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DOWNHILL SKIING IN THE LAURENTIANS, PART 1: THE EARLY YEARS | Laurentian Heritage WebMagazine
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DOWNHILL SKIING IN THE LAURENTIANS, PART 1: THE EARLY YEARS

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Gray Rocks Inn, c.1940. (Photo - Farfan Collection)As cross-country skiing grew in popularity, and after World War I, overtook showshoeing as the winter sport of choice in Montreal, improvements continued to be made to the sport. The most obvious was the invention of the ski tow. It meant no more puffing up the hill for what felt like hours just to whiz down in what felt like minutes! It was an idea whose time had come, and it came to pass in the lower Laurentian town of Shawbridge.

SHAWBRIDGE
Shawbridge, which is now a part of Prévost, still has a small but active English-speaking community. The first settlers, who came in the 1840s, and who were mainly of Irish and Scottish origin, cleared the land for agriculture. Many of their descendants, including the Shaws themselves, still live in the town. Since Shawbridge is the first really hilly area north of Montreal, it was a natural location for recreational summer and, later on, winter visitors from the city. The Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1890 as the lumber industry was beginning to supplant farming. At the same time, boarding houses, hotels, and eventually summer cottages were established. It was the beginning of the tourism industry.

Jackrabbit Johannsen.JACKRABBIT JOHANNSEN
In 1923, a well-known private ski club, Laurentian Lodge, was set up in Shawbridge by several prominent Montrealers. The club influenced the development of skiing in the entire region. Herman “Jackrabbit” Johannsen was associated with Laurentian Lodge and was a life member. Johannsen, who initiated much of the cross-country skiing network in the Laurentians, had little interest in the development of ski tow skiing – or downhill or Alpine skiing -- as it later came to be called. Throughout his extremely long life of 111 years, he preferred to stick to the “purer” form of skiing -- Nordic or cross-country. He did, however, assist in organizing the first downhill slalom competitions in the early 1930s

Foster's Folly. (Photo - Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club)FOSTER’S FOLLY
It was Alex Foster, a Laurentian Lodge member who had won the Dominion Ski Jump championship while still in high school, who is credited with the invention of the first rope tow in the winter of 1930. This is vividly described in the book by Neil and Catharine McKenty, Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Ski Club (2000). According to the authors, the tow involved “…an old car on blocks, removing a tire from one of back wheels, running a rope up to a pulley attached to a tree or stake, starting the car’s engine and hoping for the best…”(1) By 1931, the tow was operating commercially (five cents a ride, at five miles an hour) on the Big Hill in Shawbridge. For some time already, European skiers had been using funiculars and cable cars, but Foster’s Folly, as it was called, is recognized as the first true ski tow in the world.

The Aeroski. (Photo - Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club)There were other approaches to hauling skiers up hills. In 1926, Moïse Paquette, a Ste. Agathe inventor, created something called the Aeroski. This was an early light aircraft with one big propeller at the front and skis instead of wheels. It could tow several skiers behind it. Though it was never actually airborne, it did offer a kind of flexibility that was lacking with the stationary tow!

Ski tows spread rapidly. In 1934, the first American tow appeared at Woodstock, Vermont. At the start, these were all rope tows, though chair lifts – a variation of the cable car – were installed by the 1930s at large ski resorts, including Mont Tremblant.

St. Francis of the Birds Church. (Photo - M. Farfan)SCANDINAVIAN INFLUENCE
In 1934, the first ski tow opened on Hill 70 at Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts. Percy Douglass, founder of the Canadian Amateur Ski Association and member of Laurentian Lodge, initiated this venture in conjunction with several local landowners.(2) In 1939, one of them, Arthur Charette, installed a chair lift which at first was very successful. After an accident in 1944, however, operations ceased for a time. The following year, Charette’s property was sold to Finnish-born Victor Nymark, who was an expert in Scandinavian log construction. Nymark was the foreman at the building of Château Montebello, the world’s largest and classiest log cabin. From the 1930s through the 1950s, thanks to the Scandinavian influence, it was fashionable in the Laurentians to build round log homes, hotels (e.g., Mont Gabriel Club in Ste. Adèle), and even churches (e.g., St. Francis of the Birds in Saint Sauveur). Although the Nymark Lodge itself is now gone, other Nymark buildings remain as important heritage sites.

The classic rope tow was difficult, especially for children, since it meant reaching up and hanging on to a moving rope that was often above head level. The novice skier also found the rope tow a challenge as it lunged forward, often divesting frightened riders of mitts, hats and scarves. Sudden stops could throw everyone into chaotic heaps. Disembarking could be as terrifying as clasping the rope! And there was always that fear that somehow one might end up stuck to the rope and whirled around the mechanism at the top. Nevertheless, it always beat puffing up the hill.

COMMERCIAL SKIING
By the early 1950s, J-Bars and T-Bars replaced most rope tows and proved to be more comfortable, faster, and far less scary. Furthermore, as downhill skiing involved skiing in one area, it lent itself more easily to commercial development than did cross-country skiing. The start of commercialization came with the sale of tickets to ride the tows and chalets with food services and warm-up areas. Hotels, ranging from small family-oriented establishments to full-fledged European-style resorts, invested in ski hills, and after the 1930s, many were built specifically for the ski industry. Postcard, Morin Heights, c.1930. (Photo - Farfan Collection)Ski schools with qualified instructors, outlets that sold ski equipment and clothing, and eventually an entire sector of the local Laurentians economy, evolved with the growth of downhill skiing. As farming and the lumber industry declined in the Laurentians by the mid-1900s, the tourist trade -- especially skiing -- provided employment for the local population.

Skiing had already been strongly promoted by the railroads – both the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National -- to encourage the use of passenger trains in winter. Luckily, the railways produced a series of postcards featuring skiing and the Laurentian landscape in general. This has proven an invaluable source for historians!(3)

References:
1) Neil and Catharine McKenty, Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club, 2000, 53.
2) René Bergevin, La vallée de Saint-Sauveur en images, 2001, 73-80.
3) Morin Heights Historical Association, photo collection & general information.