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.