Wachusett Mountain 3-10-15

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.

Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, MA, boasts New England's largest night-lighting system

Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, MA, boasts New England’s largest night-lighting system

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.

Wachusett Mountain's long history is summarized in an interpretive panel in the base lodge

Wachusett Mountain’s long history is summarized in an interpretive panel in the base lodge

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.

Bullock Lodge in the spring of 1937 as the building was nearing completion

Bullock Lodge in the spring of 1937 as the building was nearing completion

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.

Bullock Lodge is one of the few CCC ski buildings that is still in daily use

Bullock Lodge is one of the few CCC ski buildings that is still in daily use

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.

A skier heads down the upper section of Wachusett Mountain's Balance Rock Trail, the oldest run at the ski area

A skier heads down the upper section of Wachusett Mountain’s Balance Rock Trail, the oldest run at the ski area

A snowboarder turns into the middle section of the Balance Rock Trail at Wachusett Mountain

A snowboarder turns into the middle section of the Balance Rock Trail at Wachusett Mountain

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.

Wachusett Mountain's original ski school operated out of a trailer

Wachusett Mountain’s original ski school operated out of a trailer

A later iteration of Wachusett Mountain's ski school building

A later iteration of Wachusett Mountain’s ski school building

The above two pix show older iterations of the ski school facilities, which today is one of New England’s biggest and busiest.

Wachusett Mountain's ski and snowboard school in winter 2015

Wachusett Mountain’s ski and snowboard school in winter 2015

Above is the current ski and snowboard school, which is housed in a 1960s-era building.

T-bars were the primary mode of uphill transport during state operation of Wachusett Mountain

T-bars were the primary mode of uphill transport during state operation of Wachusett Mountain

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.

Also check out Jeremy Clark’s Wachusett page on NewEnglandSkiHistory.com.

Wachusett Mountain trail map during the years of state operation

Wachusett Mountain trail map during the years of state operation

The 2014-2015 Wachusett Mountain trail map

The 2014-2015 Wachusett Mountain trail map

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.]