December 30, 2014

Mad River Glen's Single-Chair Lift: Restoring an Icon

  • By: Lauren Walser

Left: Crews remove the aging towers from their concrete bases. Right: The single-chair lift takes one skier per chair on a 12-minute ride to the top of General Stark Mountain.
Left: Crews remove the aging towers from their concrete bases. Right: The single-chair lift takes one skier per chair on a 12-minute ride to the top of General Stark Mountain.

Mad River Glen ski area in Vermont’s Green Mountain Range isn’t like most ski areas. As you’ll read in the Winter 2015 issue of Preservation, it tends to buck the trends: It rarely uses manmade snow, it does minimal grooming of its trails, it forbids snowboarding, and it’s owned by its skiers, who formed the Mad River Glen Cooperative in 1995.

In fact, Mad River Glen today looks much the way it did when it celebrated its grand opening 66 years ago.

When investment banker Roland Palmedo founded the ski area in 1947 (it opened officially one year later), he wanted a place where skiing was the main focus -- not money.

“A ski area is not just a place of business, a mountain amusement park, as it were,” he once said. Instead, he envisioned a place where a community of skiers could enjoy the sport in its purest form.

“And Mad River Glen has really stayed true to that philosophy,” says Eric Friedman, the ski area’s marketing director.

The towers were taken off their concrete bases and flown to Bath Iron Works for repairs.
The towers were taken off their concrete bases and flown to Bath Iron Works for repairs.

Perhaps the most iconic reminder of Mad River Glen’s earliest days is its single-chair lift -- the oldest continually operating single-chair lift in the country, and the only one in the continental United States.

The lift first began shuttling skiers to the top of General Stark Mountain on Dec. 11, 1948. Fueled by diesel, the lift was designed and installed by American Steel & Wire Company.

The 158 chairs take one skier per chair on a 12-minute journey from the bottom to the top. It’s a quiet, contemplative experience, Friedman says. And even though it means long lift lines, he believes it’s part of the Mad River Glen experience -- and he rarely hears complaints.

“I always say we have the happiest lift lines in America,” he says. But by the early 2000s, the ski lift was in need of major repairs.

Crews repair the concrete bases during the single-chair lift’s 2007 restoration.
Crews repair the concrete bases during the single-chair lift’s 2007 restoration.

Shareholders debated for five years what to do with the aging structure. Some wanted to replace it entirely. Others fought to restore it. In the end, despite the higher price tag, 86 percent of shareholders voted for restoration, made possible through a partnership with the nonprofit Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Stark Mountain Foundation.

Thanks to a grant from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, the co-op conducted a historic assessment of the structure with the help of local historian John Johnson. A restoration plan was created that called for reusing much of the original materials.

Then came fundraising -- another astonishing moment in the ski area’s history. Through the shareholders’ “Save the Single” campaign and support from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, the entire $1.7 million needed to restore the ski lift was raised entirely by donations.

Miss Vermont 2007 Rachel Ann Cole was at the re-opening celebrations to unlock the lift.
Miss Vermont 2007 Rachel Ann Cole was at the re-opening celebrations to unlock the lift.

It was an astronomical outcome, but one that Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, sees as fitting for the ski area’s supporters. “Folks who go to Mad River Glen are very passionate about it,” he says. “There’s a level of passion about their place that is far deeper than any other.”

The single-chair lift transported its final skier on April 8, 2007 before it shut down for restoration.

The restoration team used the original 1940s plans for the lift to restore the structure. Most of the chairs suffered from severe rot and rust and were re-built according to the original specifications. The mechanical parts were repaired or replaced.

The lift’s towers were taken off their bases, flown by helicopter down to the ski area’s parking lot, where they then were trucked to Bath Iron Works in Maine. There, they were sandblasted, straightened, and repainted, before being trucked back to Mad River Glen and installed on new concrete bases, poured earlier that summer.

Skiers celebrated the grand re-opening of the single-chair lift in December 2007.
Skiers celebrated the grand re-opening of the single-chair lift in December 2007.

“It was really made to look as close to the original as possible,” Friedman says. “Everything we could reuse, we did reuse.”

The lift reopened in the fall of 2007, with a 50-year covenant by the Preservation Trust of Vermont to protect it and the corridor underneath it.

“It really pulled the community together,” Friedman says. “On that opening day, when we had the grand re-opening, it was incredible. There was not a dry eye in the house. This is what this place is about.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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