By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
Photos courtesy Conway Scenic Railroad
If you want to build something big, you go to the experts. That is just what Harvey Dow Gibson, a Conway born and bred businessman did when he brought famed Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider to North Conway to help grow the sport of skiing in the White Mountain area.
Schneider was well known and respected in Europe for his skiing skills and the Alberg technique of skiing he perfected. Although a top-notch skier and teacher, Schneider has run into conflict with the rising Nazi regime and he relocated to the United States.
Gibson wanted Schneider to come to North Conway to teach skiing at Cranmore. The businessman had opened the new ski resort (Cranmore) in the winter of 1937/1938 and he probably wanted someone skilled and famous to offer ski instruction to his guests. When Schneider arrived in North Conway by train, it was a big day for the town that would soon grow into a bustling ski area.
Travel by train was the quickest and most efficient way to get around in the 1930s as skiing gained in popularity. Schneider’s new programs at Cranmore attracted skiers but many people at the time did not have the luxury of a car to travel from Boston, New York and other areas. And even if they did, rural roads could be snow covered in the winter.
In order to bring skiers northwards, trains (such as the one that brought Schneider to North Conway) were the fastest and most efficient manner of transportation. Soon trains brought young people from Boston and other areas to the Lakes Region and then on to North Conway for skiing at Cranmore.
During the most popular years of the snow trains, they brought skiers from the cities to Laconia, Plymouth, Lakeport and other areas in the Lakes Region. Those who took the train to the area were coming for skiing and other winter sports as such areas as Belknap and Gunstock Mountains, according to www.newenglandskiinghistory.com.
Information on Conway Scenic Railroad’s website www.conwayscenic.com, relates, “The war years of the early 1940s found as many as five trains coming into North Conway on a Sunday, carrying up to 4,000 skiers for a one-day trip. At their peak, the Snow Trains carried 24,000 passengers each season.”
The snow trains weren’t a faceless, boring mode of travel in those days. Indeed, the trains were more like a party on wheels and a chance to make new friends who were also headed north for skiing. An old poster from the Boston and Maine Railroad promised fun onboard their snow trains by extolling, “See old friends again…meet scores of other ski enthusiasts…visit up and down the aisles as the bright, warm cars roll on toward the glistening slopes and cheerful lodges.”
Historically, the first Boston and Maine Railroad snow train came to New Hampshire in the late 1930s, according to Snow Train Parade by John Gruber (www.trains.com). “B&M inaugurated its one-day excursions on January 11, 1931, carrying 196 people to Warner, New Hampshire, a ski resort. The railroad, in cooperation with the Appalachian Ski Club, took more than 8,000 passengers out of Boston in that first, 10-week season.”
The first snow trains in the country may have originated in Connecticut. New York City had plenty of would-be skiers without any way to reach mountain areas such as those found in New Hampshire. In the 1930s when the Great Depression curtailed travel, those with the means bought a ticket and hopped aboard the snow train in New York City with the destination of North Conway or other ski areas in New England. The atmosphere on the trains was festive indeed, with one baggage car serving as a ski shop; dining car service meant food and beverages were available as well.
The Ski Meister snow trains were a joint venture of the New Haven and Boston and Maine Railroads in the 1930s and 40s and ran on weekends. The Ski Meister transported eager skiers from the city to rural resorts in New Hampshire and Vermont for weekend skiing.
The casual atmosphere of the snow trains meant improvising sleeping conditions; sweaters and parkas became pillows and blankets and hot thermos beverages and sandwiches were shared among friends and fellow passengers.
The baggage cars on the snow trains became the storage area for skis and the cars often doubled as ski repair and waxing stations. Now and then, a romance budded when young female skiers enlisted the help of young men with a knowledge of ski repair!
The Boston and Maine Railroad realized many people who took the snow trains could not ski proficiently. Downhill skiing was a skill that took time to learn and European instructors/skiers were much admired. Thus, the Boston and Maine hired ski instructors to ride the trains to offer tips and to socialize with would-be and seasoned skiers.
An early black-and-white photo illustrates what you could find on a snow train: the photo shows a train car with a large banner advertising Sports-Service Car with rentals of White Mt Ski Togs and skis, snowshoes, boots, socks, caps, goggles, sweaters, mitten and other gear. You could indeed hop aboard a snow train in the city and get outfitted for all winter outdoor activities by the time you reached your northern New England ski destination.
Although by the early 1940s some people had purchased automobiles, gas rationing during World War II meant the ski trains continued in business. If you wanted a weekend of skiing or other outdoor sports, you could hop aboard a snow train and forget your cares for a day or two without the worry of gas rationing.
Once skiers arrived at the North Conway train station, it would have been too far to walk to ski areas such as Cranmore. Therefore, buses were often used to pick up and transport visitors to the ski areas and local hotels.
What was the cost of taking a snow train from Boston to New Hampshire? In the early 1930s, you could take the Boston and Maine Railroad snow train for about $1.75 round trip.
Young people who worked in city offices and factories were offered group excursions via the snow trains. Even if you did not have the means to take up skiing, you could take a train with fellow workers and have a day or weekend organized outing at a New Hampshire ski area or travel to just watch others ski; if you were lucky, you might get to see Schneider skiing on the slopes.
Over the years the number of snow train passengers dwindled. After World War II, greater economic prosperity meant more people could afford automobiles. A skier with his/her own automobile could control their own schedule and arrive at the ski areas earlier and stay longer.
The last snow train came to North Conway in February of 1971. Out of the total passenger count of about 300 people, less than 50 were skiers. It must have been a sad day for the snow train business that had started so successfully during the 1930s.
Over the years, the romantic nature of the snow trains took on a mythical aspect for those who enjoy history. Today, collectors of railroad memorabilia include the old train schedules and advertisements for snow trains among prime pieces in their collections.
Without the early snow trains, the ski industry would still have come to New Hampshire; it would, however, have taken longer to become the beloved sport it is today.