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2-5-05          "Skiing on the West Side" - by Marge Muehlke

Gilfordites looking up at Gunstock mountains western slopes in the winter can still see a faint vertical line to the left of the summit. Another fainter trace is visible to the right of the line, and a horizontal trace connects the two near the summit. These are what remain of the paths cleared 70 years ago to install the second ski tow in the USA, the Gunstock Ski Tow/Hoist and to create the challenging Winnipesaukee Ski Trail. The intermediate Corkscrew Trail was carved out of the forest to the left of the tow line, but the forest has reclaimed it.

Members of the local Winnipesaukee Ski Club (WSC, now the Gunstock Ski Club) and the Boston-based White Mountain Ski Runners (WMSR) had frequented slopes of The Belknaps since the 1920's, hiking up and skiing down trails they cut at other times of the year. The Winnipesaukee Ski Club had cut more than 25 miles of trails in the 20's and early 30's. Activity increased when Ted Cooke of Swampscott, MA was talked into putting a rope tow on Gunstock.

Cooke had visited Woodstock, VT where the first ski tow in the country had been set up on a farmer's hill. Knowing that the tow for Gilford would have to be much longer and take skiers up far steeper terrain, Cooke took on the challenge. He designed and assembled the components of the new ski tow in the shops of Lynn Sand and Stone Company in Swampscott, MA with which he was associated. In December of 1934 he had completed his work. He disassembled the tow, loaded it onto a truck, and transported it to Gilford.

On-ground preparation had been done by a crew of workers during the fall of 1934 on land owned by Frank Bacon (Milo's father, currently owned by Muehlkes) and Fred Weeks (Arthur's father, currently owned by Steve Weeks, and thanks to last year's positive vote at Town Meeting, by all of us, residents of the Town of Gilford.) This involved cutting trees, moving boulders, and installing 30 return rope pulleys. The tow would serve the two trails mentioned above.

Bacon's pony and horses moved the components to the 1100 foot base elevation where the 4-cylinder engine was set up. Florence and Ted, Frank's team of oxen successfully moved the 6200 feet of rope up to the top of the tow line (about 2000 ft elevation). Cooke realized that it would have been much better to put the engine at the top, but the logistics made this impractical, and who would have wanted to trudge up the steep terrain to get it started early in the morning?

By late January of 1935, 70 years ago, the rope tow was in place on Gunstock Mountain, ready to accept its first skiers. They would have to hold on to a 7/8 in. rope for 3100 feet in order to reach the top. When conditions were good, the tow could carry 4 people at a time at a speed of 30 miles per hour!

It took only 2.5 - 2.75 minutes to reach the top, but it was tough going! People often had to drop off the rope part way up because they couldn't grip it tightly enough. The rope twisted as skiers ascended, and they had to be careful not to get loose clothing caught. A "bang board" at the top disengaged those who failed to let go! When conditions warmed up, excessive slack developed in the rope. As often as twice a day the tow would stop for about an hour while a piece of rope was cut out. According to Cooke, a loud cheer from the patient crowd accompanied the resumption of activity!

Improvements were made for the 1936 season. Thousands of feet of lumber were carried in to improve the rough ground on the tow path. This would reduce the problem of having the rope down around your ankles one minute and up above your head the next! A larger 6-cylinder engine replaced the smaller one and it was housed in a wooden shelter. Twice as many people could now ride the tow at the same time. One-inch rope was installed, replacing the 7/8 in rope. A 40-ft tower was built as a counterweight to solve the rope slackening problem. Ted Cooke developed (and patented in 1937) a "rope grab" made from pipe in the blacksmith shops in Swampscott. Riders would grab the rope with their right hands and get up to rope speed, then put the grab on the rope and pull back to secure it. These were available for $1.00 rental a day.

Tickets cost $1.00 each and gave the skier 10 rides to the top.

Remnants still visible today include parts of the metal head frame at the top, cables on the ground where the tow line crosses Sam Aldridge's hiking trail, a return rope pulley high in a tree along the tow line, and the semi-collapsed shed which offers free housing to porcupines and other creatures.

Several farmhouses including Steve Weeks (Peter Weeks residence) on Weeks Road and Nancy and Dick Campbell's on Belknap Mountain Road were early bed and breakfast (and lunch and supper!) spots. The Winnipesaukee Ski Runners rented the Campbell's house, newly outfitted with electric lights, a telephone, and broadcast and short-wave radio. "Batch's Barn" (currently Muehlkes') was a rustic ski lodge, converted from a barn by Ralph Batchelder after he purchased it in 1935. So there were several places very nearby where skiers could rest their weary bones and eat hearty meals. In 1936, entertainment included sled dog rides with 11-year-old Pete LaBonte's P3-dog team, driven by Pete. For 50 cents he would take skiers along Belknap Mountain Road from Weeks Road south to Hoyt Road, and then back again. Moonlight ski parties occurred at Batch's Barn. The WSC and the WMSR clubs hosted a number of competitive races on the west side trails including ones for local skiers and others organized for the USEASA which drew competitors from afar.

In 1939, the tow had a new home at Commonwealth Country Club in Boston. The Belknap Recreation Area on the east side of the mountain was developing quickly and was attracting large numbers of skiers. The Gunstock Ski Tow couldn't compete. The last active skiing that I am aware of on the west side was in 1975 when Gary Allen was coach of the Laconia High School Ski Team. For a number of years he had his team clear parts of the Winnipesaukee and Corkscrew Trails in the fall and then hike up and ski down after their regular competitions ended in late February. Family members try to hike both the tow line and the Winnipesaukee Trail, but the forest is working hard to obscure them. Anyone interested in assisting us with our modest attempts to keep these open for historic and recreational purposes is welcome to e-mail me at msmue@cyberportal.net. Fall is the best time for this activity.

Thanks to the following for information used in the article: Bob Wilkinson who loaned me early albums of the Winnipesaukee Ski Club, The New England Ski Museum whose archives include Janet Young's interviews with Ted Cooke, Nancy and Dick Campbell whose research into the history of this property is a gold mine, Milo Bacon, Alice Batchelder Lloyd, Pete LaBonte, Gary Allen, and my father, John Muehlke