Historic Structures

Mad River Glen Ski Lift, Fayston Vermont

Date added: February 21, 2020 Categories: Vermont Recreation

The Mad River Glen Cooperative in Fayston, Vermont, is the home of the Single Chair Ski Lift, also known as Chair #1. The longest operating single chair ski lift still in its original location in North America, it is a historical treasure for the ski industry. The ski area is located on the northeast slope of General Stark Mountain in central Vermont. The tramway division of the American Steel and Wire Company designed and installed the Single Chair Ski Lift, a patented aerial ski tramway, in 1947. At the base of the ski lift is a bottom Drive Terminal (1600' elevation) that drives a wire rope up the mountain to a top Tension Terminal (3570' elevation). The bottom Drive Terminal features a large 10' diameter cast iron bullwheel that pulls the 1 1/8" diameter steel cable. An Allis-Chalmers diesel engine, located in the Vault Motor Room in the basement, drives the bullwheel. The Vault Motor Room is a reinforced concrete and steel structure built into a slope directly below an open, wood frame structure that houses the drive bullwheel assembly. This room contains an Allis-Chalmers diesel engine, a secondary General Motors diesel engine, a belt drive system, reduction gear shafting, a vertical drive shaft set into beveled gears, and a disc brake system, as well as a concrete counterweight connected to an hydraulic brake system located in the rear of the Vault Motor Room.

The Operator's Room is a two-story, wood frame structure located at ground level above the Vault Motor Room, on the south side of the Drive Terminal. The main upstairs Operator's Room contains several instruments used for running the lift drive system. To engage the diesel engine, there is an upper throttle and torque converter switch on the south wall (facing the lift line), which connects to a wire that runs through a magnetic solenoid that can stop the throttle through the emergency brake (e-brake). To run the chairlift, the operator first starts the diesel engine in the Vault Motor Room. He then puts the lift in drive by engaging the torque converter upstairs, and then pulls down the upper throttle, which activates the throttle on the motor.

Several safety features were built in, or added, to the chair lift to protect riders from equipment failure or accidental mishaps. These include motor kill switches, a service brake, a band brake, and a roll-back brake.

Directly in front of the Drive Terminal is a loading area for skiers. Suspended from the haul rope by compression grips are 158 chairs, each carrying a single person with skis. The 1 1/8" diameter steel cable ascends and descends the mountain on twentyone, riveted, steel lattice towers (and one tubular tower), each set in concrete piers, which guides the rope through sets of sheave wheels. The sheaves are made of cast steel with a diameter of 11 19/64", measured to the cable thread. The towers are numbered 1 to 22 from the base to the top, tower 2 is an 18" diameter steel tubular tower added later. Between towers 2 and 3 are two "deadmen", which are t-shaped, 6'-5" x 3'-0" concrete pads with cast iron anchors used for cable tensioning. The deadmen are basically hooks pinned to the hillside used to tie off the cable and are only used when changing out the lift cable, which was last done in 1980.

After beginning his ride on the chairlift at the bottom of the mountain, the skier may get off the chair at the Mid Station or may ride all the way to the top of the mountain, enjoy the views and then ski down one of the many ski trails. The Mid Station (2878' elevation) is located halfway up the mountain, between towers 14 and 15. After tower 22 is the Tension Terminal at the ridgeline of the mountain. The Tension Terminal also has a 10' diameter bullwheel, where the rope terminates and turns back down the mountain. The bullwheel is housed in a tension carriage connecting to a separate tension cable supporting a concrete counterweight, which hangs in an adjacent counterweight tower. The single chairs, spaced at 63.8' intervals, travel at 525' per minute and can carry 494 skiers per hour up the mountain.

Skiing is Vermont's most important recreational industry and today this winter sport provides recreation, employment and critical tax revenues throughout the state. Another theme of this paper is how ski lift technology was fundamental to the success of the Vermont ski industry, how it transformed the rural landscape and is an important part of the state's industrial and environmental history.

Prior to the development of chairlifts, there were many inventions to meet the challenge of 'getting up the hill.' This challenge for alpine skiing had been solved in Europe with cog railways and aerial lifts. Although there were rope tows in Europe as early as 1908, the first rope tow for skiing was patented in Switzerland in 1931. Based on a successful rope tow installation in Canada during the 1932-33 season, the first in North America, rope tows appeared first on the mountains in Vermont and then spread quickly throughout New England. The 'Ski Way' in Woodstock, Vermont, was one of the first rope-driven ski lifts in the United States. In January 1934 a Model T Ford truck engine pulled skiers up a 900' hill, as they held onto a long loop of continuously moving rope. This was the beginning of an era of invention in getting skiers safely and quickly up the hill that led to early homemade rope tow contraptions at Shrewsbury, Corinth and Putney, Vermont. Unfortunately, learning to handle a rope tow was tougher than learning to ski.

During the 1935-36 season, one oftwo cable-driven ski lifts in New England was installed on Oak Hill near Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The first continuously operating overhead wire cable life, now called a J-bar, was meant to hook around one's waist. The American Steel and Wire Company (AWSC), a division of the United States Steel Corporation, was well known for manufacturing devices to transport materials by wire cables. AWSC, a New Jersey company, supplied the wire cable, and a local company designed the towers and erected the lift that was used by the Dartmouth Ski Team. Early surface lifts (rope tows, J-bars, and T-bars) all required the skier to stand up with skis on and hold on for the bumpy and perilous ride up the mountain.

The advent of the chairlift, allowing the skier to sit down while wearing skis, was a safe and simple device that the public accepted enthusiastically. It was also the most cost-effective way to transport the expanding crowds of skiers up the mountain. Based on ASWC's engineering work in New Hampshire, the world's first single chair ski lift was designed and installed at Sun Valley, Idaho in December 1936. New England's first single chair lift was constructed in Gilford, New Hampshire at the Belknap Recreation Area (today Gunstock) in January 1938. By eliminating the uphill climb, ski lifts overcame the power of gravity and set in motion enduring expectations that skiing should demand only as much human energy as needed for the downhill run. Chairlifts gave skiers an opportunity to sit down, rest, and save energy for a greater number of ski runs per day.

Forested mountains cover northern New England. The development of ski trails in the modern sense - in contrast to farmer's meadows, logging roads and winter tramping trails - was a direct result of the popularization of ski lifts. The Depression also had a significant impact on this development as funds were channeled to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to cut the first ski trails and roads up the mountains in Vermont. Vermont's Forest Service director, Perry H. Merrill, arranged to have CCC crews cut trails in the summer of 1933 on Mt. Mansfield in Stowe.

Roland Palmedo (1894-1977), an investment banker for the firm of Brown Brothers Harriman on Wall Street as well as a founder (1931) and president for ten years of the Amateur Ski Club of New York, was influential in bringing the first chairlift to Vermont. In 1933, he built a 'ski house' in East Dorset, Vermont. In 1932 Palmedo's skiing interests focused on Mt. Mansfield in Stowe. At Stowe, Palmedo was active in the formation of one of the earliest ski patrols in the United States in January 1936. Commercial operation of the first rope tow began in Stowe in February 1937. By 1938 Palmedo and his friend, James N. Cooke, recognized the potential of the new chair lift technology and began soliciting investors for a 6,000' chairlift up Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak (4,393') in Stowe. Roland Palmedo was President and James Negley Cooke was the Vice-President of the Mt. Mansfield Lift Inc., which financed construction of the first chairlift in Vermont to the top of Mt. Mansfield for the 1940-41 season. This single chairlift, constructed by the ASWC, was the longest (6,330') in the world at the time and opened in December 1940. It carried eighty-six single chairs and the ascent took less than fifteen minutes. This second chair lift in the East put Stowe on the map as the 'Ski Capital of the East' and launched the recreational skiing industry in Vermont. Fast, overhead, cable-lifted non-detachable chairs welcomed thousands of New Englanders to the exciting sport of alpine skiing.

In 1940 the T-bar, for lifting two people, made its first appearance in North America on Pico Peak near Rutland, Vermont. The T-bar was a Swiss design engineered by the wire rope manufacturers J. A. Roebling & Sons of Trenton, New Jersey. During the next two decades the number of T-bars built far surpassed the number of chairlifts. With so many and varied up-ski devices, a Ski Tow Owners Association was formed to look for technological answers to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds. Before the Second World War, the new Vermont ski industry could boast of its first aerial ski lift, the single chair, as well as rope tows, J-bars, and T-bars.

Following the war, Cornelius Vander Starr financed the installation of a second ski lift at Mt. Mansfield, a 4,000' T-bar lift, which opened in the 1946-47 season. At this time, five business interests had claims on mountain activities with no centralized responsibility. Starr consolidated these competing interests, and by 1953 he was Chairman of the Board of the new Mt. Mansfield Company, Inc. Roland Palmedo and James N. Cooke, traditionalists disenchanted with the commercial growth and competing interests at Stowe, sold their interests in the chairlift operation during Starr's consolidation trend. Palmedo and Cooke looked 28 miles south of Stowe on Route 100 where, with help from the membership of the Amateur Ski Club of New York, they led the development of another ski area in 1946-48.

As skiing became the winter sport of choice for many social and economic classes, the crowds multiplied and the practice of replacing single chair lifts with double (seating two), then triples (seating three) and later quads (seating four) was repeated throughout the New England ski industry. A quad replaced Stowe's first single chairlift in 1989 and left the distinction of the oldest single chair ski lift in Vermont to Mad River Glen.

The success of winter tourism in Vermont depended on the ability of promoters. Fred Harris, from Brattleboro, Vermont, was an early promoter of winter sports. Harris founded the now famous Dartmouth Outing Club and in 1912 wrote the essay "Skiing and Winter Sports in Vermont" to popularize the sport. From the middle of the 1930s forward, engineers and ski entrepreneurs worldwide manufactured an astounding array of ski lifts, trail-grooming technologies, and snowmaking systems, all of which allowed them to create and expand upon a decidedly technological leisure landscape. Ski industry technology was a powerful tool in reworking the landscape of rural Vermont. Writing in 1937, Roland Palmedo observed that "the sport of skiing has reached a certain maturity of development, a recent universality, which makes the present an appropriate moment to record the past and survey the present scene."

Charles Edward Crane's 1941 book Winter in Vermont was the most thorough attempt to teach visitors to appreciate winter's moods, beauty and charm. Crane's book helped to construct a scenic identity for winter that rivaled summer and fall. Residents were encouraged to re-envision winter in terms of its economic value through its association with tourism; snow had now become 'white gold.' Skiing spread dramatically in the postwar years along the high, central spine of the Green Mountains, where skiers could find the state's highest rates of snowfall and most challenging terrain. In the decades following World War II, skiing became an important tourist activity. Owners of ski areas used radio, magazines, newspapers and brochures to advertise annual improvements to trails, ski lifts and other services. The sport's popularity boomed when middle-class Americans embraced skiing both as a recreational outlet and as a forum of economic self-expression during a period of national economic prosperity. Vermont emerged quickly as a regional and national leader in skiing.

Roland Palmedo and James Negley Cooke distanced themselves from the competing interests and expanded commercial development at Stowe and financed a new ski area after the war. As early as 1945 the State of Vermont conducted a survey to discover suitable locations for a major integrated ski development. In March 1946, Palmedo and Cooke found the site for their dreams on General Stark Mountain in Fayston. Palmedo and Cooke formed the Mad River Corporation in November 1946 and began acquiring land on Stark Mountain. Palmedo served as President while Cooke held the position of Vice-President. They named their project Mad River Glen, after the Mad River that flows in the valley on the Waitsfield side of the mountain.

After surveying twenty-six possible locations, ten factors led Palmedo and Cooke to invest in timberland on the mountain in Fayston. First, Stark Mountain (3570') had a north-facing elevation that was perfect for retaining snow cover throughout the winter; its altitude, exposure and terrain were just about perfect. Second, ski trails and lift line locations could be designed to create a variety of experiences. Third, the site was accessible from the CCC-constructed, year round McCullough Turnpike from the valley. Fourth, accommodations were available in private homes and ski lodges could be constructed on both this highway and Route 100 in the valley. Fifth, there was a village with services and other social attractions in the valley. Sixth, they had the support of the valley's residents. Seventh, they had the available capital from serious investors. Eighth, they had the management skills to plan and operate a ski area. Ninth, they could call on the ASWC to design and install a state-of-the-art single chair ski lift to fit the contours of the mountain. And tenth, Mad River Glen was only 14 miles from the Middlesex station where the 'Montrealer' and the 'Washingtonian' stopped on the mainline of the Central Vermont Railway to bring skiers from urban areas on 'snow trains' to skiing in the Green Mountains. Due to these factors, they predicted an economic success. On January 30, 1946, Roland Palmedo wrote Gordon H. Bannerman, chief bridge and tramway engineer for ASWC: "I hope you will go ahead with orders for critical materials and with your studies. I am making arrangements for a survey, and in this connection should like to have your requirements and instructions."

Vermont Governor Ernest W. Gibson signed a bill in the 1947 legislative session approving the sale of land bordering the A. I. McCullough Turnpike (less the 50' road right of way) to the Mad River Corporation. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the turnpike in 1933. This road project ran for 4.5 miles from Route 100 in the valley to a parking loop at the new ski area. Palmedo and Cooke believed that the state would vastly improve, as well as maintain, the turnpike (later renamed Route 17) so that the ski area would be accessible throughout the year. Dan Kiley and Associates of Franconia, New Hampshire, specialists in site, recreational and regional planning, were hired to study the development potential of the area. There was no public offering of stock in the Mad River Corporation, rather it was offered to private friends and acquaintances of Palembo and Cooke. When the offering was made, the corporation had already acquired and had purchase options on 1650 acres or just over 2.5 square miles on General Stark Mountain.

Robert Schwarzenbach, a member of the 1940 U.S. Olympic ski team, surveyed and laid out the first trails on the northeast slopes of General Stark Mountain. There were five trails cut through the forest in the summer of 1947; three expert trails from the top of the mountain and two intermediate trails from the midway station. Charles D. Lord, who had engineered most of the trails on Mt. Mansfield, and Nancy Reynolds Cooke, the former national women's ski champion, assisted Schwarzenbach. A Palmedo biographer would later write that "Mad River Glen, with its tricky but beautiful trails, is a Palmedo creation, pure and simple." Alexander 'Sandy' Mcllvaine (1910-1985), an architect from New York City, designed two warming shelters: 'Stark's Nest' at the top and 'Base Box' at the bottom of the mountain. The 'Base Box" has very large glass windows on the southern elevation for passive solar heating and with several additions is still in operation. Mcllvaine would continue a career in designing ski resorts at Squaw Valley in California, Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and Stratton Mountain in Vermont in 1961.

In 1947 Mad River Glen contracted with the American Steel & Wire Company to engineer, design, fabricate and partially install a state-of-the-art single chairlift. At this time, single chairs were the only chairlifts available; doubles, triples, and quads would be the preferred choice of large, development-oriented ski resorts of the future. Fortunately, the proposed lift line crossed a short, nearly flat, shelf at about the 2,800' level, perfect for a Mid Station. Construction of the chairlift began in the summer of 1947 but because of an early snow fall, several lift towers were not completed in time for the winter season. Mad River Glen's Chair # 1 is a single chair monocable chairlift with an initial lifting capacity of 200 pph (people/per/hour) and an ultimate capacity ofjust over 400 pph. The original sixty-nine chairs were spaced at 165' on the wire rope and with the addition of seventy-one chairs in 1955, a capacity of 400 pph was realized. Later, eighteen more chairs were added to bring the capacity up to 450 pph for a current total of 158 chairs. In 1989, twenty of the original chairs were replaced with chairs that had an improved design for the footrest. Since 1947, the Single Chair Ski Lift has had some modifications and in general has had a remarkable operational and safety record.

The single chair at Mad River Glen was the fifteenth passenger lift constructed by the ASWC. The bottom drive terminal with a large cast iron drive bullwheel, atop tension terminal with cast iron bullwheel and counterweight, twenty-one lift towers (one additional tubular tower was installed in 1958 near the base), and installation of the first sixty-nine chairs had been completed by the fall of 1947. The chairs are suspended on more than 2 miles of 1 1/8 diameter steel cable. The prime mover was a 140 horse-power diesel motor, the largest ever used for such a purpose. A rack-and-pinion gear system connected the engine directly to the bullwheel that drove the wire cable with the attached chairs up the mountain. The operation required six or seven employees, with the lift moving seven hours a day every day for about 120 days in the winter season. In about twelve minutes the chair carried a skier 1970' vertical in 1 mile, from 1600' at the base to 3570' at the summit. This $150,000 engineering achievement was the second chair lift in Vermont and placed Mad River Glen as the only rival to the 1940 chairlift at Stowe.

To start the trip up the mountain, the skier steps up to the wooden deck loading platform and takes a seat on a chair as it is carried along the overhead moving cable. The rider closes a safety handle, puts his feet on the footrest and settles back to enjoy a solitary, smooth climb up the mountain. A few minutes later, at the crest of the hill, the rider simply skis off and prepares to ski down one of the trails. At the top of the mountain, Vermont's famous Long Trail runs along the ridgeline and provides breathtaking views west to the Adirondack Mountains of New York and east to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Vermont Governor Ernest Gibson joined Master of Ceremonies Palmedo, Cooke, Miss Vermont Jean Peatman, and lift operator, George O'Neill, for the official dedication of Mad River Glen on December 11, 1948. Unfortunately a lack of sufficient snow prevented the assembled dignitaries from enjoying the lift ride up and skiing back down the mountain. About 600 people did take advantage of the free ride up the mountain for the view and all the major Vermont newspapers predicted success for this new $400,000 ski development in the East. The enterprise was a bold venture; in the winter of 1948-49 skiers had no less than fifty-five ski areas to choose from in Vermont, including Stowe, Bromley, Pico and Ascutney Mountain. The rising profitability and popularity of skiing transformed the meanings and images of snow from a winter liability and a nuisance to an opportunity and a revenue-generating asset.

By late January 1949, there was sufficient snow cover to begin full time operation of the single chairlift at Mad River Glen. Palmedo promoted the trails and ski touring opportunities in the ski industry journals with Mad River Glen's big advantage, a new single chair ski lift. The new ski area was a huge success and by the opening of the second season in December 1949, journalists referred to Stowe and Mad River Glen as the 'Snow Corner of New England.' The Mad River Association, made up of everyone in the valley with a business interest in the new ski area's future, contributed to the success at Mad River Glen.

Roland Palmedo was a pioneer in Vermont's ski industry. He recognized the value of skiing as art, aspiration and achievement due to his personal connection with the nature of the forested mountain. For Palmedo and his successors at Mad River Glen, skiing was a near-spiritual endeavor, not simply weekend recreation, and his successors continued this aesthetic environmentalism. In 1959 Martin Luray wrote a brief biography of Palmedo for SKI magazine and said "Palmedo, there is no doubt, is an original." He went on to describe him as a "naval aviator, pioneer flyer, winter sports photographer, writer, mountain climber, ski area developer, world traveler and most recently, whitewater kayak expert." Ski industry historian Jeffrey R. Leich recently wrote that Palmedo "was America's Renaissance man of skiing." Roland Palmedo planned Mad River Glen along principles directly opposed to all the major American skiing developments. In the long run Mad River Glen's lean and ascetic approach proved to be powerful branding. Palmedo died in 1977 and his personal library of skiing history became the nucleus of the Palmedo Ski Library at the National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum (1954) in Ishpeming, Michigan. Palmedo was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1968 and the Vermont Ski Museum Hall of Fame in 2006.

As early as 1949, locals and newcomers had formed the Mad River Association, headquartered in the valley. They advertised the availability of 500 rooms in a combination of new hotels, bunkhouses, country inns, and local farmhouses - all in a place that had until recently been a remote and heavily forested area. Historians would later refer to this change in the Vermont landscape as a "sports-landscape ensemble." New commercial development provided services devoted to tourists along Route 100, the new 'skier's highway.' By the early 1960s economists delighted in calling skiing "Vermont's fastest growing industry." In 1964 Vermont author and historian Ralph Nading Hill labeled ski-lift development a "revolution" with repercussions to the Vermont landscape that would reach far beyond the mountains themselves. Vermonters would be faced with a new reality, "the tracks left by skiing do not melt with the coming of spring." Historian Harrison Blake has written that of all the technological developments, "ski lifts have had perhaps the greatest impact on the Vermont landscape."

In 1955, Roland Palmedo published his nine principles for "How To Plan A Ski Area" that included: terrain, orientation, snowfall, altitude, accessibility, housing, financing, lift types and trail design. In 1957 Palmedo praised the introduction of chair lifts to the ski industry, while at the same time cautioned the industry about constructing too many lifts. Mad River Glen is one of the last preserves of the classic winding New England ski trail that was the norm at ski areas in the 1940s and 1950s. While the rest of Vermont's ski areas have spent decades 'upscaling, expanding and transforming,' Mad River Glen was not planned to be a 'destination resort.' Mad River is a refuge for skiers craving diversity with running, steep mogul, and gladed trails that wind through the contours of the forested mountain. Unique among Vermont ski areas, Mad River Glen is on 700 acres of privately owned land.

To handle the increasing crowds at Mad River Glen a double chair ski lift, called the 'Sunnyside Chair' was installed in 1962, and another double chair named the 'Birdland Chair' was installed in 1967. In the practice area near the base of the mountain, a rope tow was installed in 1950 and a T-bar in 1958; both have been replaced. A third double chair, named the 'Practice Slope Chair' was installed in 1972, and Callie's Corner Handle Tow was operational in 2000; both are still in service. Because of the owner's determination to preserve the character of Mad River Glen's skiing experience, the historic Chair # 1, the single chair ski lift, was in operation until the 2006-2007 winter season.

In 1972 Roland Palmedo decided to sell Mad River Glen to a group of investors who shared his vision, and in 1974 Truxton Pratt became Chairman of the Board and President of the McCullough Corporation. 'Trux' was followed in 1975 by his widow Betsy Pratt with Ken Quackenbush as President. Quackenbush held that position until 1983 when Betsy Pratt became President and sole owner of Mad River Glen. According to Betsy Pratt, "Ken Quackenbush is the genius behind Mad River because he designed most of the trails." Betsy Pratt continued in the spirit of the original vision by maintaining the original low-development, low-impact environmental agenda. In January 1987, a bronze plaque was installed on the wall of the Drive Terminal to honor the first ski lift operator George Neill "in appreciation of 40 years of service and dedication."

In 1995 skiers formed the Mad River Glen Cooperative with the goal of buying the ski area. By selling individual shares in the cooperative, they raised $2.5 million, and Mad River became the first (and still the only) co-operatively owned ski facility in the United States. The Mad River Glen shareholders' mission is '... to preserve andprotect the forests and mountain ecosystem ofGeneral StarkMountain in order to provide skiing and other recreational access and to maintain the unique character ofthe area for present andfuture generations.' The co-op paid off its mortgage in 1999, and now it owns the mountain, the ski lifts and buildings on 700 acres. The co-op is committed to preserving the undeveloped nature of the mountain and Chair 1, the historic single chair ski lift. A hired staff, under the direction and leadership of the Board of Trustees elected by the shareholders, manages the ski area. In 1996, Mad River Glen adopted the slogan 'SKI IT IF YOU CAN' which has proved to be a marketing success. Skiers love the single chair, not only because it is historic and the last of its kind, but also because its low capacity means that once they get up to the summit, they are virtually alone to experience skiing the way many feel it was 'meant to be' in New England.

In 2004 a detailed engineering evaluation proposed modifications to the top tension terminal, towers, bottom drive terminal, line equipment and electrical circuits that constitute a 'restoration' of the single chair ski lift.

At the April 2005 annual meeting, 81 percent of the shareholders approved an expenditure of $1.4 million for the 'Single Rebuild' and in May, the Board of Trustees authorized the creation of a Single Chair Finance Committee to develop the detailed financial plan. The historic significance of the single chair was a contributing factor in the shareholders decision to rebuild the ski lift.