The last few seasons have led to increasing media coverage of the challenges facing West Virginia’s $250 million ski industry as it adapts to warming winters. Resorts have invested heavily in snow making capabilities to produce more snow on the fewer days when the temperatures are below freezing. And many are expanding their off-season activities to remain economically viable without relying on touch-and-go winter conditions. For some of us younger Mountaineers, we might be excused in thinking that this is a recent phenomenon. But ever since the first turns were carved on slopes of the Mountain State during the growth in skiing following World War II, skiers in West Virginia have unknowingly lost turns due to failed and promising resorts undone from the pressures of higher temperatures and lower bottom lines.
Driftland: Canaan’s Early Days
The cold plateau of Tucker County was naturally one of the first areas in the state to have established ski runs. In the 1940s the Ski Club of Washington, D.C. developed runs on Cabin Mountain, including Weiss Knob (3,900’). The Cabin Mountain’s slopes leading into the eastern side of Canaan Valley were also known as “Driftland” owing to a 3-acre, 20-foot deep pile, safely tucked away from the punishing rays of the sun and served by a gasoline-powered tow rope. Nearby, Weiss Knob hosted a 1,000-foot T-Bar lift and a quarter-mile rope tow to help skiers access nearly 60 acres of terrain. These smaller, simple operations faced stiff competition when Canaan Valley Resort State Park opened in the immediate vicinity in 1971, operating with snowmaking capabilities and newfangled chairlifts. Cabin Mountain and Weiss Knob closed a few years later. The legacy of both these pioneering WV ski areas lives on through Driftland Ski & Sport in Davis. And while the T-bar and rope tows are gone, the slopes of Weiss Knob are still part of the White Grass Ski Touring Center for anyone willing to put in the uphill effort.
Early ski resort development wasn’t confined to Canaan Valley. At one point, Raleigh County hosted the southernmost ski resort on the East Coast. The Bald Knob Ski Slopes area was designed by Colonel Robert Potter, a former commanding officer of an Army special forces skiing school in Austria. It hosted four rope tows, a 2,100-foot expert run, restaurant, and ice skating rink. But the ski area was short-lived and Bald Knob closed around 1964 due to low interest. The slopes were sold for cattle grazing and many of the buildings were burned shortly thereafter. However, Bald Knob Ski Slopes was ahead of its time. A little more than 10 years after it closed, a new resort was opened on the north-facing slopes of Huff’s Knob, about 100 feet higher than Bald Knob and only 1.2 miles away to the southeast as the crow flies—Winterplace Ski Resort is still in operation today.
Once Upon an Urban Access
Charleston and Morgantown residents would be disappointed to hear that they didn’t always have to drive hours into the Alleghenies to satisfy their skiing itch. From the early 1950s until 1973, Chestnut Ridge Park—just north of Coopers Rock State Forest—offered a 500-foot slope accessible with a rope tow powered from the engine off a Model A Ford. A lift ticket cost $1 for adults and 50 cents for WVU students. Liftees would sometimes shift the Model A into high gear to yank skiers up the hill as fast as they came down. The old slope and warming hut are still a part of Chestnut Ridge Park, used most often nowadays by sledders.
Charleston’s Coonskin Park hosted a small ski area near the Yeager Airport runway with 175 feet of vertical relief down a 600-foot slope until 1981. It even had lights for night skiing! The area was popular with University of Charleston Students (then Morris Harvey College). In addition to skiing, the students would use so many cafeteria trays to sled down the hill that the college would send someone to pick them up after a big snow. A season pass at Coonskin cost $30. It eventually closed due to a lack of snow.
The Ones That Got Away
Perhaps the most interesting stories in the lost turns of West Virginia are the ski areas that just never were. There has been a bit of buzz over the years about developing a resort on Mount Porte Crayon, the sixth-highest peak in West Virginia at 4,770 feet. Appearing as a flat tabletop draped in a thick red spruce forest, Mount Porte Crayon is the highest point on the Eastern Continental Divide in the tri-state region, and is adjacent to the Roaring Plains Wilderness. The owners of Winterplace had plans to create Almost Heaven Resort atop the rugged mountain, with a potential 2,500 feet of vertical relief (Snowshoe’s famous Cupp Run has a 1,500-foot drop). A critical property acquisition fell though and the resort’s plans stalled. However, much of Mount Porte Crayon’s eastern and western aspects are on U.S. Forest Service land, publicly accessible, and well regarded among East Coast backcountry skiers with the patience to chase fleeting conditions and the fortitude to earn turns in a remote area.
But there are other resorts that went so far as to cut runs into forested slopes, only to fall through and leave their potential etched onto the land. I stumbled across these areas during a Google Earth browsing session, and then tried to dig up some lost history online—the genesis for this article.
Fifteen miles southwest of Snowshoe in Woodrow lies the overgrown remains of a resort planned by the Laurel Creek Club. The slopes offered between 800 and 900 feet of vertical terrain, topping out at 4,100 feet. The west-facing slopes aren’t ideal for keeping snow around and many people thought the project was little more than a real estate scam. The main lift line is the only thing still readily visible from the Highland Scenic Highway, and easily mistaken for a pipeline or power right-of-way.
But the most impressive of all lost resorts in West Virginia is Tory Mountain, 12 miles south of Canaan Valley near the town of Harman. Here, on a north facing slope up to 4,400 feet in elevation, steep runs were cut straight down the mountain with easier terrain making a long swoop around a bowl in the ridge. Three lift lines are still visible.
Some of the original developers and slope designers of Snowshoe were behind the Tory Mountain project. A 1983 brochure and newspaper articles assured investors and the public of the upcoming opening and grand construction, including boasts of 1,100 feet of vertical relief and a single trail up to 6,600 feet in length. Resort plans called for an 18th century-themed village at the base of the mountain, complete with shopping, pubs, and “Tory Manor”=—an impressive U-shaped, 300-room lodge. But it never happened. Cost of developing utilities was said to be the death of the resort and now scrub is slowly reclaiming the site.
Could West Virginia sustain these additional resorts? Or would we oversaturate an increasingly limited market? Will our current skiing areas and resorts be able to weather the forthcoming changes in climate, or will some future Google Earth sleuth scroll across a curving swath of stunted trees and wonder what was? As the satellite photos, forums, and old videos show, only time will tell.
Information and historical media for this article was compiled from the pages and user comments of the DC Ski forums available at http://www.dcski.com
Matt Kearns is a frequent contributor to Highland Outdoors and avid adventurer who lives with his wife near Charleston, WV.