North Creek Ski Bowl: Going down is looking up

This northern Warren County hamlet along a scenic stretch of the Hudson River below Gore Mountain wa

Categories: Schenectady County

This northern Warren County hamlet along a scenic stretch of the Hudson River below Gore Mountain was one of the first ski villages in the East.

Some people already might have known North Creek for its place in presidential drama: Its train station is where then Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, having cut short an Adirondack wilderness hunting trip, learned that President William McKinley had died in Buffalo from an assassin’s bullet and infected wound. Roosevelt became president of the United States there on Sept. 14, 1901.

But North Creek’s economic heyday really arrived three decades later, on March 4, 1934, when a trainload of 378 skiers from the Schenectady area — organized by General Electric scientists and engineers — pulled in at that same station. The round-trip cost each of them $1.50.

From the station, it was barely a quarter mile to the base lodge at the brand-new North Creek Ski Bowl, built into the steep face of 1,900-foot Little Gore. Created to satisfy the public’s “ski fever” that had grown from the popularity of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, it was one of the first commercial ski areas in the East.

But when the bigger, state-operated Gore Mountain ski area opened higher up on the mountain in 1964, the Ski Bowl lost popularity, and it eventually closed except to local residents.

State Route 28 skirted downtown North Creek, and many people who skied at Gore Mountain bypassed the downtown altogether. For decades, North Creek was a community that wavered between decline and resurgence.

It’s on the upswing again.

Signs of recovery

The Ski Bowl is being revived, with a new trail link to the Gore Mountain trail system, and a residential-resort complex, Ski Bowl Village, is under construction on adjacent land.

A new chairlift and trails are opening this winter. The interconnection will allow visitors to ski to the outer edge of downtown, or to ride the steep lift and then ski from downtown up into the Gore Mountain trails.

The Ski Bowl’s snowboarding half-pipe and tubing hill — in operation under Gore’s management since 2002-03 — are opening for the season this weekend. The interconnection trails will open within a few weeks, depending on snowmaking — or sooner, if Mother Nature delivers more natural snow.

The new connection is part of $5.5 million in capital improvements being built by the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates Gore Mountain, intended to increase skier access to the hamlet.

“It’s the most significant economic development in our community in recent history,” said Sterling Goodspeed, supervisor of the town of Johnsburg, which includes North Creek. “This is an interconnection not just between mountains but between the mountain complex and our community.”

In anticipation, Goodspeed said 16 new businesses have opened in North Creek in the past year and a half, including upscale restaurants and retail shops. The 31-room Copperfield Inn reopened in 2009 after being closed for a year, and the established Alpine Lodge motel has been upgraded.

“We really stand at the cusp of what I think will be dramatic positive change,” Goodspeed said.

Boom days

Revival of the Ski Bowl is a return to what made North Creek a booming spot decades ago. Once ski-train service was established in 1934, it became a popular destination, and trains filled with skiers coming up from New York City were a staple of the winter economy by 1936.

Inns and rooming houses would fill up, and some residents took skiers into their homes for a night or two, according to the files of Johnsburg town historian Jo Ann Smith.

Some competition-level skiers learned there, including North Creek native Pat Cunningham, who now runs Cunningham’s Ski Barn on Route 28.

The Ski Bowl was a popular day trip for skiers from the Capital Region, by car and bus.

Fred Merchant of Glens Falls, who grew up in Amsterdam, was skiing there by the winter of 1947-48, when he was 12 years old.

“Amsterdam was a pretty prosperous blue-collar city. Some of the people who worked at Mohawk Carpet Mills organized the Mohawk Ski Club. They would rent buses several times a winter to go to Speculator or North Creek,” recalled Merchant, 74, who is now retired from Head, the premium ski equipment manufacturer.

He said that skiing the Ski Bowl — and the Hudson Trail in particular — was a thrill, because the trail was “scary steep.”

“It was the place you really wanted to go,” he said. “It was fun. It was steep.”

The new lift runs up the mountain parallel to the Hudson Trail, which is now disused and overgrown. Still, users will get a sense of how steep the original trail was.

Merchant returned to the Capital Region in 1961 after college and a stint in the Army, and said he would then go to the Ski Bowl every weekend. Soon after, he started teaching on weekends at the ski school started in 1959 by Don Petro.

School children from Johnsburg, Minerva, Warrensburg and other area communities were bused to the mountain for Saturday morning instruction.

“It was a fantastic time teaching those kids,” Merchant said.

Petro, who lives in Niskayuna, ran the ski school from 1959 to 1969. He recalled that there was no snowmaking there, “and sometimes the skiing was pretty sparse.”

Skiing had yet to achieve the enormous popularity it would enjoy by the late 1960s. “It was the beginning of skiing. We didn’t have big crowds anywhere,” the 78-year-old retired insurance executive said. “We had really nice trails when there was snow.”

Schenectady connection

A strong connection has long existed between the Schenectady area skiing community and North Creek.

Adirondack conservation advocates Vincent, Carl and Paul Schaefer of Niskayuna were all early ski trip organizers, as was Dr. Irving Langmuir, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who worked at GE.

William Gluesing, who traveled showing filmed demonstrations of GE products, also showed footage of the skiing on Little Gore, according to the town historian’s files.

“It’s a key connection,” Goodspeed said of North Creek’s relationship with Schenectady-area skiers.

The North Creek business community lobbied hard in the 1950s for the state — through what was then called the Adirondack Mountain Authority — to build a big new ski area at the higher elevations on 3,580-foot Gore Mountain. It opened in 1964, having cost $3 million.

Though the community’s vision might have been that the big new ski area would be a boon to North Creek, it quickly siphoned skiers away from the little Ski Bowl. The lift, which had begun in the 1930s as a rope tow, shut down in the 1970s.

The idea of a new interconnection took hold in the mid-1990s, when a pump house behind the train station — and a pipe through the Ski Bowl property — allowed Gore to bring in water from the Hudson, giving it an essentially unlimited snowmaking supply.

In 2000, ORDA got approval to operate the Ski Bowl under a contract with the town, and development of the snow-boarding and tubing areas started.

The new connection will allow Gore skiers to have what everyone agrees is a lovely overlook from the top of Little Gore out over North Creek and the Hudson River.

“It’s a whole new view for us, looking down at North Creek and the train station and the Hudson River,” said Gore Mountain manager Mike Pratt.

The reopening of the Ski Bowl also furthers the long-discussed possibility of trains again bringing downstate skiers into the historic station, which has been restored to look just as it did when Teddy Roosevelt was there.

A local scenic tour train has run from the station for the last decade, and recent repairs have made the tracks from Saratoga Springs to North Creek usable again.

Return to heritage

“This is our community returning to its heritage,” Goodspeed said. “There’s excitement, there’s growth and development, but also retention of community identity.”

To further the downtown-Gore Mountain connection, there is a free shuttle bus between the mountain’s base lodge and the hamlet.

With the interconnection and other new trails covering four separate peaks on the Gore massif, Gore is now the sixth-largest ski area in the East, able to compete with the big Vermont ski complexes, Goodspeed said.

The total vertical drop is now 2,537 feet, said Emily Stanton, Gore Mountain’s marketing manager.

One of the challenging new trails at the Ski Bowl is being named the “46er,” in honor of the term for those who have climbed the 46 Adirondack peaks higher than 4,000 feet.

Busy weekends see 5,000 to 7,000 people visiting Gore, Stanton said — and the new connection will allow them to conveniently stay in or visit the downtown area. She said the Gore ski crowd is split about evenly between day-trippers and those on overnight or extended stays.

“People interested in skiing Gore should know this is not just a place to ski, but to stay, shop and dine,” Stanton said.

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