The long, cold winter months can take their toll on the psyche of residents of the Northeast. To help stave off cabin fever, winter sports that get people out and enjoying—rather than dreading—snowy days are invaluable. Surprisingly, it was not until the 1930s that snow skiing became a popular form of recreation in the mountains of the eastern U.S. Perhaps less surprising to those familiar with the New Deal, is that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) played a significant role in making the sport widely accessible New Englanders.
Although a small state, Massachusetts was home to an average 28 CCC camps per year in the 1930s, putting some 99,500 young men to work planting trees on the cut-over landscape; building roads to connect remote areas; and, as part of the government’s commitment to democratizing recreation, cutting ski trails across the state. The CCC also built lodges to keep visitors cozy while off the slopes. The new ski areas became popular destinations for winter fun for amateur skiers and competitive racers alike.
Some of the ski trails were used long after the CCC boys were no longer around to maintain them. One ski run in what is now the Beartown State Forest was used through the 1960s to train and compete in downhill skiing events. Sadly, many of the trails are now overgrown and the lodges are in ruins, but a few trails no longer skiable remain popular with hikers in the warmer months.
All is not lost to history, however. In Massachusetts, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has done a remarkable job both commemorating and preserving CCC legacies, including several rustic structures and ski trails. Some trails have been incorporated into privately run ski areas like Mount Wachusett in the center of the state, while others remain legendary destinations for backcountry skiers.
Mount Greylock, a towering mountain in the Berkshires (and, at 3,489-feet, the highest point in the state), is still home to the Thunderbolt Run. The trail was first cut by the 107th Company of the CCC in 1933 and quickly became a major destination for racers and spectators.
In March 2017, a hundred skilled athletes will once again make the one-to-two hour hike up Mount Graylock, rest at the CCC built shelter, and then race down 2,000 feet. From competitive races to casual ski trips to summer hikers, the CCC’s promise to make New England’s rural landscape a year-round pleasure remains alive and well.
A special thanks to Dr. William Hansen of Worcester State University for tipping off the Living New Deal to the significance of winter sports and the CCC in New England via the New England Ski History site. To see historical films of the Thunderbolt Run, check out this news story from WGBY on the history of the trail, as well as a 1940s home movie of the slope being enjoyed by a wide variety of users.