Long before the opening of Davos in Woodridge ushered in a new era in skiing in Sullivan County, before the Concord and Grossinger’s pioneered snowmaking techniques to service their rudimentary ski hills, and even before the Miller brothers operated Christmas Hills in Livingston Manor, skiing made its local debut at Walnut Mountain in Liberty.
In October of 1936, a corporation known as Liberty Winter Sports, Inc. purchased most of Walnut Mountain from Frank H. Mauer with plans to create a skiing facility at the site of the old Walnut Mountain House. Dr. S.W. Wells was president of the group, which also included B.K.J. Eenberg, Thomas P. McNamara, Albert T. Decker, Joseph E. Fersch, Paul H. Allen, and Gunnar Bjorgstrom. Joseph G. Dowling handled the publicity.
The ski area opened that winter, and operated for a number of years, with the O&W Railway actually running special “ski trains” to Liberty for a time. The operation struggled with the lack of snow throughout its existence, and closed sometime during World War II. The hill was crude by modern day standards, and, devoid of any snowmaking equipment, operated at the mercy of Mother Nature, but it did feature a 600 foot rope tow powered by the engine from an old Model T Ford.
There was a cabin with a lunch counter at the top of the ski tow, and an observation tower on the top of the mountain that provided breathtaking views of distant counties. Flood lights were employed to enable night skiing. But the slopes at the ski hill were laid out on the east side of the mountain, exposing them to the sun, which tended to melt whatever snow did fall.
Despite this failure, many locals believed there were few places in New York State that were better suited for a ski hill, and in 1963, a proposal was floated to construct a new state of the art facility on Walnut Mountain.
Liberty Supervisor William Pearson was one of the spearheads of the new proposal, which he announced at a meeting of the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors in July of that year. Pearson put together a presentation in an attempt to persuade the state to take over the mountain and operate the ski facility. Armed with a resolution from his own Town Board, he solicited approval from the County before trekking to the Capitol.
“The resolution notes that the primary industry in Liberty township is summer resorts and there is little or no resort or other business to add to the economy of the town in the winter months,” the Liberty Register reported.
“A presentment is being prepared for the Conservation Department on a proposal to make Walnut Mountain a state ski center on par with Bear Mountain or Bel-Ayre [sic]” the Register stated on July 11, 1963. “Under the proposal, the state would pay the whole shot and develop Walnut Mountain as a public ski center… A spokesman said Tuesday morning that Walnut Mountain can become ‘the Switzerland of lower New York State.’
“It is one of the most ideal spots in the state for a ski center, with an elevation of between 2,000 and 2,200 feet, with northern exposure and with all kinds of levels and grades for any type of skiing. The top of the mountain is level (there was once a hotel there) and it is easily accessible. It has all the classic features of good ski slopes.”
The hope was that a successful ski operation could help the Liberty economy recover from the recent loss of the Fuelane Corporation, which had announced in January of ’63 that it would be relocating approximately 90% of its Liberty based workforce to Delmar, NY, and the projected loss of a significant number of jobs from the expected closing of the Dairymen’s League facility. The Woodridge area had received a similar economic boost when the Davos ski area had opened nearby not long before, the article noted.
The proposal called for the state to purchase about 213 acres from American Playlands Corporation, which had been developing plans for a massive amusement park called Mystic Mountain but had abandoned those plans when the stock market crashed the previous spring. No price for the property was discussed in the article, but it was noted that if the state moved quickly to acquire the property skiing could actually begin that winter.
Pearson was unsuccessful in convincing the state to purchase the property and build the facility that summer, but he did not give up on his idea to build a ski center at Walnut Mountain. He pushed for the town to undertake the project, and in 1965 a bond issue was approved in the town which, along with $98,000 in state funding, would have financed the operation.
By May of 1966, though, the property was still not purchased and the ski hill was still only a vision, prompting a large display ad in the Register newspaper urging the project to move forward and citing the benefits of 2500 visitors a week spending upwards of $1 million during the winter months at Liberty area restaurants, motels, and gas stations.
Of course, by that time, there were five major ski facilities in the county, all offering their patrons snow- making, lifts, snack bars, ski shops, and ski schools, and bearing little resemblance to the original Walnut Mountain facility, where it had all begun some thirty years before.
Photo: A group of skiers gather near the summit of Walnut Mountain in Liberty circa 1937.