The Lost Ski Areas

800x600px-LL-cf36c16a_DSCF4404800x600px-LL-dd1752d2_DSCF4395800x600px-LL-53de19e0_DSCF4407newaerialLaurel Mountain Ski Resort will be quiet this season  TribLIVE If you peruse the internet, and look up http://www.nelsap.org, you will find a site dedicated to the preservation of the memory of ski areas in New England that have been closed due to financial and weather related problems. There are many pictures of these “lost” little areas and the site has expanded from New England to New York State, New Jersey, Quebec, Alberta, Colorado, Washington, and Pennsylvania. The sweat equity of the founders of these areas and their passion for skiing was oftentimes not enough to overcome the financial pressures of taxes, electricity, diesel costs, maintenance of lifts and lodges, and payroll. I remember and have skied a lot of these little areas in my time and one of the most memorable was Laurel Mountain in Ligonier, Pa.

Laurel was founded in 1939 and opened to members of the Rolling Rock Club in 1940. The Mellon Family built a beautiful lodge which subsequently and tragically burned in later years. The area opened to the public in 1958 and eventually was turned over to the state in 1964. The Department of Natural Resources ran the area for a number of years until some private management firms tried their hand at running the resort. Weather and financial difficulties forced closings in many ski seasons and the last attempt was made by Seven Springs Resort in the 2004-2005 season. Unfortunately a warm winter accompanied by low skier visits forced the closing of Laurel Mountain up until the present day. There are rumors of re-opening but at this point- only rumors.

Laurel was always a mountain adventure to me. When I was a kid, I remember going up Route 30 and making the right onto Laurel Mountain Road. It was like entering a winter wonderland in a forest setting with snow covering the trees and forming a tunnel all the way back to the ski area. I was mesmerized as a kid with all the snow and the family atmosphere of picnic lunches in the lodge, hot chocolates on the deck, and the fun of being in the mountains in a non-commercialized environment. In college, I taught skiing there as part of the Ski Academy and became friends with many of the state employees who ran the area. The State ran a pretty spartan ship at the time but the trails that meandered in the wilds of the Pennsylvania forest on the Laurel Ridge were a scenic trip back in time. This was how skiing was supposed to be. Family oriented, small snowy area with local charm pervading the scene. The big draw was Upper and Lower Wildcat which was one of the steepest runs in Pennsylvania. At only 900 vertical feet, it still packed a whollop as a challenging run that you could ski all day and never be bored. Occasionally, you would take the surrounding trails for variety and make your way to the main chairlift that serviced the Wildcat slope. There were times when that chair stopped and if you were unfortunate enough to be at the bottom of the mountain, you either had patience and waited, or you began to walk up the trail to the top which was one heck of a workout.

When my son was first learning, I took him to Laurel frequently and made a day out of skiing the trails and then eating lunch and stopping at the Pie Shop in Laughlintown at the bottom of the mountain. Coupled with trips to Fort Ligonier, I had a captive audience with him as I explained the nuances of the French and Indian War which was fought in the very woods that we were skiing. As we ate our apple pies the conversations were either about his skiing progress for the day or the battle at the fort and how George Washington, and Generals Braddock and Forbes played a significant role for the British in the area. I often said that aside from skiing a great little mountain with my son, the better part of the day was the travel to and from Ligonier. It was good father and son time and I will never forget that opportunity that this lost ski area gave me as a father. Many picnic lunches were eaten by the McCloskeys at that lodge at the top of the mountain and the Midway Cabin with its hot chocolate and goodies from the Pie Shop oftentimes was the highlight of the ski day at Laurel Mountain. The snow, the views into the Laurel Valley, and the family atmosphere will never be forgotten.

We often see and ski the big major resorts in the west and New England. We marvel at the money spent on lodging, snowmaking, high speed lift expansion, grooming, and the marketing of the ski experience at a large ski area. Skiing has become a huge commercial offering with investments being made by large firms outside the ski industry. Every year, ski areas compete for the business of families, singles, couples, and company outings. The pressure to be competitive and profitable is intense as ski areas are run as a business and not out of that family oriented, local community ethos that started the “lost’ ski areas of old. I love the opportunities and ammenities of the big areas but I get nostalgic for the history of the sport that was honed in the smaller areas with the slow chairs, limited snowmaking and grooming, and that family atmosphere that was created by the founders of the original ski areas. Skiing Laurel Mountain was like traveling back in time. It was how skiing was meant to be and I can only hope that someday, someone will recognize the value of that gem in the Laurel Highlands and think about overcoming the odds and investing in a worthwhile skiing experience. I can remember asking Herman Dupre (former owner of Seven Springs) why he would not develop Laurel Mountain and he said,” Pat- sit down here and I will give you 38 reasons why.” I listened as Herman was a very successful engineer and businessman. I can see how the area could become one of the lost because of the varied encumbrances that halt its development. But someday, there will be someone who will take the challenge, even if it might not make economic sense, and reopen Laurel and reopen that portal to the past. Think snow and thanks for reading.

9 thoughts on “The Lost Ski Areas

  1. Pete Hilton says:

    Love the pie shop!! Lower Wildcat was fun too – it is beautiful up there

  2. The Colonel says:

    Want a 21st century LM, try Timberline in Canaan Valley in WV.
    Laurel is not yet dead, follow the current efforts to reopen Laurel Mt in DCSki.com, a “partnership?” between the state of PA and 7Springs.
    The Colonel

    • patmccloskey says:

      Thanks for the comment I have skied Timberline and did some 24 hour MTB races there. I have heard the Laurel rumor for 6 years. All tied up in stalemate between the state and Seven Springs. For now- it is a lost area. Hoping for the best.

  3. Robert Davis says:

    Thank you for your very eloquent portrayal of Laurel Mountain and the Ligonier Valley. It is a shared vision among those of us who will always remember Laurel as our home hill.

    I have word from the state agency that will oversee the design and bidding process and they say that the project should be ready to bid by the end of January 2015. If Laurel is to reopen it will be up to us to make Laurel not just a successful business but also one that stays true to your vision. Some fundamental changes will be made on the mountain to accommodate novice skiers and the needs of modern snowmaking. We would appreciate hearing your point of view on Laurel’s redesign at: http://www.dcski.com/forum/81556&scrollto=82129

    • patmccloskey says:

      I appreciate your kind words and looked with interest in all the activity on your page about Laurel and the mention of my blog post. This is a most complex time in Laurel’s “dormancy.” I like the redesign. I am hoping that a stalemate can be broken and that the Nuttings invest in an area that is truly classic. With the upgrade to snowmaking,( hopefully HKD technology), redesign of the trails, lodge and new lifts, this gem of an area can be restored to former glory. Getting back to snowmaking for a moment, HKD in my opinion with their recent Canadian acquisitions, have become the premier engineering and performance systems company in the world. All created by Herman Dupre and his daughter Anni and son in law Charles. If the Nuttings can get by any differences with the former owner of Seven Springs and take a good look at his technology, Laurel can really be restored. I know like a lot of people that there are encumbrances like limited water, sewage treatment, upside down ski area, antiquated trail design and lifts, etc, etc,. But with some positive thinking by the Nuttings and the State, we can add Laurel to the quiver of ski areas in the Laurel Highlands that can be profitable for the Nuttings as well as for the region. Thanks for all your work towards this goal.

  4. David Clinnin says:

    Laurel Mtn. Served as the ski cradle to many a wide eyed kid to whom lower Wildcat still brings a thrill of steep terror. 50 years after cutting our teeth at this tiny resort and skiing around the world, no memory is as cherished as those formed at this classic family oriented resort. Thanks for stirring so eloquently this old skier’s heart.

    • patmccloskey says:

      Thanks for reading David. That place is special to a lot of us and the good news is that according to Seven Springs Mountain Resort and the Pa. DCNR, the area will re-open for skiing winter 2016-17.

  5. We will need more than well wishes to make Laurel work. We need all of you to ski Laurel!

    • patmccloskey says:

      Believe me – I will be there. I even skied it this year. Shhhhh! Rode MTB up there recently too. Love those trails and cannot wait for it to be open again. Please feel free to pass my blog post on. Like you, I think it celebrates the great area that it is.

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