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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: All aboard the snow train!

Old Forge transformed from logging town to winter wonderland in the 1930s

December 22, 2017
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR Correspondent (news@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

OLD FORGE - The town of Webb in Herkimer County covers a large portion of the northwestern Adirondack Park, but it is sparsely settled and relatively young; the town was established in 1898.

The area has been dominated by two big industries, logging and tourism.

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Article Photos

Sign for Maple Ridge and McCauley ski areas, circa 1960s
(Photo courtesy of the Goodsell Museum)

From logging to tourism

Kate Lewis, director of the Goodsell Museum in Old Forge, says that from the very beginning, people who lived in the area faced a hardscrabble existence. These were loggers and their families who chose to stay and settle in the area once timber giants moved on from the Adirondacks. The trees were gone, and the land wasn't great for farming. But there was an established railway system - and soon people from New York City and Philadelphia replaced trees on the trains.

Today visitors come nearly year round - for the great sunny outdoors during the summer, leaf peeping in the fall, and winter sports through early spring. But prior to the mid-1930s, visitors (and their wallets) were only coming to Old Forge during a very short summer period, during which residents scrambled to make as much money as possible.

For those eight to 10 weeks, they worked in the hotels as cooks and chambermaids and guides. But then the guests left and 10 months stretched ahead, says Lewis.

"And all winter they just hunkered down and they did whatever they could to feed their family."

That meant cutting ice, logging, trapping for furs, and hunting for sustenance. Lewis says then and now, the area has been: "A great place to live and a terrible place to make a living."

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Rise of winter sports

Prior to the early 1930s, the Adirondacks were just as snowy and the mountains just as majestic, yet they weren't known as a vacation destination. Lewis explained that changed because of the 1932 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid.

"They started filming a lot of it, and people would go to the theater and before the movie they would have news reels. Sonja Henie was the big ice skater back then, and people would see her skating and they were enthusiastic about winter sports."

People in the town of Webb were inspired by the rising interest in skiing and other winter activities, as well as the publicity afforded to the Adirondacks by the Olympics. Led by Donald Case, a group of businessmen formed the Old Forge Winter Sports Association in 1935, a nonprofit group made up entirely by volunteers. The goal was to find a way to sell what Old Forge already had: winter.

The group got to work transforming the area into a vacation destination, and they made a lot happen very quickly in that first year - including the clearing of 14 different downhill skiing trails around the town of Webb, the installation of a skating rink, and the development of Maple Ridge, an open slope in the center of Old Forge.

Maple Ridge was one of the earliest skiing areas in New York state.

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Enter the "snow train"

The OFWSA built a lot of infrastructure, hoping that numbers would follow. But Lewis explained they weren't leaving everything to chance.

"They decided it would be a great idea to have what they called a 'snow train.' And they advertised and they wanted people to come up here and spend the weekend and ski. So you would go to Utica and get on the special train that was labeled the 'snow train' with your skis ... and they would bring you to Old Forge."

That first year the association arranged with New York Central Railroad for the special snow train to run eight weekends, starting in January. They hoped residents from downstate would take direct trains to Utica and switch to the snow train.

It wasn't a new idea - as early as 1931, Boston and Maine railroads were advertising day trips out to locations with high snowfall and skiing slopes, in the hopes of getting more passengers on trains during the winter, and boosting ridership during the economic depression. Additionally, snow trains were established in other Adirondack resort towns in the 1930s, such as North Creek and Lake Placid.

Old Forge made itself attractive as a ski destination, put advertisements in city newspapers - including the New York Times - crossed their fingers, and waited. They got a huge shock when the first scheduled train rolled into Thendara (about 2 miles from Maple Ridge) on Sunday, Jan. 19, 1936.

The Association had been hoping for at least a couple dozen people to arrive on the train. More than 900 got off. They came from Utica, Syracuse, Albany, and even New York City, which required leaving at three or four o'clock in the morning.

Lewis says the first issue was just transporting the skiers from the train station to the Maple Ridge ski slope. Hundreds of visitors were laden with bags and all their skiing equipment.

"They [the Old Forge Winter Sports Association] ended up taking the town plows and putting wagons behind them with like a stake rack on them. So people just stood up on there with their skis and their suitcase."

Then there were lodging issues. Only two hotels were open for the winter at that time, The Moose Head Hotel and Van Aukens Inne. Lewis says both filled up quickly, and the Association had to get creative.

"... they had people sleeping in the hallway, they were calling people in town saying 'can you please come and get so-and-so and his girlfriend and give them a room for the weekend,' because they were totally unprepared for the masses of people who showed up."

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Moose Head Hotel

Harry "Ash" Kellogg lived in the Moose Head for nine years, from the time he was 8 years old until he left home to join the service at 17. His father managed the hotel starting in 1939, and Ash remembers the snow trains arriving:

"Mostly on weekends they came, but some people came all week and skied, because Old Forge was one of the first places in the state that had skiing."

He says the hotel restaurant and bar were always busy, since they were popular hangouts for visitors. Though he was young, Ash helped out around the hotel. He would bring in visitors' bags, and often helped stock the bar (which was a 40 foot long behemoth), where he noted:

"A lot of 'em liked the drink. They liked to party. Lot of 'em came here and never even skied; they just partied. ... They were young people mostly, people in their 20s. They were fun-loving people!"

The Moose Head had the perfect location - across the street from Maple Ridge. Don Case, the president of the Old Forge Winter Sports Association, actually lived in the hotel for some years.

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Winter tourist season

The snow train was a success, more so than anyone had imagined. Lewis says it was the beginning of the winter tourist season.

"A lot of the little old ladies in the back street here that had big houses when their kids were all gone, they opened what they called tourist homes. In advance the town would call them and say 'the snow train is coming, can you take six people? Yes or no?'"

The Old Forge Winter Sports Association continued building and making improvements during and after that first season. In February 1936, they unveiled a 1,000-foot long toboggan chute close to Maple Ridge. For the 1937 skiing season, a rope tow was constructed at Maple Ridge to make it easier for skiers to reach the top of the slopes.

In 1938, a reporter named Fritz Updike took the snow train between Utica and Old Forge and described hundreds of passengers pouring off the train, armed with "skies, toboggans, skates, and snowshoes" and met by various forms of transportation, including motor powered bobsleds and sleds pulled by dog teams.

In his article written for the Rome Sentinel, he also talks about crowds at the Moose Head Hotel and getting a hot meal on Main Street. You can read more quotes from his original article in this remembrance in the Rome Sentinel.

Lewis says the snow train made a huge difference in the sleepy town's economy.

"It made it possible to make a living during the winter."

Snow trains (and later buses) continued up until World War II, when they were suspended. But they resumed in 1946 and ran until 1954, as the use of personal automobiles increased in the U.S. In 1958, the McCauley Mountain Ski Area was built, with a steeper slope and modern technology. In the 1960s snowmobiling became popular in Old Forge; the town still calls itself the Snowmobile Capital of the East.

The snow trains and railroad system are gone, but they helped establish Old Forge as a winter destination.

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.ncpr.org/work. Thanks to Kate Lewis of the Goodsell Museum. Additional information on Maple Ridge was found in Jeremy K. Davis' book, "Lost Ski Areas of the Southern Adirondacks.")

 
 

 

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