January 23, 2012

Ski Tows

Winter sports may be off to a slow start this year for lack of natural snow, but that wasn't always the case. Since the 1930s, New Londoners have promoted the town's winter recreation as a means of attracting visitors during the off season. Local children, of course, made their own excitement, and many residents still have memories of thrilling rides down the South Pleasant Street hill on a double-runner sled. Their parents, meanwhile, organized winter carnivals and constructed ski areas to embrace, and perhaps profit from, the snowbound months.

The second ski tow (1948–1961)
New London's first ski tow, off of Seamans Road, operated in 1939 and 1940. Colby Junior College wanted to offer skiing for its students (then all women), so it hired three young men, Harold Buker, Maurice Shepard, and Dick Messer to provide a lift. They anchored a 1929 Ford Model A to a Kearsarge Telephone Co. pole and ran a rope around one of the rear wheels, jacked up and fender-less. It served its purpose, but the second world war intervened. Shepard was stationed in Newfoundland. Buker's bomber was downed in the North Sea, and he became a German POW. Messer was killed on the final day of hostilities in Europe.

Sketch of the GMC truck-powered tow rope
But interest in skiing was renewed after the war, and in November 1947 a small group organized the New London Outing Club to help construct a local ski tow. It leased property from Camp Tonawanda on Pleasant Lake and bulldozed a trail up the hill towards Seamans Road—with volunteers and other assistance from the college and local businesses. They built a warming hut and installed an 800-foot rope tow.

Postcard view of Pleasant Lake (c. 1955)
On January 3, 1948 the Northeast Ski Tow opened. The slope was operated as a private venture by Wes Blake, who had prior experience, but when it proved less profitable than expected, the New London Outing Club purchased Blake's share for $3,100 (with $2,000 borrowed from the bank in Newport). The club took over the lease, equipment, and operations.

The non-profit Outing Club hoped that a successful ski tow would help fund other programs like skating, swimming and even contribute to the Information Booth. In his 1948 Planning Board report, Chairman Ken Rich wrote: "We are glad to report satisfactory progress on the ski area with the erection of a ski tow and we hope through other organizations to see a skating rink before another year."

For all their optimism, the early years were lean, presenting frequent cash flow problems. Club Treasurer Mary Wright recalled that she often called on founder and president Bill Clough, Jr. to cover overdrafts. The ski area did become self-funding—especially during early-snow years when the slopes could open in time for the Christmas break. Despite modest expansion to three trails, demands for more terrain, more instruction, and more lift capacity prompted the search for a new hill. The old ski tow closed in March 1961, and King Ridge Ski Area opened the following December. Having introduced the sport to a post-war generation of townspeople, college students, and visitors, the ski tow had served the community well.

  • Buker, Harold W., Jr. Oral History Interview (April 1992)
  • Clough, Dr. William, Jr. "The Outing Club and King Ridge" (September 1976)
  • Lauridsen, Laurids. "New London's Northeast Slopes" (January 1976)
  • Squires, J. Duane. Mirror to America: A History of New London, New Hampshire 1900–1950
  • Stecker, Anne Page. Our Voices, Our Town: A History of New London, New Hampshire 1950–2000