Rob Burbank's Outdoors with the AMC: New branch of ski museum a perfect fit for North Conway

By ROB BURBANK March 02. 2018 6:31PM
Manager Brian Fowler places a sign above the gas fireplace in the browsing library prior to the opening of the Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum in North Conway. (MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL)

Hikers familiar with Pinkham Notch have likely gazed up at - or climbed to -Square Ledge, a prominent outcropping on the side of Wildcat Mountain, some 400 feet from the floor of the notch, across Route 16 from the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

The ledge is well-known for the magnificent views of Mount Washington it affords those who ascend the sometimes steep but relatively short Square Ledge Trail to get to the top. Less well-known is the fact that, decades ago, skiers could link downhill turns on a ski slope just below the famed ledge.

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) members created the 10-acre Square Ledge Practice Area in the White Mountain National Forest in time for the 1936 skiing season, according to an exhibit in the recently opened Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum in North Conway. "The Square Ledge area was eventually allowed to grow back to forest and no sign of it remains," reads an informational card that is part of an exhibit on CCC ski trail projects.

That's just one of the revelations visitors can experience during a visit to the museum, housed in the former North Conway Community Center, a 4400-square-foot brick building adjacent to Schouler Park in North Conway Village. That building was a gift from benefactor, financier, and Cranmore Mountain Ski Area developer, Harvey Dow Gibson, and his wife, Helen, in 1950.

Creation of the new museum was backed by a $1.7 million capital campaign, which received broad community, corporate, and foundation support. Hundreds turned out for a celebratory ribbon-cutting and open house Feb. 24.

The CCC exhibit, which contains many intriguing photographs of ski trail creation, also acknowledges the AMC and its longtime Huts Manager Joe Dodge, who lived and worked in Pinkham Notch and oversaw and expanded the AMC hut system.

Dodge was timekeeper for many of the early ski races run on such newly cut CCC trails as the Wildcat Trail in Pinkham Notch, and the exhibit features a wood-and-glass box in which he kept his race-timing stopwatches. Two watches can be seen beneath the glass. A drawer below holds a thermometer and two metal handwarmers, which would be lit to keep the stopwatches warm in cold weather to help ensure their accurate functioning.

Also included are some items of correspondence; a U.S. Forest Service permit allowing for the running of an Inferno ski race from the summit of Mount Washington, through Tuckerman Ravine, and down to Pinkham Notch; and a 1936 brochure from Otto's Ski School. Otto Schneibs, another exhibit notes, was the first European ski instructor in New England. He taught skiing for AMC members and was ski coach at Dartmouth College and, later, St. Lawrence University.

Turn around as you enter the exhibit area and you'll feel as though you're in Tuckerman Ravine: A wall-sized photo mural of the famed spring skiing destination's headwall looms above.

Other exhibits celebrate New England Olympians; the Eastern Slope Ski Club and such local notables as Olympian Paula Kann and ski school pioneer, Carroll Reed; the evolution of skis through the years; and the 10th Mountain Division ski troops.

Harvey Gibson put North Conway on the map in the world of skiing with the development in the late 1930s of Cranmore Mountain and his success in freeing Austrian skimeister Hannes Schneider and his family from Nazi house arrest in 1939. The Schneiders settled in North Conway, where Hannes taught skiing at Mount Cranmore until his death in 1955.

A hat worn by Gibson and Schneider's ski boots can also be seen in the new museum, as can the first skis-a child's pair-worn by Berlin native, Dartmouth College skiing standout, ski area designer and Ski Hall of Fame member Sel Hannah.

L.A. Drew Inc. of Intervale was general contractor for the museum's building renovations. Several local contractors contributed to the project. Principal designer for the museum's exhibits was Helen Reigle of HER Design, in conjunction with additional designers.

Founded in 1977, the New England Ski Museum operates its main location in Franconia Notch. More information is available at www.newenglandskimuseum.org or 823-7177. The Eastern Slope Branch in North Conway can be reached at 730-5044.

Rob Burbank is Director of External Relations for the Appalachian Mountain Club (outdoors.org) in Pinkham Notch. His column appears monthly.


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