As a busy ski area that hosts around 400,000 customers yearly, Wachusett Mountain is an exemplar of modernity. But some of its history is easy to find.
That’s what I discovered yesterday when I visited Wachusett, one of New England’s busiest ski areas.
With three high-speed chairlifts, an exceptionally fine 38,000-square foot lodge and New England’s largest night-lighting system, Wachusett’s outward appearance suggests that it was built from scratch just yesterday — at least metaphorically speaking.
Not so. Wachusett has a long history, and the highlights are summarized pictorially in a prominent interpretive display in the base lodge.
Wachusett’s story began in the 1930s, when legendary skier Charles Proctor and the Civilian Conservation Corps cut the Balance Rock Trail from the mountain’s 2,006-foot summit. The CCC, an agency of the federal government, could legally work at Wachusett because it was (and still is) a state park.
Then the CCC built a base lodge. Called Bullock Lodge, it remains in operation as a snack bar featuring apple products from the Red Apple Farm, which is located a few towns farther west.
Above is a photo of Bullock Lodge that I took yesterday. It’s one of the few CCC ski structures that’s still in daily use.
Balance Rock Trail, Wachusett’s original run, is still in use — at least partially. Much of the original trail was obliterated when Conifer, a boulevard-style run that roughly parallels the old route, was opened. But several short sections of Balance Rock are still maintained for skiing.
These fragments recall the old-fashioned style of New England ski trails in the 1930s into the 1960s — narrow and winding, with a minimum of bulldozing and grading. In short, they have real character.
Above are two pix that I took yesterday showing skiers and snowboarders heading down Balance Rock.
Yesterday I got a tour of the base facilities by Tom Meyers, Wachuett’s longtime marketing director. The tour ended with a showing of some historic Wachusett photos on Tom’s computer. Some of these he shared with me.
The above two pix show older iterations of the ski school facilities, which today is one of New England’s biggest and busiest.
Above is the current ski and snowboard school, which is housed in a 1960s-era building.
If Charles Proctor, the CCC and the 1930s defined the first era of skiing at Wachusett, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its parks department launched the second, building a modest base lodge and a T-bar, opening for business in 1962. A second T-bar was added later.
After a few years of operation — at a loss — the state wisely realized that it didn’t belong in the ski business and decided to privatize the operation via an operating lease.
Ralph Crowley, a Worcester businessman who owned the Polar Beverage Company, bid $16,002 and won the right to lease the mountain. He and his five children brought Wachusett into the modern era. Click here for Ellen O’Connor’s wonderful account of that story in Vitality Magazine.
Above is an interesting past versus present comparison. First is the trail map back in the years when the state operated Wachusett. Next is the current trail map, showing the results of four-plus decades under the Crowley family management. Viva free enterprise!
[Notes on photo sources: Top photo (night scene) is from the photo gallery on Wachusett’s website. All others are by Scott Andrews or from Wachusett Mountain archives.]