligonier Echo reported:
“The natural slopes of Laurel Mountain afford a trail which is extremely fast and which requires skill to travel. Drops on the trail are often as steep as 35 degrees. One tow line has already been built to carry skiers to the top of the trail and several others are to be constructed….”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette January 10, 1941 edition feature column, Let’s Go Skiing, Manning H. Williams describes the new ski facility: “Laurel Mountain has two tows serving a 4,000 foot run which combines open slope and trail skiing, and which was laid out by Haunes (sic) Schneider. A shelter house with 2 open fireplaces and a large plate glass window overlooking the slope….is located about three-quarters of the way up the mountain.”
Laurel Mountain rope tow Pittsburgh Post Gazette Feb.21, 1942
Bughman, a member of the Rolling Rock Club, often said that Laurel was members only. The Feb. 18, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a photo feature of Elizabeth Laughlin skiing at Laurel. Elizabeth’s father was George M. Laughlin III of the local steel industry giant, Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation. That same year cousin James Laughlin became a principal partner of Alta Ski Area and co-owner of the Alta Lodge. While members from prominent Pittsburgh families such as Heinz, Oliver, O’Neill as well as Mellon, and Scaife skied Laurel’s slopes, travel brochures proclaimed "open to the public" and list prices and hours of operation. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran ski trains from Pittsburgh to Ligonier the first year. Laurel Mountain Ski Club organized a ski patrol with volunteers training to pass next season’s examination for affiliation with the National Ski Patrol. The Pittsburgh Ski Club became a charter member of the Eastern Amateurs Association and organized a mile-long race on the slope. The inaugural season saw 11 consecutive weekends of good skiing and came to a close by late March, 1941. On an ominous note, Van Bergh was called to service in Canada to train in the Free Dutch Army.
Over the summer of 1941 improvements were undertaken that include opening Upper Wildcat slope and an upper mountain beginner slope. A racing slope dubbed Broadway was added atop the original trail. A ski jumping hill was installed adjacent to the new race trail. Touring trails were improved. Easier access was also a goal for the second season. A hexagon shaped stone gatehouse was constructed at the new summit entrance where, it is said, a guard would greet with a silver plate in hand. Visitors would proffer a business card; the guard would return to the gatehouse and make a phone call to secure approval before you proceed down a new access road leading to a new summit parking lot and warming hut. A new roadway was cut down to the Midway Cabin to serve as an exit to Locust Camp Rd., the original entry.
All was ready for the winter 1941/42 season with the eminent radio journalist Lowell Thomas set to deliver his popular Friday evening slope side newscast from Laurel Mountain. However, the weekend before the scheduled national broadcast, Admiral Yamamoto bombed Pearl Harbor and the nation’s attention turned to war. Laurel Mountain and the ski industry went on hold until the war’s end but before Len Bughman enlisted in the Air Corps he ordered Lower Wildcat cut “from the ledge” and a crossover rope tow be installed to take skiers back over to the original trail. Upon Bughman’s return from the war he was pleased to find his fears that Wildcat was too steep to ski were unfounded. Lower Wildcat's narrow width and northern exposure held snow. It has been Laurel's signature trail since then.