- Associated Press - Saturday, December 27, 2014

SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) - Skiing in western Pennsylvania has grown from a group of Somerset locals holding onto a rope tow to an industry with two major resorts that attract thousands of people every weekend during the winter.

Western Pennsylvania’s ski industry is more than 80 years old. There have been a lot of stories accompanying the advancement of skiing in the area. Some of them are well-known by locals, while others have been forgotten.

Paul Prutzman, vice president of the Pennsylvania SnowSports Museum, said the region was a natural environment for the sport to take root.

“In Pennsylvania, the mountains are pretty close to metropolitan areas,” Prutzman said. “It was a fairly natural evolution in the 1940s to get into skiing there. You gradually saw a lot of those resorts start putting in rope tows. Pennsylvania had a tremendous number of ski areas. There were probably 50 to 60 ski areas in Pennsylvania at one point.”

From Rope Tow to Chairlift

The ski industry in Somerset county began in the 1930s, when Adolph Dupre began offering public skiing in the area at his home near Seven Springs. Skiers reached the top of the hill either by hiking or by being pulled by a rope tow, which was powered by a Packard automobile engine.

The place the resorts are currently located was always a popular one with local skiers.

“Three long steep hills just west of the town were the mecca of the skiers, with several score disporting themselves there throughout the the afternoon,” a 1937 Somerset Daily American article said.

By 1941 the ski industry had become popular for people throughout the tri-state area. The Laurel Mountain Ski Trail, located between Jennerstown and Laughlintown, drew people from Pittsburgh. The trail had three rope tows accessible to skiers. One was 1,800 feet in length, while the others were 1,100 feet.

A Daily American article that appeared that year said there were more than 1.5 million skiers in the U.S.

The Laurel Highlands was one of the best places for eastern skiers to visit.

“This promises to be one of the outstanding sport centers along the eastern seaboard and without a doubt the most popular ski run in western Pennsylvania,” a 1941 article said.

The first ski lodge at Seven Springs was constructed and the first lights for night skiing were installed at the bottom of Wagner slope in 1941. The lodge was praised by the Daily American.

“It has been the idea of Mr. Dupre to retain the original beauty of the mountain scenery,” an article said. “A hunting lodge, looking as though it may have been transported from some ancient English manor although built in the last five years, was constructed with such cleverness that it gives one a feeling of centuries of usefulness.”

War tensions were rising in Europe at the time with Nazi forces assaulting Britain. Adolph Dupre was no different from the rest of the country in having strong opinions on international affairs. The Bavarian-born citizen announced in March of 1941, before the Pearl Harbor bombing, that he would donate an entire day’s lift ticket proceeds to the British war relief.

Some local skiers became well-known because of their prowess on the slopes. Francis Schmidt, a Ligonier resident known as the “Flying Milkman,” won races at Laurel Mountain.

The Daily American had fun covering the sport, mocking people who had fallen, including a Norwegian man named John Engh who was featured going off a jump in a newspaper photo.

“What happened to Mr. Engh’s landing probably would have made another interesting picture of how not to indulge in the spectacular winter sport,” the caption read.

Herman Dupre took over Seven Springs when his father died in 1955. At the time, there were two rope tows. A year later, he bought a Poma lift, and began collecting $1.50 per day per skier, according to the Pennsylvania SnowSports Museum.

In 1957, Dupre tried to make snow by spraying a garden hose in zero degree air. It was his first attempt at something that would revolutionize skiing.

Hidden Valley opened for skiing in the 1958-59 season. George and Helen Parke, and her parents, Gordon and Gladys Craighead, were the owners of the land where the resort is now located. They had no intentions of starting a ski area when they bought the land, their son Hank Parke said.

George Parke worked on the Union Railroad in Pittsburgh at the time, but he was looking for another job.

“I don’t know what his job was, but I know he hated it,” Hank Parke said. “And he would do anything to get out of that. A few people suggested, ‘Hey, it’s pretty snowy up here, and you got a lot of hills on your property. So why don’t you think about starting a ski area?’ So he was like, ‘Great idea.’”

The new ski area was well-liked by the local community. The family-oriented resort did not permit alcoholic beverages on the ski area, and it was geared toward beginners.

“It offers good skiing for all who love good clean fun,” a 1960 Daily American review of the resort said.

The first few years of Hidden Valley’s existence were marked by a lack of expensive technology now available at ski resorts.

“In the early days, it was almost medieval,” Parke said. “The first rope tow at Hidden Valley was run off of a Ford tractor. The power takeoff had a wheel on it, there was a big belt, and that ran for the rope tow. I think that’s the one that Seven Springs worked, too.”

The Modern Ski Age

In 1960, Hidden Valley added a Poma lift, doubled the length of their slopes and increased the number of guest rooms. The first snowmaking system was installed at Seven Springs.

Herman Dupre was a constant on the mountain when he was innovating the snow-guns in the ensuing decades, said Ski Patrol Director Dick Barron, who has been working at the resort in some capacity since the mid-1960s.

“He knew it was the thing you had to do,” Barron said. “You’d be skiing and see Herman toying with the guns, playing, elevating and adjusting it.”

Snowmaking changed the ski industry.

“It extended the season,” Parke said. “The time between Christmas and New Year’s is critical in the ski business. If the ski area wasn’t open during that time, we refunded everybody’s room deposits. That’s a lot of money. When you’re open then, all the students are out of school. It’s phenomenally busy day after day after day.”

Hidden Valley and Seven Springs attracted different crowds then.

“There were a ton of people from Somerset who skied Hidden Valley,” he said. “I really think Hidden Valley was Somerset’s ski area. I think that’s changed. But Seven Springs in the early years drew more people from out of the area. But I think that’s evened out.”

Seven Springs didn’t draw the number of people it does today, but it was still a special place for the people who came.

“It was magical,” Barron said. “It was a place where people wanted to be. It wasn’t a big crowd. A busy day was 300 people. Everyone knew everyone.”

A number of other resorts popped up around Somerset County in the early days. Among them were Camp Soles, Plateau De Mount, White Mountain and Bear Rocks. Laurel Mountain was opened to the public around 1960. It was turned over to the state in 1964.

Grooming was done in a different way back then. Customers and staff would sidestep up the hill with their skis to pack the snow.

“People wanted to ski,” Parke said. “We usually gave them the longest skis out of the rental shop possible because that would cover more square footage.”

Skiers were expected to fix any big holes, which were called sitzmarks, they made in the snow.

Tragedy struck Hidden Valley in November of 1969 when the ski lodge burned down. Flames from the fire shot 60 feet in the air. The fire cost the resort an estimated $350,000, according to reports at the time.

The Parke family and Hidden Valley customers continued skiing at Hidden Valley.

“We are not defeated,” Helen Parke said at the time. “We will go on and ski this winter.”

They started rebuilding within days. They operated out of a small building. People came to the resort on their days off to help rebuild the lodge.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Seven Springs received a number of expansions and renovations. A new lodge replaced the old one in 1979. They added the Giant Steps Slope, which was 4,860 feet long, in 1983. They added the 4,880-foot long Gunnar Slope in 1984. And there was an exponential growth in the number of ski lifts at the area during that time.

The ‘70s brought with it improvements in grooming technology. Jeff Coulter, executive director of administration at Seven Springs, was a groomer then.

“We didn’t groom the whole mountain,” Coulter said. “We had to go downhill because the machines weren’t powerful enough to go uphill. It took all night.”

Laurel Mountain closed in 1989, and has been reopened and closed at various times since then. There are plans to reopen the resort, which will be operated by Seven Springs.

The shift from the ‘80s to the ‘90s brought with it the snowboarding revolution. Back then there were connotations of snowboarders as “smokers and knuckle-draggers,” said Craig Rosman, owner of Route 31 Bike, Board and Ski in Somerset.

“We used to practice snowboarding on the closed slopes at Hidden Valley illegally in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Rosman said. “I also remember there was more of a camaraderie of people hanging out and staying longer.”

Beginning in the early ‘90s, the resorts began permitting snowboarders to use the slopes. The snowboard lifestyle disseminated into the skiing culture. Nowadays, the jumps and features are used as frequently by skiers as they are by snowboarders.

There have been a number of ownership changes in the local ski industry in the past 35 years. George Parke sold Hidden Valley to Kettler Brothers Inc. in 1983. The Dupres sold Seven Springs to the Nutting family, which also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates, in 2006. The Kettler family sold Hidden Valley to the Buncher Co. in 2007. And the Nutting family bought Hidden Valley in 2013.

Throughout the history, the story of the mountain is really the stories of the people who came and worked there. There are countless stories families throughout the region have because the ski industry set up shop here.

“I’ve talked to people over the years,” Parke said. “And they tell me, ‘You don’t realize how much of an integral part of life this was when our kids were growing up.’”





Information from: Daily American, https://www.dailyamerican.com

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