DAVIS — Snow was in short supply across the eastern United States in February 1951, creating slope conditions that were marginal to unskiable at the Pennsylvania resorts favored by members of the Ski Club of Washington, D.C.
In an effort to find whiter pastures within driving distance of the nation’s capital in what what was shaping up to be a green winter, club member Hal Leich and newly elected president Goram Young spent a sunny Saturday driving through the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia.
Exhibits in the newly opened Snow Sports Museum of West Virginia in Davis explain how that 70-years-distant road trip led to the development of the state’s ski industry, a prime outdoor recreation enhancement for West Virginia that now contributes $250 million annually to its economy.
It all started with a phone call.
“Hal called me to ask if I would like to go looking for snow,” Young recalled in a 1985 piece he wrote for a club history that is now part of the museum’s collection. “I said, ‘What snow? Where?”
Leich, as it turned out, heard from an airline pilot friend who regularly flew the Pittsburgh-Washington route that large patches of snow could be seen on the higher mountains in the vicinity of northeastern West Virginia’s section of the Allegheny Front. The Front is a long escarpment, or near cliff, that drops up to 3,000 feet off a plateau that extends into Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. In West Virginia, it includes parts of Randolph, Grant, Pendleton and Tucker counties.
“Hal said he had been studying his topo maps and figured out where the snow ought to be,” Young recounted. “Fine,” I said. “Let’s go!”
The two set out for West Virginia on Feb. 24, 1951. After spotting and briefly visiting a patch of nearly impossible to reach snow near Seneca Rocks, the two continued their search, driving north from Harman to the top of a long, steep hill.
“We came around a bend and into Canaan Valley, and suddenly, there on a ridge in an upland pasture, was a large snow drift which came within 600 feet of the road,” Young wrote. “Gee, it looked good — and accessible, too.”
Leich and Young introduced themselves to Hobe and Irene Mauzy, owners of the property containing the snowdrift, which extended to the back yard of their farmhouse. When the Washingtonians asked for permission to ski on the drift, Irene Mauzy “broke into a big grin and nodded her approval,” Young wrote.
Leich and Young spent several hours climbing and skiing the drift, which was 15 feet deep in places and said to occasionally remain intact going into summer. As they left the Mauzy farm and drove toward Davis, “we were taken with the beauty of the wide valley surrounded by a ring of mountains,” Young wrote.
After dinner and a night of rest at Worden’s Hotel in Davis, which would soon become a mecca for skiers, Leich and Young returned to the Mauzy farm for more skiing and then drove back to Washington to spread the word to the club.
By fall, enough members had visited the site and seen its possibilities to vote in favor of spending $550 in club funds to lease the “snow rights” to the farm for use by club members and the public.
Work crews from the club began spending weekends at the site. A rope tow bought from a defunct ski operation in Maryland was hauled back to Canaan Valley, along with an old truck chassis and motor to power it. Enough support poles were installed to make the repurposed rope tow 650 feet long. While some members built a warming hut at the top of the slope, others prepared an outbuilding donated by the Mauzys for duty as a larger warming hut at the base of the hill.
“The Ski Club of Washington, D.C., was — and is — made up of serious, professional people who worked hard at their jobs and on club projects and played even harder,” said museum board member Andy Snyder, executive director of the museum.
Leich, who served as president of the club during the 1940s, organized and directed the standards division of the U.S. Civil Service Commission and was part of a task force that organized the Environmental Protection Agency, where he later served as director of its policy division. He was also an avid whitewater kayaker and hiker. Young pursued a career in Washington, D.C., real estate and was also a whitewater paddler.
Ski club work crews labored into November to convert the snow-attracting pasture into a ski area. In December 1951, just as snow began to accumulate to a skiable depth, the club opened Driftland Ski Area. Lift tickets cost $1 for ski club members and $1.50 for non-members.
With the opening of Driftland, “the Ski Club of Washington, D.C., founded snow sports in West Virginia,” according to the museum’s first comprehensive exhibit, “From Driftland to Timberline.” The exhibit traces the development, and in some cases, the abandonment, of the five post-Driftland ski areas that operated on the slopes of Canaan Valley’s Cabin Mountain.
Driftland morphed into Cabin Mountain Ski Area in 1954 after the ski club secured a 10-year lease on the Mauzy property. By the 1958-59 season, Cabin Mountain was operating three rope tows, a rental shop, a ski school and a ski patrol.
Meanwhile, the first commercial ski area south of the Mason-Dixon Line began its first full season of operations at nearby Weiss Knob during the 1956-57 ski season. Its founder, Virginian Bob Barton, offered skiing on 60 acres of leased land on a slope descending from the 4,400-foot peak, served by two rope tows and a T-bar surface lift.
The location proved to have more of an Arctic feel than desired, since there was no terrain to deflect lake effect snowstorms, borne by winds that occasionally reached 70 mph. “There is literally nothing but air between Weiss Knob and the North Pole,” Barton wrote in a letter to a friend.
In 1959, Barton moved his ski operation a short distance to the north, to another tract of leased land partially sheltered by Bald Knob and there installed the state’ s first snowmaking machine in time for the 1959-60 season. A deluge of snow that year negated its usefulness.
“We ran the machine two nights and then couldn’t find it until April,” Barton wrote.
In 1959, the state began buying land in the vicinity of the Weiss Knob and Cabin Mountain ski areas to create Canaan Valley State Park, where downhill skiing on a larger scale was planned. By 1962, the Ski Club of Washington, D.C., voted to close Cabin Mountain, with Barton soon following suit.
Barton’s second Weiss Knob Ski Area is now the location of White Grass Touring Center, where remnants of the former ski area’s tows and slopes remain a part of the landscape. The day lodge built by Barton now houses the White Grass Cafe, rental shop and ticket office.
Much of Barton’s first Weiss Knob site is now part of the western Meadows section of Canaan Valley Resort State Park’s ski area.
While the Washington ski club shuttered its Canaan Valley ski operation decades ago, “it still has close connections with the area,” Snyder said. “They schedule two or three trips a year to Canaan Valley,” he said.
While the ski club’s launch of Driftland is credited with having set in motion the development of West Virginia’s ski industry, the museum also pays tribute to another ski area operated by a club opened in West Virginia in 1951. Morgantown’s Mountaineer Winter Sports Club operated a 1,200-foot rope tow powered by a Model A Ford motor at Chestnut Ridge Ski Area, adjacent to Coopers Rock State Forest, into the 1970s.
The museum also includes photos and artifacts from other early and now defunct ski areas, including Greggs Knob ski area near Terra Alta, 1955-1961; Bald Knob Ski Slopes south of Beckley near present-day Winterplace; and Coonskin Park’s seasonal rope tow, which operated, snow permitting, from 1968 into the 1980s.
The museum came into being through the efforts a group of long-time West Virginia snow sports enthusiasts intent on preserving the history of the people, places and events that led to the development of the states current winter sports scene.
In addition to Snyder, a former marketing director at Timberline Four Seasons Resort, the group includes Timberline Ski Area founder David Downs; veteran ski school instructors Kim and Monica Williams (the museum’s president and secretary); former Canaan Valley Realty owner and certified ski racing coach Cary Reed, the museum’s vice president; and John Lutz, a 50-year veteran of ski school instruction and direction at Canaan Valley.
Located in downtown Davis, the museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, visit snowsportsmuseumwv.org.