A History of Skiing in Whiteface and Lake Placid

By Andrew Smith

26 March 2019

Throughout the history of the North Country, skiing has been one of the most popular sports in a region known for its winter sports.  The North Country provides an ideal winter climate for skating, bobsled, skeleton, luge, and other winter sports.  Yet skiing-both cross-country and downhill, has defined the region like no other.

Before the 19th century, skiing, which dates back for millennia, was mostly a utilitarian activity.  From humble beginnings in the 19th century, recreational skiing has evolved into what is probably the most popular winter sport in the world.  In addition to having the right weather and highest mountains in New York State, the North Country has been helped economically by its close proximity to the Canadian province of Quebec and its relative closeness to the large metropolitan areas of New York City and Boston.

Whereas cross-country skiing requires only a pair of skis, a pair of poles, and a good snowy trail, downhill skiing presents additional challenges. It takes a long time to climb to the top of any significant hill, let alone a mountain suitable for a modern ski resort.  Such an endeavor is even harder carrying heavy downhill skis.  Despite this, early downhill skiers relished the long climb and cherished the downhill trip.  For a long time, rope tows and handle bars were the only way to reach downhill trails without climbing to the top of the hill.  Such contraptions took much longer than the ski chairlift, owing to the need for the skier to hang on to a bar which they were not fastened into.  While chairlifts were available from the late 1930s, it took some time for them to supersede the tried-and-true method of rope towing.

Of New York’s 46 “High Peaks” (that is, those originally surveyed as reaching 4000 feet or more in elevation), Whiteface-the fifth highest-is the only one developed for non-backcountry downhill skiing.  It is also the only one whose summit is accessible by motor vehicle.  In the summer of 1936, after seven years of state-funded construction, the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway opened.  This road is usually open from late May to early October, with a fee of $12 per driver and $8 for each additional passenger.  After driving up the mountain most of the way, visitors can either ride an elevator to the summit (4867’), accessed via tunnel, or walk up a staircase to get there.  Whiteface’s proximity (13 miles) to the village of Lake Placid-a place central to the world of winter sports- made it an ideal location for a ski resort.  In 1932, Lake Placid hosted its first Winter Olympics; its downhill skiing events took place on small hills in the immediate vicinity of town.  At the time, downhill skiing facilities were not highly developed owing to the fact that ski chairlifts were not yet built in most places.

Whiteface is one of the largest ski resorts in New York State; its vertical drop (3430’) is the greatest in the eastern United States, and in fact greater than some well-known Rocky Mountain areas such as Aspen and Snowbird.  Its trails offer a wide variety of options, ranging from child-oriented beginner slopes to well-traveled beginner and intermediate slopes, forming the main routes down the lower half of the mountain; expert and a few intermediate slopes of higher Little and Big Whiteface; a half-pipe; a terrain park, and even some chutes and glades suitable only for the most expert skiers.

Skiing, while long popular in Europe, did not establish itself in North America until the late 19th century.  A Norwegian immigrant to the Midwest, Herman Johannsen, got his start as a salesman, delivering his wares on cross-country skis.  After popularizing skiing in Ohio, he moved to the Adirondacks in the 1920s, designing both cross-country and downhill trails.  Johannsen designed trails in Vermont and Quebec as well as the North Country of New York.  In 1938, with help from others, he cut what was to become the first trail of the current Whiteface resort.  Known as Wilderness, it begins on Little Whiteface and extends to the base, although the portion below “Mid-Station” now uses another name.

For years, a small resort called Marble Mountain operated on the west (highway) side of Whiteface.  It consisted of approximately eight trails, a T bar, and four rope tows.  Although it was a large resort by the standards of its time, it could not keep up with the growing demand for chairlift skiing, and there were also frequent complaints that it was too windy.

In a referendum in November 1941, New York State voters approved the establishment of a new state-owned ski resort on the northern and eastern slopes of Whiteface Mountain, with twenty miles of trails proposed.  The entry of the United States into World War II one month later put the project on hold.  It was resumed in 1948.  On January 25, 1958, the Whiteface ski area was opened.  It was the third and last state-owned resort to open in New York, after Bellayre in the Catskills and Gore in the southern Adirondacks.  Incidentally, the governor who dedicated Whiteface was Averell Harriman, who as a businessman was instrumental in installing one of the first chair lifts in the USA-at Sun Valley (Idaho) in the 1930s.

In 1980, Lake Placid was the site of the Winter Olympics again.  This time, Whiteface hosted the downhill skiing events.  The Olympics provided a major boost to the economy of Lake Placid and the region.  New homes were constructed for spectators which in time came to house new residents to the area.  The Olympics helped put Lake Placid on the map and indirectly informed more people about the myriad of other activities the area offers: hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, ice fishing, bird watching, swimming, bicycling, deer hunting, and even fine dining.  Today, Main Street in the village of Lake Placid teems with tourists during ski season and in the summer months.

Without winter sports in the region, the Village of Lake Placid would not have anything resembling the economy it has today.  The presence of winter sports has allowed Lake Placid to develop into an affluent community and has indirectly led to the establishment of a restaurant scene, a summer sports industry, and an assortment of stores selling merchandise relating to the tourist industry of the region, and by extension tourist merchandise in general.  This has transformed Lake Placid into a unique and affluent community which continues to draw in people from all walks of length and provide for a unique North Country experience combined with a cosmopolitan vibe.


“The History of Whiteface Si Center”.  www.nyskiblog.com

“Chairlift” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/chairlift

“Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway” https://www.whiteface.com/activities/whiteface-veterans-memorial-highway

Disclaimer: Much of this information I have learned through years of personal experience and independent research.