How it all began - the 50th anniversary of first US ski tow

David Dodd was an engineer, so you might say he took charge of building the thing. Frank Stool, being a handyman at the old White Cupboard Inn, was helpful. But it was Bunny Bertram, ski instructor, ex-Dartmouth ski team captain, and careful observer of the works of a country fair Ferris wheel, who really made it run and stay running.

Thus, 50 years ago this month the first ski tow in the United States came to be on a hill on Clint Gilbert's sheep pasture just outside Woodstock, Vt. Like roads after the first automobile, ski slopes and hills would never again be the same. A sport heretofore limited to those hardy individuals willing to climb all day for three runs was on its way to accessibility to millions.

No wonder Woodstock's current 3,200 permanent inhabitants are in a two-month frenzy of celebration (28 different events). What better excuse for a party - or drumming up more tourist business - than the golden anniversary of a contraption that even on its second weekend brought in 70 members of Boston's Hochgebirge Ski Club by bus and special train?

Now, the townspeople expect an onslaught of dignitaries, ex-Olympic racers, and, they hope, more tourists. Among this month's festivities is a ''photographer's gas of a fashion show'' (Jan. 7) featuring what was de rigueur on the 1934 slopes. There will also be a reunion of World War II's famous 10th Mountain Division (Jan. 27-29).

But the moment of crowning glory will arrive Jan. 14 on Gilbert's Hill itself. There the Committee to Reconstruct the Lift is assembling a rope tow powered by a reconstructed Model T Ford, which town publicist Phil Camp insists he found rusting away in a local barn last summer. Further, he says, this is the very one that powered the original 1,800 feet of rope during its second winter of operation. (The initial power source reportedly was the town tractor, long since departed.)

''Bob Bourdon can't wait to be the first one to ride the tow again,'' reports Camp, who admits his current assignment is a public-relations man's dream. Bob Bourdon was 17 years old when he grabbed onto that writhing rope on Gilbert's Hill 50 years ago. He was the hottest skier around in those days. But he hasn't been alpine skiing since he retired as a ski instructor and reflected on the rise in the price of a lift ticket - from $1 a day in 1934 to $25 top in 1983-84 .


Come the 14th, however, he's going to be on that tow with whomever of the early riders are still around - including Isabelle Stevens, thought to be the first woman to ride the first US ski lift.

Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling is expected, as are former members of Olympic ski teams and Ski Hall of Fame inductees. After the reenactment, a handicapped team-relay race will mix old-timers and young hotshots, starting at Gilbert's Hill and winding up on the next ridge at famed Suicide Six ski area, where Bertram eventually moved his skiing operation. The late Ski Hall of Fame inductee ran it until 1961, when he sold the area to Rockresorts, which owns much of Woodstock.

The first rope tow was inevitable, but how it came to take place is an interesting chapter, rapidly growing to legendary status, in the story of American skiing. In 1933 the first rope tow in North America appeared near Shawbridge, Quebec. Hearing about the tow and tired of climbing Woodstock's hills for at most six runs a day, three New Yorkers each left $75 with Bob and Elizabeth Royce, who ran the White Cupboard Inn. They'd be back Lincoln's Birthday weekend, they said, and they hoped to find their capital turned into some kind of ride uphill.

Allegedly, they made their money back and then some in about one weekend, and the rest is history, including the wild stories of Bertram sometimes stepping on the gas and flying people up the hill faster than they ever hoped to come down.

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Woodstock's launch of American lift-serviced skiing, as important as it was, is but one of several noteworthy bench marks. A few of the others:

* 1907 - First passenger-carrying gondola is opened for summer sightseers on Prospect Mountain (redubbed ''Sunshine Peak'') in Silver Plume, Colo. It was scrapped after World War I.

* 1929 - Peckett's on Sugar Hill above Franconia, N.H., becomes the first US ski resort, where the ebullient Austrian, Sig Buchmayr, teaches the carriage trade to ski.

* 1936 - The country's first single chairlift is built at Sun Valley, Idaho, the lavish resort in the middle of nowhere,


which W. Averell Harriman built for his Union Pacific railroad to go to.

* 1938 - The nation's first aerial tram opens on Cannon Mountain, N.H. An uphill ''roller-coaster'' called the ''skimobile'' is built on Mt. Cranmore at North Conway, N.H.; it's still running.

* 1940 - The nation's third single chairlift opens at Stowe, Vt., but not before breaking down on the opening run and stranding the governor, the press, and Lowell Thomas in a frigid wind.

* 1946 - The first double chairlift opens at Berthoud Pass, Colo.

* 1948 - Trail grooming begins at Bromley in Vermont. Snowmaking is attempted at Mohawk Mountain in western Connecticut. The high-pitched snow guns keep Connecticut Valley dogs barking all night.

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