As Laurel Mountain's resurrection seems all but assured by a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Seven Springs Mountain Resort now is the time to preserve a slice of skiing history. Midway Cabin, Laurel Mountain's original ski lodge, is in need of restoration. Not only is Laurel Mountain and Midway Cabin significant to local skiing history, it is also a part of the greater story that is modern alpine skiing. One would not think of Western Pennsylvania's Laurel Mountains as among the vanguard of America's mountain communities that introduced modern alpine skiing to the public but in the 1930s alpine skiing for recreation was just a few decades old. Perhaps it is most fitting that Seven Springs and Laurel Mountain is now a joined business operation. Both ski areas trace their beginnings to the era when modern alpine technique arrived in this country from Austria between the mid1930s and 1940s. The catalyst was the annexation of Austria by Germany.
In 1938 with Hitler's Anschulss a reality Johann "Hannes" Schneider, the most famous and influential of all ski instructors, was placed under arrest for his refusal to cooperate with the Nazi Party. Schneider is widely regarded as the father of modern alpine skiing. He honed the movement patterns and teaching techniques that brought downhill skiing from the realm of high risk sport into the mainstream by enabling beginning skiers to progress faster and control decent on steeper terrain. Hannes and his Arlberg Method was the subject of the world's first ski film. Schneider helped establish the Arlberg-Kandahar combined alpine race, the forerunner of World Cup and Olympic alpine skiing. All of this popularize alpine skiing around the world and made Schneider "the biggest name in the then small ski world." With pressure brought to bear by Hanover Bank President Harvey Gibson, Schneider was released by the Nazis. He came to the US in February, 1939. Gibson also built Mount Cranmore, NH the premier eastern ski resort of that time. Not only did Hannes become the head of the ski school but also directed the development of the mountain. It is at this point that Laurel Mountain's connection with our nation's greater ski heritage begins.
The following winter Richard King Mellon, head of a vast industrial and banking business based in Western Pennsylvania, upon returning from a day of skiing at Seven Springs Farm with his bank manager Lenny Bughman decided to build a ski area of his own. Mellon called his banking friend Harvey Gibson for advice and a few days later Hannes Schneider arrived at the train station in Latrobe. Schneider designed the Broadway trail and skiing began at Laurel Mountain the next winter for members of the Rolling Rock Club. I have no other information of Hannes' visit or what other trails he designed or how long he stayed here. I would like to fill in this information gap.
The original lodge, now Midway Cabin, was presumably built at this time. I say presumably because there are stories I have not been able to confirm that skiing was happening at Laurel before 1939. Midway was accessed by Locust Camp Road, a dirt road that descends from the Summit Road. When Laurel was opened to the public, buses brought skiers from their Pullman sleeper cars sided at Ligonier Station down the narrow lane to the lodge. From here a surface lift began its uphill journey through the trees beside Broadway. A stone wall built to bridge a dip in the hill on the tow line still stands. Below the Midway Cabin a rope tow serviced Timber Top slope. Pulleys and footers are still evident. Since the original structure was built there were two additions, a front entrance area and a back dormitory that became the home of the Pittsburgh Ski Club which built and maintained its own rope tow. (The ski club also began in the mid-1930s.) The lodge had no indoor plumbing. Heat was provided by two large stone fireplaces that were on the original outside walls. Lenny Bughman, now Laurel's manager, arranged to have Lowell Thomas, the most prominent newscaster of that time, do his Friday night nationwide radio newscast from the Midway Cabin just as he had done from other ski resorts throughout the country. The Sunday before the scheduled event the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, of course, the Thomas broadcast never occurred.
After the war a Tenth Mountain Division veteran, Ralph "Doc" DesRoches, came to Laurel from Lake Placid to become the head of the ski school and later was made the mountain manager. Doc went on to become the president of the Ski Industries of America, the industry's trade association. He also became the head of fund raising for the US Ski Team and Olympic Committee. I digress, there is so much more to this story and other events at Laurel that should be told but, back to Midway.
Midway Cabin presents the DCNR with a great opportunity to tell the tale of the early days of alpine skiing. The cabin is still owned by the State and under DCNR control. At this time Midway is in fair condition and was in use when Laurel re-opened in 1999. The roof is in good condition but there are leaks around the two chimneys. The greatest structural threat is the uphill wall, the floor behind it, and floor joists joined at that wall. Pressure and moister from the earth against the side is rotting the wood and must be repaired. A professional assessment of the structural integrity should soon be made. The stone gatehouse at the entrance of the ski area is another structure that is still standing and is in very good condition. A date on the gatehouse fixes its construction at 1941. Midway could again be placed in service as a secondary lodge in addition to being the focal point of historical interpretation.
Prompt action should be taken to preserve for reuse these historic structures. Ask the DCNR to help preserve Midway at Laurel Mountain so future generations can understand and appreciate the roots of our local skiing heritage and its context in the our country's skiing history.