Finding a Recipe for Snow

By Henry J. Pratt
 Almost 75 years ago, skiers schussed down the slopes of the Concord Resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains on artificially-made snow.
 It was the first time that the popular sport of skiing had been regularly offered anywhere on man-made surfaces. Skiers and resort owners considered it a miracle—someone had finally found a recipe for making snow.
 Today, ski resorts in the United States, Canada and Japan have installed snow-making machinery. All they need now is some good old-fashioned cold weather to start it up.
 Many winter sports fans are surprised to learn that the snowflakes were first made in the South. Early in 1949, someone down in Dixie forgot to turn off his $25 lawn sprinkler before going to bed.
 Presto! By morning, there were little mounds of snow surrounding the sprinkler’s ice-crusted base. A photograph of this unexpected happening was wire-serviced to newspapers coast to coast.
 “That’s how I learned about it,” says Raymond Parker, board chairman at New York’s 1,200-room Concord Resort, which harbors only a small ski area. “In earlier years, we had to close our ski runs through some frigid winters in which there was almost no snow.
 “Once we discovered how to make snow, we had no trouble keeping our ski areas open all season long,” Parker adds. It was awhile, though, before success came to Concord’s snowmaking.
 Credit for introducing the “how to” equipment for producing the white cover in sizable amounts belongs to three executives of the Tey Manufacturing corporation of Milford, Connecticut. They also saw the picture of the well-frosted sprinkler in their local newspaper.
 Within a year, the Tey executives’ research enabled them to apply for a snowmaking system patent. The technique was simple. It called for tiny droplets of highly-pressurized water and air to emerge from fine-holed nozzles into an atmosphere that was freezing.
But the first three major snowmaking efforts—at Mount Sunapee, New Hampshire; Mohawk Mountains, Connecticut; and at Big Boulder in Pennsylvania’s Poconos—failed. The chief problem: Pipes and nozzles, after producing small amounts of snow, froze. Efforts at all three resorts finally were abandoned. Concord’s Raymond Parker and his head golf greenskeeper, Frank Eck, also gave up the snowmaking chase in that frustrating 1950-51 winter season.
 Success at Concord, however, did arrive many months later—in November 1951—during a week in which the weather had turned unseasonably cold. Glare ice topped the roads leading to the ski area’s Swiss Chalet.
 “It’s time we went at it, again,” Parker told Eck. “Dig out that snowmaking equipment and see if that new idea we discussed last summer works.”
 The new idea was a simple one. It called for enclosing the sprinkler heads inside boxes that had highway flares blazing beside them. The Concord snow-idea men thought the heat might prevent the freezing.
 It did, and the popcorn-heating units and homemade nozzles, produced by Eck from purchases at a local hardware store, also worked. Parker lost little time capitalizing on their good fortune.
 Within two weeks, a Concord half-page ad appeared in the travel section of the New York Times. The ad touted: “Skiing! Yes, even when nature fails…our revolutionary new snowmaking machine blankets the ski trails with fine snow at 32 degrees or below!”
Snowmaking had arrived. The editors of the nationally circulated Colliers’ magazine thought the discovery so important they sent a reporter-photographer team to Concord to do a feature story on it.
 You would think, in view of Concord’s snowmaking success, that ski operators across the U.S. would jump on the bandwagon. Not so—almost all operators failed to act promptly.
 But a well-known nearby resort, Grossingers (now defunct), did offer snowmaking the following year. It took four more years before Poconos’ Big Boulder became only the third area to join the artificial-snow scene.
 By the early 1960s, however, most of the major ski centers in the upper Midwest, with their low altitudes, were making snow. So was Mount Alyeska in Alaska.
 The East’s big resorts, such as Stowe, Sugarbush, Big Bromley and Mount Snow in Vermont; and Cannon Mountain, Wildcat and Mount Cranmore in New Hampshire, still were a few more years away from investing the necessary funds for snowmaking.
Hunter Mountain, in New York’s central Catskills, perhaps represents the best example of the difference snow machines can make to the ski industry. In the late 1950s, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein’s son—Jimmy—opened Hunter Mountain to skiing. The effort was backed by such celebrities as Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Moss Hart, Kitty Carlisle, Kim Novak and Lawrence Harvey.
 Two of Hunter Village’s native sons—the brothers Israel and Orville Slutzky—had snowmaking machines installed promptly in what they hailed as “The Snowmaking Capital of the World.” The mountain, which is about a two-hour drive from the Big Apple, became an instantaneous success.
 Thanks to the huge snowmaking plant it has installed, the large Killington ski center, overlooking the Vermont city of Rutland, boasts the distinction of being the first ski area in the East to open and the last to close each season. Although Killington has a base elevation of only 1,160 feet, it usually offers skiing from early November to late May each year. If you want to ski early as well as late, head for the hilly white stuff near Rutland, Vermont.
 Today’s equipment, now much more advanced than earlier times, speeds up the snowflake-making process. Much less water is now required, and often computers regulate the systems, automatically turning on snowmaking lines at the proper times. In many areas, a depth of three feet of snow can be laid on three long ski runs in 24 to 36 hours.
 Snowmaking is big business. Without it, most of America’s ski industry would be in trouble for lack of snowflakes falling from the skies and piling up at the proper time.

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