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DOWNHILL SKIING IN THE LAURENTIANS, PART 2: MOVING NORTH

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(Continued from Part 1)

Ski tow, Laurentians, c.1950s. (Photo - Farfan Collection)The 1930s and 40s saw great growth in what was fast becoming a skiing industry in the Laurentians. Emphasis shifted from private clubs and university groups to larger, European-style resorts and smaller village boarding houses that offered access to more people. By 1950, with improvements to the roads, people were renting houses for the winter ski season in the same way they had been renting for summer seasons since the early 1900s. By the mid-1950s, many second homes were being used year-round and many more people were moving permanently to the Laurentians.

Downhill skiing differs from cross-country skiing in many ways. Although cross-country skiing probably requires a greater level of all-over physical fitness, downhill, with its emphasis on the vertical drop, requires more technique. Although nearly anyone can go up the tow and come down the hill, very few, without any real training, can do it well or even safely! With the development of steel edges on skis, first used in Quebec by the McGill University team in competition in 1931, it became much easier to execute turns (slalom) and control the descent. Also, by the 1950s, skis became shorter and easier to manage.

Sainte-Marguerite, c.1930s. (Photo - Farfan Collection)DOWNHILL SKI TOWS
The construction of downhill ski tows spread rapidly north from Shawbridge and St. Sauveur to Morin Heights, Ste. Adèle and Ste. Marguerite. These three towns had the advantages of being on railway lines and of already having fairly well developed recreational facilities. In the 1930s, the highway north, called Route 11 (now Route 117), improved access by car and provided a year-round alternative to the train. However, it would be another twenty-five or thirty years before winter travel, especially on the secondary roads in the Laurentians, became an easy option for drivers.

One of the best known ski destinations was Chalet Cochand in Ste. Marguerite. This popular resort was acquired by Émile Cochand Sr., who had come to Canada from Switzerland in 1911 with 100 pairs of skis, luges and bobsleds, and who had started teaching skiing in the Laurentians and promoting winter sports. In the 1930s, there were few qualified Canadian ski instructors, so many resorts and even the railway companies, hired Europeans to come over to start ski schools and lend a certain “old world ambience” to the newly established ski centres. Émile Cochand’s son, Louis, continued the family tradition of skiing, and in 1939, was instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance, which encouraged Canadian skiers to become instructors. Eventually, the same methods of teaching downhill skiing became prevalent across Canada, and, by 1949, most of the new ski instructors were Canadians, familiar with our terrain and snow conditions.(1)

Ski jumping, Sainte-Agathe, c.1930. (Photo - Farfan Collection)A GLAMOUROUS SPORT
In a way, the instructors themselves were celebrities. Skiing was viewed as a rather glamourous, slightly elite, sport, combining an interesting social life with a hint of risk, much like polo or car-racing. This is reflected in a short item written about Frank Scofield, a well-known ski instructor at the Chanteclerc Hotel in Ste. Adèle from the 1930s to the 1960s. “Scofield’s CV included an impressive list of celebrities, the envy of every ski pro in the Laurentians. During the war years there was The Netherlands Queen Julianna and her two daughters…. Prime Minister Lester Pearson, actress Norma Shearer, financier Lawrence Rockefeller….”(2) This kind of luxury-level skiing, of course, still exists for the rich and famous. However, the better facilities, greater number of lifts, longer skiing season due to snow-making, and greater accessibility to the hills has made skiing available to all. Now nearly every child and teenager skis and/or snowboards, and modern downhill facilities offer something for everyone.

The early ski schools did not have artificial snow and conditions were generally rougher than at ski hills today. Even the “high end” resorts like Chalet Cochand featured simple entertainments like lunch on the trails, maple sugar fests and sleigh rides. The atmosphere was unsophisticated and homey compared to most large ski centres today.

Morin Heights, 1960s. (Photo - Farfan Collection)FAMILY-RUN HILLS
In Morin Heights, there were two very popular family-oriented downhill ski centers. The Bellevue Hill, run by the Basler family after 1951, and Mont Christie, in the Christieville area of Morin Heights, run by the Elder family. In the 1930s, there had been a small rope tow near the Bellevue Hill, started by Lawson Kennedy, a local Morin Heights ski developer, who in the 1950s, operated the Kicking Horse Hill -- a quite challenging descent -- where Ski Morin Heights is today. After the war, in 1945-46, Ken Binns and Edward (Inky) Kneeland took over the old Bellevue Hill and started Ken and Eddies Ski Tow, which was subsequently purchased by Albert and George (Bunny) Basler.(3)

All of these smaller, family-operated ski tows were extremely successful throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Mont Christie managed to go on, with some breaks, until a few years ago. However, the very large ski developments, along with social and economic changes, slowly eroded the smaller ski businesses.

Chairlift, Saint-Sauveur, 1960s. (Photo - Farfan Collection)As competitive skiing became more international with more competitions and sophisticated equipment, the day of the resort-based ski school began to fade. Like so many other outdoor activities, skiing’s expansion and popularity changed its nature, especially with downhill. In contrast, cross-country skiing has maintained the kind of “purity” of the sport that Jackrabbit Johannsen commented on when the first rope tows hauled people up the Big Hill at Shawbridge. He never could understand why anyone would pay to ski…

References:
1) Anonymous, Louis Cochand, 50 Years and Counting, 1989.
2) Dick Bacon, Up North, Focus on – Frank Scofield-Chanteclerc’s Silver Fox, 1996.
3) Morin Heights, 1855-1980.