The Beginning: 1939
Laurel Mountain dates back to winter of 1939 when Pittsburgh financier Richard King Mellon began to plan a ski area on the western flank of the Laurel Ridge for the members of the prestigious Rolling Rock Club.
Mellon was captivated by the sport. Upon returning from a ski outing at his former employee’s nearby farm, the Dupre’s Seven Springs Farm, Mellon decided to build a ski area of his own. In the winter of 1939-40, the plan began in earnest with a call to Mellon’s banking colleague, Harvey Gibson, chairman of New York’s Manufacturer’s Trust Company and owner of Cranmore Mountain seeking advice on building a ski area for the Rolling Rock Club in nearby Ligonier.
Early 1940 marked the arrival of an individual whom Mellon’s right hand man, Len Bughman, proclaimed, “The biggest name in the then small ski world”. Laurel Mountain was originally designed by European skiing legend Johann “Hannes” Schneider, the renowned Austrian ski guide and inventor of the Arlberg Method, the basis of modern alpine ski technique.
At the height of his career, Schneider was arrested by the Nazis because of his opposition to the annexation of Austria. In 1938, Gibson negotiated Schneider’s release and relocation to New Hampshire.
Schneider along with Arnold Berry laid out the trails and slopes on Laurel Mountain just as they had done the preceding year at Gibson’s Cranmore Mountain, New Hampshire. Schneider created a master plan that was to be executed over three years. Construction began on the trail and lodge in 1940.
Local stone and rock quarried on site were used in part for the lodge foundation and fireplaces, engine house foundations and stone retaining walls built to level the rope tow line along the uphill path. The largest wall can still be seen along Schneider’s first trail, the trail that became known as Broadway. The Underwood Ski Tow Company, Boston provided the rope tow and Bousquet ski tow grippers were available for sale or rent.
As the 1940-41 winter neared, Laurel Mountain Slopes, the first full service ski area in the state, was readying for business. The Midway Cabin, designed by architect James Blair, housed a rental and repair shop, food service in addition to an open lodge flanked by two stone fireplaces.
With Hans Van Bergh, a Dutch born student of Schneider appointed as Laurel’s first Ski School Director and Lenny Bughman as President, the official opening occurred on January 11, 1941. The first winter the skiing consisted of that single run.
The January 10, 1941 edition of the Ligonier Echo reported:
“The natural slopes of Laurel Mountain afford a trail which is extremely fast and which requires skill to travel. Drops on the trail are often as steep as 35 degrees. One tow line has already been built to carry skiers to the top of the trail and several others are to be constructed….”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette January 10, 1941 edition feature column, Let’s Go Skiing, Manning H. Williams describes the new ski facility:
“Laurel Mountain has two tows serving a 4,000 foot run which combines open slope and trail skiing, and which was laid out by Hannes Schneider. A shelter house with 2 open fireplaces and a large plate glass window overlooking the slope…..is located about three-quarters of the way up the mountain.”
Bughman, Mellon Bank’s chief executive, was a longtime member of the Rolling Rock Club. Laurel was first open only to the Rolling Rock Club whose members were from prominent Pittsburgh families. Names like Mellon and Scaife were regular skiers along with Heinz, Oliver, O’Neill, and Laughlin among others.
The Laurel Mountain Ski Club organized a ski patrol with volunteers training to pass next season’s examination for affiliation with the National Ski Patrol. The Pittsburgh Ski Club became a charter member of the Eastern Amateurs Association and organized a mile long race on the slope.
The inaugural season saw 11 consecutive weekends of good skiing and came to a close by late March, 1941. On an ominous note, Van Bergh was called to service in Canada to train in the Free Dutch Army.
Over the summer of 1941 improvements were undertaken that include opening Upper Wildcat slope and an upper mountain beginner slope. A racing slope dubbed Broadway was added atop the original trail. A ski jumping hill was installed adjacent to the new race trail. Touring trails were improved. Walter Von Neudegg was hired as ski school director.
Easier access was also a goal for the second season. A hexagon shaped stone gatehouse was constructed at the new summit entrance where, it is said, a guard would greet with a silver plate in hand. Visitors would proffer a business card; the guard would return to the gatehouse and make a phone call to secure approval before you proceed down a new access road leading to a new parking lot.
All was ready for the winter 1941-42 season with the eminent radio journalist Lowell Thomas set to deliver his popular Friday evening slopeside newscast from Laurel Mountain. However, the weekend before the scheduled national broadcast, Admiral Yamamoto bombed Pearl Harbor and the nation’s attention turned to war.
Laurel Mountain and the ski industry went on hold until the war’s end but before Len Bughman enlisted in the Air Corps he ordered Lower Wildcat cut “from the ledge” and a crossover rope tow be installed to take skiers back over to the original trail. Upon Bughman’s return from the war he was pleased to find his fears that Wildcat was too steep to ski were unfounded. Lower Wildcat’s narrow width and northern exposure held snow. It has been Laurel’s signature trail since then.
The Golden Years: 1946-1963
Laurel Mountain was officially opened to the general public after the war. Under the direction of manager William Boardman and ski school director Ralph “Doc” DesRoches Laurel Mountain became Pennsylvania’s first destination ski resort taking the moniker “The Ski Capital of Pennsylvania”. Ski conditions were reported in the New York Times along with other major eastern ski resorts.
Travel brochures were created to promote the facilities to the public. “Ski Tow” tickets were $1.25 per day and $25 per season. Ski rentals were $1.50 per day. Group Lesson Rates were $1.25 or 6 for $5.00. Private Lessons were $5.00 per hour.
Laurel Mountain grew with the post war boom. In 1947 a new lodge near the mountain’s summit was opened. The Laurel House was built upon the 1941 warming hut and featured full skier services including a bar.
Dream Highway and Laurel Run were opened. Train service, now with a club car, was restored now arriving from Cleveland.
Laurel Mountain inherited the Pennsylvania State Ski Championships. The races became an annual event, attracting top amateur racers from across the East. The series was founded by Edna and Max Dercum of Penn State University, where Max was a professor of forestry.
Laurel Mountain Ski Club hosted John Jay and his annual traveling ski lecture movie presentation. Jay invented the movie presentation format and Warren Miller followed suit. Warren Miller was a frequent Laurel Mountain visitor as well.
A local columnist recounted a tale told by an early ski shop employee of an engineer from Maryland by the name of Howard Head. He tested his prototypes for an aluminum ski on Laurel’s slopes. This led to the first metal ski in 1949. Head ski revolutionized not only ski design and ski manufacturing but also the very way people skied.
In 1954 Midway Cabin became the mountain home of the Pittsburgh Ski Club (PSC). Indoor plumbing was installed. Dorm rooms for men and women were rented to club members for $1.65 per night.
The club built its own rope tow and installed light for night skiing on the Timber Top slope below Midway. The PSC rented the facility for a decade.
In 1955 a new lift, perhaps the only of its kind, a Constam T-bar with single seat chairs dispersed among the T-bars, became the first top to bottom lift eliminating the need to use 3 rope tows to get to the summit. The chairs were added to transport injured skiers to the top where all skiers’ services were located. There was no access road to the bottom of the lift.
In 1956 Laurel was among the first ski resorts to install large scale snowmaking. Commercial snowmaking was first demonstrated on Mohawk Mountain, CT in 1949-50 and put to greater use the following winter. In 1952 the first largest commercial system was operational at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, another Schneider designed slope. Laurel’s new installation bested those early “snow making machines” by covering 4 slopes over a 285 vertical drop. (Seven Springs Snowmaking was installed in 1960).
Ralph “Doc” DesRoches assumed leadership in 1957 and continued Laurel’s lead in ski industry innovation. Doc was a veteran of the US Army’s famous Tenth Mountain Division whose veterans returned from war to lead the industry’s growth in the post war era.
During DesRoches’ tenure Laurel was the first PA ski area to use snow grooming machines. He began to thin the trees along and between the trails. By 1958 areas on the mountain called Forest Slalom began to appear on the trail map. Laurel’s skier visits top 34,000 besting all others in the region.
In December, 1959 “Doc” DesRoches and Lenny Bughman, who was now writing a regular ski column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, heeded the call from US Ski team coach Bill Beck and help raise funds to send the team to Europe to train. This initial effort led to what might be DesRoches greatest contribution to the sport. In the early 1960s, he headed fund raising efforts for the US Ski Team. Coach Bob Beattie visited Laurel during a fundraising drive.
The men’s Olympic ski team won the country’s first ever Olympic medals for men’s alpine skiing. Beattie later said that there would be no ski team if not for the efforts of DesRoches.
1964 to 2005: Years of Unfulfilled Promise
In 1963 R.K. Mellon and his sister Sarah Scaife gave the ski area to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania thus becoming Laurel Mountain State Park. The new State Park’s ski operation lease was put out to bid and local Alan Patterson became Laurel’s new leader.
For Patterson’s first winter Franz Mittermayr was ski school director, two Poma lifts replaced the rope tows on the upper slopes, and a new rental system was put into place.
Lights were hung for night skiing. Later new ski terrain was added. The 1941 built exit road down to Midway Cabin was widened and rechristened, Innsbruck. Hagans Cut was cleared and Crossover rope tow was removed, the path widened enabling skiing down the bottom of Wildcat. Only Crossover would eventually have snowmaking.
In reality, the decade began the decline of Laurel Mountain. Although the sport saw unprecedented growth in skier attendance and Laurel could still beat Seven Springs attendance 3,300 to 1,200 on a boom Sunday as late as 1965, overall attendance at Laurel declined.
Hidden Valley, Bear Rocks, and Plateau De Mount were new and like Seven Springs, all had easier access from the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The early December opening day 1966 count went to Seven Springs at 3,800 to Laurel’s less than 2000. Pittsburgh’s newest lift served ski area, Boyce Park (all 180 vertical feet of it), only 15 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, drew 1600 skiers.
Laurel first chairlift was installed at Laurel Mountain in 1968. A Poma double chair went into operation for the 1968-69 winter and served as it’s only top to bottom lift until 1999.
Despite this long awaited modern lift the bad news was just beginning at Laurel. Bankruptcy proceedings followed legal fights to terminate the lease and a threatened closure by the state, Patterson won a counter suit and maintained control of Laurel. Amid deteriorating infrastructure, acrimony in the community and new allegations of questionable business practices, Laurel House burned to the ground in January 1971.
Patterson was finally forced out and the state assumed control of operations the following winter.
By the 1971-72 season Laurel Mountain which was Pennsylvania’s most complete and busiest ski area just 10 years prior was reduced to no lodge, no chairlift, two rope tows on the upper mountain, portable johns, no rentals, no snack bar, no running water, and no snowmaking.
In 1974, an ambitious $23 million commercial development proposed by Laurel Resorts, Inc. was opposed by a rare alliance of business and environmental groups. The Ligonier Chamber of Commerce, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Sierra Club all sought to maintain the natural character of the state park. Secretary Goddard rejected the plan which was to include a golf course, hotel, theater, nightclub and a restaurant along with an ice skating rink, toboggan run and snowmobile trails. The plan encompassed not only the 493 acre ski area but also 700 acres of adjacent state forest land.
“We are not buying into this idea.” Goddard said, “We’re running the slopes ourselves now and we’re satisfied with the way things are going. We’re not going to give (Laurel Resorts, Inc.) state land for private development.”
Laurel Mountain faced increased regional competition to begin the 1970’s. By 1979, Seven Springs snowmaking capacity combined with 15,000 person per hour uphill capacity made it the choice for the boomer generation. The Foggy Goggle slopeside bar was packed as patrons jammed the resort on weekends.
Nearby Hidden Valley equipped with good snowmaking and a smaller, gentler hill provided the family ambience, safe for grandparents and beginner kids. Other private resorts that blossomed on the Laurel Ridge in the previous decade began to fail leaving Seven Springs at the top of the standings, Hidden Valley next, and Laurel bringing up the rear in the resort era where skiing is the primary of many different amenities to pamper guest.
The 1978-79 season was to be the last under state park operations. The state government sought to lease the aged resort and offered a 35 year lease to allow time so that private investment could be made profitable.
“You don’t have Taj Mahal up there, what you have is a sick cat.” said, Malcolm Samakow to the state bureaucrats. Samakow was an East Liberty paint dealer who led an investor group negotiating a lease. “There’s a lot to be done and they weren’t going to convince me otherwise”. The lease was done in November 1980 and Sikkat, Inc. opened Laurel Mountain for the 1979-80 season.
Samakow put over two million into the area between 1979 and 1989 and added snowmaking to all of Broadway, Crossover (Deer Path) and Lower Wildcat. He had a 35 year lease but gave it up in 1989 after have only one profitable season. The resort sat empty for the next 10 years.
In 1991, Laurel Mountain Recreation Inc., a non-profit composed of Westmoreland area businesses and economic officials was formed to revitalize Laurel Mountain.
In 1994, they attempted to take Laurel non-profit and raise approximately $1.3 million to that end but the application for nonprofit status was turned down.
Next came Urban Ski Inc. of Upper St. Clair who had an ambitious $16.5 million plan designed by Sno-Engineering but ultimately was not able to carry their program through.
In 1999, George Mowl signed a 35 year concessionaire lease and presumably took over with the goal of helping to push sales of lots in Laurel Mountain Village.
A new 14,500 foot, 2 level ski lodge was built, yet ultimately, Mowl was undercapitalized and the debts were too high for him to continue.
In 2003, The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources terminated Mowl’s lease and Somerset Trust Company took over all of the concessionaire’s assets at Laurel.
In 2004, Seven Springs entered into an agreement to run Laurel Mountain as “The Springs at Laurel Mountain”. As many improvements were deemed necessary, Seven Springs chose not to run the area the following year.
The Next Chapter
Seven Springs purchased the Laurel Mountain assets out of receivership from Somerset Trust Company.
Soon thereafter, Seven Springs began to chart the course for Laurel Mountain and hired the SE Group, led by Chris Cushing to review and develop a master plan to revitalize the once proud area. SE is the premiere consulting agency in the ski industry specializing in the planning, design, and development of mountain and resort communities.
The State of Pennsylvania approves a grant for $6.5 million to support the revitalization of Laurel Mountain.
The State of Pennsylvania released grant funds for revitalization of Laurel Mountain.