Nature’s New Deal

The enduring impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps on New England skiing

The Teardrop, a squiggly old ski trail in Northern Vermont, on the western slope of Mount Mansfield, came into focus as I drove toward the town of Underhill. A sliver of white amidst a gray, hardwood hillside, the narrow trail was cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937.

The snow looked soft from the trailhead. My wife and I slapped skins on our skis and kicked and glided our way up. Only a few feet wide in spots, the trail curved its way up the mountain and was intermixed with fall-line sections. We climbed steadily through the wispy snow-covered forest and saw only two other skiers. The Teardrop, named for the tears that would develop from speed while schussing the trail in the late ’30s, is one of a dozen or so ski trails scattered across New England that were built by the pioneers of East Coast skiing following the Great Depression. Some of the trails are preserved and used to this day; others have been abandoned; many more led to the creation of modern-day ski resorts like Stowe, Vermont, and Wildcat Mountain, New Hampshire. In the backcountry, these trails are gateways to some of New England’s best glades, rogue tree cuts hidden in the forest. However, before these trails were built, “if you wanted to ski a mountain in New England, you had to find a carriage road up it,” says Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum. “Most people were skiing in pastures.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 as part of The New Deal—a series of legislative measures to combat the effects of the Great Depression. The primary objective of the CCC was to promote environmental conservation and get rural communities working again while keeping young kids off the streets. Enacted during his first days of office, the CCC mobilized over three million young, unemployed Americans across the country, pulling the nation out of poverty while creating infrastructure for parks and trails. Within 10 years they built close to 800 parks and planted nearly three billion trees. New Hampshire state foresters were the first to harness the CCC’s manpower to cut trees for skiing, opening trails on previously unskiable mountains.

The first trail was cut in New Hampshire, on what is now known as the Richard Taft, near Cannon Mountain. “Once the White Mountain National Forest caught wind that there was going to be a government project, they managed to get a crew assigned before anywhere else. Within a few months they were already working on the Taft,” says Leich. Vermont followed suit shortly thereafter when Charlie Lord, an early explorer and skier of Mount Mansfield, and Perry Merrill, a Vermont state forester and avid skier, cut the Bruce Trail—the first of many on Mount Mansfield.

The pace of trail construction matched the growth of skiing in New England, as the cut trails became the backbones for ski resort development. After managing the trail building on Mount Mansfield, Lord and Merrill oversaw the construction of several trails that would set the foundation of Stowe Mountain Resort, which built its first chairlift in 1940. Soon after, Lord, a former highway engineer, became the master designer of Stowe’s ski trails. Many of the original CCC trails—all steep lines cascading 2,000 vertical feet through forested mountains—hosted the region’s first downhill ski races, including The Nose Dive, Double Black, and Thunderbolt, which last year hosted its 80th anniversary ski race. “By the mid 1930s everyone who was forming a ski club knew that they could apply for labor through the CCC and get a trail cut,” says Leich.

After World War II, when the Tenth Mountain Division came home and ski areas boomed across the country, the trails changed. While some morphed into ski resorts like Stowe, others were forgotten. “The CCC wasn’t well documented,” says Leich, “primarily because it happened so quickly that there wasn’t much info on the ski trails.” By navigating local ski club periodicals and town newspapers, Leich built a timeline of the CCC’s influence on skiing.

After a quick transition at the top of Mount Mansfield, we slid off the Teardrop and into a near-perfect swath of glades. The first few turns in the alpine spruce forest led to dreamy spaced birch trees with minimal underbrush. Like deer charging through an open meadow, we let our skis run, arcing big turns through the boot-top powder, dropping a thousand vertical feet before abruptly running into the old access road used by the Civilian Conservation Corps to cut the trail we just skinned up.