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IT'S OUR HISTORY: Winter sports and the Sno Birds

March 6, 2014
By JENNIFER TUFANO , Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society

Even the most die-hard winter lover must be ready for a little relief from this intense weather.

While March has traditionally been our "transition into spring" article, there's no pretending winter isn't here to stay for a while longer. Why fight it? To that end, please enjoy an excerpt from Mary MacKenzie's "The Plains of Abraham" piece on winter sports in Lake Placid:

Lake Placid, the only complete winter sports resort in America, and one of only a handful in the world, got off to an early start at the turn of the twentieth century. Its pioneer role, and its staging of the III Olympic Winter Games in 1932, made the nation winter-sports conscious.

Article Photos

Fourth of July ski jumping in Lake Placid (Photo provided)

The 1930s and 1940s saw great advancement in enthusiasm and development of all resources at Lake Placid - hockey, speed and figure skating, ice harness and dog-team racing, tobogganing and winter carnivals, bobsledding and luge.

Skiing was also a major concern. In the pioneer years, skiing meant touring and jumping (downhill and slalom were not even on the agenda of the III Games). But immediately following the 1932 Olympics, the trend changed sharply and the public began to demand downhill runs and open slopes with uphill transportation. Lake Placid, for some years, was to lag behind the competition.

First, Placid strove against a natural handicap of heavily wooded terrain, lacking the treeless slopes of other sections. More significantly, it was hemmed in by the New York State Forest Preserve, which, according to the state constitution, "shall forever be wild forest land." Not a tree could be cut without a constitutional amendment approved by the voters.

Meanwhile, in the rope tow and ski-train era of the 1930s, the community did what was possible on available private lands. A few small ski centers sprang up in or near the village. In 1938, a larger ski center, Scott's Cobble, with a vertical drop of 500 feet, was opened. This was a system of open slopes and downhill trails designed by Otto Schneibs, with a rope tow installed by Fred Pabst's Ski Tow, Inc., eventually replaced by a Poma lift. Two other ski centers, Fawn Ridge and Mount Whitney, followed. All three were enormously popular. Scott's persisted until 1973, Fawn Ridge until 1977 and Mount Whitney was the last in operation.

In 1941, the voters of New York State passed a constitutional amendment allowing the State to build a major ski center on Whiteface Mountain. Opened in 1949 on a shoulder of Whiteface called Marble Mountain, the center consisted of a T-bar, four trails and a log lodge. When ski enthusiast Averill Harriman became Governor of New York in 1951, he used his influence to win support for an entirely state owned center on the main body of Whiteface. Marble Mountain only lasted until 1958. Construction of the great Whiteface Mountain Ski Center was completed in January 1958.

Even before 1980, the existing cross country trail system at the state's Mount Van Hoevenberg Recreational Center, with more than twenty kilometers of competitive-class trails, was one of the best in the country. Additional trails were built to meet the full fifty-kilometer Olympic network required.

The village's love affair with ski jumping has lasted for well over sixty-five years (note: this was written in 1985). In 1948, the Junior Chamber of Commerce inaugurated a unique Fourth of July jump held on real snow created from forty tons of ice. It continues to this day, but a new era of summer ski jumping has begun at Placid with the substitution of plastic matting for packed ice.

The famous Intervale jump, first used in 1918, was a sixty meter jump at the time of the 1932 Olympics. Two new Intervale jumps were constructed of concrete for the 1980 Olympics, seventy and ninety meters.

The names of many Lake Placid residents stand high on the roster of enthusiastic promoters and organizers of skiing in America. Foremost among them are the pioneer Melvil Dewey, founding father of winter sports resorts; his son Godfrey Dewey, a Lake Placid Hall of Famer whose vision led to the holding of the first Winter Olympics in America; the indefatigable Ron MacKenzie, "Mr. Ski" of the east, also immortalized in the Lake Placid Hall of Fame; and Harry Wade Hicks, who participated for a lifetime in every aspect of skiing in the U.S. A founder and president of the U.S. Eastern Amateur Skiing Association and a mainstay of the Lake Placid Sno Birds, Harry Wade Hicks once said "Skiing is and should be the universal winter sport. Everyone under seventy-five years of age who can walk vigorously can and should ski."

Harry Hicks' greatest love, the Sno Birds of Lake Placid, organized in 1920, was a mainstay of sponsorship and promotion of winter sports athletes and competition in the U.S. for half a century. One of the greatest contributions of the Sno Birds was the annual College Week at the Lake Placid Club, begun in 1921 and lasting until 1951, which gave great impetus to intercollegiate competition in skiing and other winter sports. The major event of its kind in this country, it was the forerunner of the College Winter Carnival as it exists today, and certainly the granddaddy of the present NCAA winter sports program.

Astute readers will notice this passage on winter sports does not address hockey - but we will!

On Wednesday, March 26, at 7 p.m. at the Olympic Center, the third program in our "Odds and Ends" winter lecture series will feature a panel presentation on the "History of Hockey in Lake Placid."

Come join us, and please bring your own hockey stories to share.



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