Jay Peak – A Dream Come True
by Scott Wheeler
Jay Peak Ski and Summer Resort is now one of New England favorite four-season’s resort.
The ski area is built on dreams and hard work.
When locals looked up at Jay Peak in the 1950s and saw that a vertical swath of land had been cut from the side of the mountain, they realized that a small band of locals was following through on a dream to transform a forested mountainside into a ski area, a winter wonderland for both locals and visitors. While the idea had its supporters, others shook their heads and chuckled at what seemed like a half-baked idea. After all, at the time, just getting to this desolate, forested region of the Vermont proved a formidable challenge.
The first trails were cut out of the side of the mountain more than 50 years ago.
Few people could imagine—even some of the strongest advocates of the ski area—that 50 years later that mountainside ski area, with little more than a single ski trail, would expand into a 3,900 acre, four-season vacation destination resort, today known as Jay Peak Ski and Summer Resort. The resort that some people once scoffed at now attracts about 300,000 skiers to its slopes each year. Said to have the greatest snowfall of any ski resort in the eastern United States, the mountainside now hosts dozens of trails and numerous ski lifts. A 60-person tramway ferries skiers and other visitors to the top of the mountain. On a clear day the peak offers views of four states and the province of Quebec.
“This is an exciting time for Jay Peak,” Bill Stenger said. “The opening of the first nine holes of the 18-hole golf course at the mountain. It sets the stage for Jay Peak to become a four season resort.” Stenger is the president of the resort.
While Stenger helped lead the resort into the twenty-first century, and will lead it into the first part of its next 50 years, he looks back to the founders of the mountain with a mixture of admiration, respect, and awe. He can only imagine some of the hardships and obstacles they faced in building the ski area he now leads.
The group that spearheaded the movement to build the ski area was diverse. Among them was state forester Perry Merrill, a man who helped develop other ski areas in the state. Father George St. Onge, a Catholic priest who provided people of the region with spiritual guidance, was a tireless promoter of the ski area. Then there was Don McNally. A local businessman and entertainer, the former vaudevillian actor was the ski area’s first general manager. Roy Barnett, vice president of Jay Peak Inc., and fellow corporation officer, Andy Pepin, also were among the many people who played vital roles in organizing the ski area. Another visionary behind the ski area was Harold Haynes of North Troy, the president of the corporation. Haynes, who passed away earlier this year, was a virtual historical icon in North Troy, a living reminder to the indomitable spirit of the men and women who worked to bring some of the finest skiing to the region.
The tram house at the top of the 3,861-foot-high mountain opened to the public in 1967. A helicopter was used to build it.
“If it hadn’t been for the energy of people like Harold Haynes I don’t think Jay Peak would have moved along so fast as it did,” Stenger said. “Harold was a pillar in the community.”
Selling the concept of building a ski area was a worthwhile endeavor, but was not an easy task for the early pioneers of this mission, especially in the early 1950s, in such a cash-strapped region of the state. Many of the locals had little time or money for leisure activities. While some people of the region supported the idea, others openly scoffed at turning a mountain in the middle of nowhere into a ski area.
Jay Peak ski area was officially incorporated in 1955. Fund-raising stock rallies were staged in local towns to sell shares of the new company. But money was only one problem that the group faced. Orleans County, where Jay Peak is located, is still to this day one of the most isolated regions of the state, but nothing in comparison to what it was in the early 1950s. Interstate 91 that runs north and south the length of the state didn’t open the door to this region to the outside world until the late 1960s. Even a trip over the mountain range to the town of Montgomery, Jay’s sister community in Franklin County, was a challenge. There was little the industrious group could do to hasten the construction of the interstate, but they worked tirelessly to convince the state to build a direct route that would connect Orleans and Franklin counties. Such a route would allow better access to the ski area. Construction on Route 242, also known as the Jay-Montgomery Road, began on June 11, 1956. The route opened for travelers on November 11 of that year.
The 1950s were a big time for the ski industry in the United States, including in Vermont, Stenger explained. An increasing number of people were discovering the love of a sport that until that time was a secret to all but the most diehard skiers. Ski areas began to dot the United State’s snow belt. Some of them were built on mountains, while others were built on little more than hills. Several small ski areas with rope tows to pull skiers up small hills sprang up around Orleans County. The region even hosted a number of Olympic-style ski jumps; jumps that produced some accomplished ski jumpers.
Several major Vermont ski areas came into being in this general time period, Stenger said, naming off a list of ski areas such as Mt. Snow, Killington, and Burke Mountain. He credited World War II veterans for increasing at least some of the interest in skiing in the United States. The military of the U.S. and Germany formed elite ski troops. While the U.S. had the 10th Mountain Division, Germany had the Alpine Corps. One thing most of these men, on both sides of the war, had in common was their love of skiing. In war, these men waged battle against one another, but in peace, some of them worked together to increase attention to Americans about this wintertime activity. One of those German soldiers was a ski expert by the name of Walter Foeger. In 1956, the Austrian agreed to travel to Jay Peak to run the mountain’s ski school.
“He was a very, very forceful personality behind Jay Peak,” Stenger said. “Walter brought notoriety to the mountain. He also got a lot accomplished that otherwise might not have been accomplished.”
The Jay base lodge under construction.
“The stars began to align for Jay Peak in 1960,” Stenger added. That was the year that the growing television industry brought the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, California, into America’s living rooms. They watched as the U.S. hockey team outscored our Cold War enemy, Russia, for the Gold Medal in hockey. As important, those not familiar with skiing had the opportunity to see what skiing was all about.
“Alpine skiing got its first national exposure,” Stenger said. The 1960 Olympic games were followed by another milestone, the 1964 Winter Olympics. A young American skier by the name of Billy Kidd captured the imagination of the growing number of American skiers by bringing home a silver medal in Alpine skiing. That young skier was from Stowe, Vermont.
“This was the first time that an American had ever won a medal in Alpine skiing,” Stenger said. “We were starting to develop heroes in Alpine skiing for the first time in this country.”
Then came the year 1967, the year that Jay Peak’s neighbor about 100 miles to the north, the city of Montreal, Quebec, hosted the World Expo, “Expo 67.” People traveled from around the world to visit Quebec’s largest city. The expo not only put a spotlight on Montreal, but also on the surrounding region, including Jay Peak. At about the same time, construction of I-91 was under way, which once completed, would open up rural Vermont to the rest of the world, and Jay Peak to an increasing tide of skiers.
“All these stars were aligning at the same time,” Stenger said.
Jay Peak became a beneficiary of this growing interest in skiing. The ski bug hooked locals, some who had never skied before. They wanted to experience the adrenalin rush that only skiers know as they swoosh down the side of a mountain on a pair of skis. With each passing year, new lifts were added to the mountain to bring a growing number of skiers higher and higher up the mountain to an increasing number of trails. In 1966, the forest products giant Weyerhaeuser Corp. became the major shareholder of the ski area, opening up its extensive adjoining acreage for trails and lifts. Weyerhaeuser executives also announced plans to build a slope side hotel and a 60-passenger aerial tramway to the top of Jay Peak. The tram was completed in 1967.
By the mid-1970s, the ski mountain had gained a positive reputation around New England for its tremendous amount of powdery snowfall. In 1978, Weyerhaeuser sold its interest in the mountain to the owners headed by Jacques Hébert of the Mont Saint-Sauveur ski area in Quebec. The owners of the Quebec ski area were attracted by Jay’s big snow and awesome potential.
The ski school at Jay Peak has produced many fine skiers over the years.
This is a photo of the ski school in the early days of the mountain resort.
Although a hotel was built adjacent to the mountain’s base lodge, and later condominiums were added, Stenger said it wasn’t until about 1984 that the parent company decided to transform Jay Peak into a destination resort. Until that time the mountain relied heavily on day visitors, some of them local, some from southern New England, but many from Quebec’s largest urban center, Montreal. With big plans for the future, Mont Saint-Sauveur executives hired Stenger in 1985 to take Jay Peak into the future, a future that included transforming it into a four-season resort. Before that time, he was employed as the manager of Jack Frost Ski Resort in Pennsylvania.
“We started to focus on being a destination vacation area,” Stenger said. Although the mountain was attracting about 70,000 skiers a year, he said without more lodging there was no way that it could compete against other New England ski areas. Jay Peak had a hotel and several condominiums, but not nearly enough beds to fulfill its mission to become a destination vacation resort. Many of the condominiums that at the time dotted the base region, were rented to skiers by the season, instead of by the day or week. Renting by the year may have seemed like a good idea at the time, Stenger said, but what it really did was prohibit the resort from making full use of the beds to attract additional vacationers to the mountain.
The 1980s proved a productive period for the construction of condos, a period that continued into the 1990s and to this day. Hundreds of new beds have been added to the resort’s capacity since Stenger arrived on the scene. The summer of 2004 alone brought 56 new townhouses and condominiums, making for an additional 350 beds. Most of the units are now rented by the day or week. The resort now attracts about 300,000 people to its slopes each year from around the world. Many of them are ordinary people, others are well known, such as political figures from the U.S. and Canada. Among the famous alumni who have worked at the mountain is Ivana Winkelmayr, better known as Ivana Trump, the now former wife of millionaire real estate tycoon Donald Trump. She worked at the mountain as a ski instructor in 1971 and 1972.
Stenger looks into the future with excitement. There are big plans for the mountain, plans that once completed, will make Jay Peak into the second largest ski area in Vermont, second only to the Killington ski area, and will increase the number of trails by 50 percent. In the next couple years he hopes to build 18 new trails and glades and three new ski lifts, in the region directly to the right and adjacent to the current trail system known as the West Bowl.
“When I started thinking of expanding, I thought, ‘Jay Peak already has the most snow and best glades in the East so what would be a really special addition to our on-mountain offering?’ It was important to me that the new area complement our existing skiing and riding product, and the West Bowl was a perfect fit. West of Ullr’s Dream trail and beyond Beyond Beaver Pond glade lies some of the most beautiful intermediate terrain on Jay Peak land. The West Bowl is 250 acres and over 1,200 vertical feet of land that gets more snow than any other part of Jay Peak. The sun shines on this snow-filled bowl from morning, til late afternoon, December through April, and the bowl is in the most wind-protected portion of the Jay Forest.”
The resort is also constantly adding new condominium units and plans are in the works to add additional hotel lodging units at the mountain.
There is a lot going on at the mountain, but Stenger emphasized that resort officials haven’t forgotten what makes Jay Peak truly unique—the beauty of the environment that surrounds it. “I’m very proud of our past and our current product and I am very excited about our future and the path we are taking to get there,” he said with pride.
Rumrunners and Revenuers: Prohibition in Vermont. The book was written by Scott Wheeler of Derby, Vermont, and published by New England Press. Order a copy of the book below. Wheeler is also the publisher of Vermont’s Northland Journal.