Cardigan Reservation's 75th anniversary

by Peter Bronski

Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2009

Standing outside Cardigan Lodge on a sunny afternoon, looking up toward the three peaks of the namesake mountain, a hiker can relish the foresight of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the volunteers who lobbied to create what became the cornerstone of the club's lodge and high mountain hut system. Now, the year of Cardigan Reservation's 75th anniversary, is a good time to revisit its history. But to do this means to go back in memory to one deep winter long ago, when the skiing movement was taking off in New England and within the AMC.

Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, when the reservation and Cardigan Lodge came into existence, skiing was a nascent sport in North America. Skiing had grown popular in Europe and was rapidly gaining a foothold in the United States, particularly in New England as well as at points farther west, such as Colorado.

In New England especially, skiing was on the rise, thanks largely to the outing clubs of Dartmouth University and other colleges. Soon, the AMC would join that effort. In 1925, the club led its first ski trip. In 1927, skiing became a regular part of its winter program. By 1930, club member Park Carpenter began publishing Ski Bulletin, and the club led annual weekend ski trips to Mount Moosilauke. In 1931, the AMC prompted the Boston & Maine Railroad to run Sunday Snow Trains. And by 1933, the AMC established a new Committee on Skiing, with William Fowler as its first chairman.

One of Fowler's first tasks was to begin scouting the mountains for a skiing headquarters. Aside from the obvious need for skiing potential, the site had to fit two basic criteria: it should be located within 125 miles of Boston, and it should be closer than Pinkham Notch.

Mount Cardigan—for which Cardigan Lodge is named—is southern New Hampshire's second highest peak, behind only Mount Monadnock. Originally believed to stand 3,121 feet tall, Cardigan's elevation was later upwardly revised to 3,155 feet, still leaving it ten feet shy of Monadnock's 3,165 feet. Once known as Old Baldy by area locals, Cardigan is actually a three-peaked mountain, with Cardigan the highest, flanked by the neighboring summits of South Peak and Firescrew.

Before the first days of Cardigan Lodge, most attention had been focused on the mountain's western slopes. It wasn't until the AMC began looking for a base for ski operations that anyone gave real attention to the eastern slopes of Cardigan.

The first serious steps toward locating and selecting a site came in November 1933, when John Carleton suggested the club look into the Shem Valley, near Alexandria, New Hampshire. Carleton was the former captain of the Dartmouth Outing Club's Ski and Snowshoe Team, and he went on to compete in a variety of ski events. By 1933, he was a lawyer living in Manchester, but he still skied regularly, including on the eastern slopes of Cardigan.

The AMC enlisted Duke Dimitri von Leuchtenberg to lead the initial forays into the Shem Valley in November 1933. The Duke was a noble of Russian lineage, who came to the United States by way of Bavaria. In New England, he had been busy laying out many of the Civilian Conservation Corps trails. In the Shem Valley in particular, he saw real potential. He chose a cabin site for the AMC at the foot of what today is known as the Duke's Trail, and "he pointed out to us with a graceful wave of his arm the extensive skiing possibilities of the region," wrote Fowler in 1935.

One month later, in December 1933, the Duke helped the AMC to realize that skiing potential by blazing a ski route from the meadows of Shem Valley up to Firescrew. That same winter of 1933 to 1934, Fowler and others explored some of the skiing potential of the area, following the Manning Trail down from the summit of Firescrew, bushwhacking through the overgrowing pastures of the Shem Valley, and skiing another nearby hill known then as Clark Pastures. And although these initial forays were the first time the main club set its sights on the Shem Valley, in truth the then-Merrimack Valley Chapter of the AMC had already been active in the area, including the cutting of the Manning Trail one decade earlier.

With its site chosen, the AMC first had to acquire land in the Shem Valley. An 1855 fire for which Firescrew earned its name destroyed much of the valley's buildings. But the buildings of the Shem Ackerman farmstead, dating to 1853, had survived the fire and seemed the obvious choice. The AMC's Helen F. Kimball Fund held $3,000 designated for the "purchase of reservations." The club used some of those funds to buy an initial 500 acres (some sources say 600 acres, as the official survey and unofficial actual acreages varied) for $1,000, the equivalent of a little over $16,000 in 2008 dollars. Club members closed on the mortgage in February or early March 1934, in a ceremony on snowshoes halfway up the Manning Trail on Firescrew. Work on the new Cardigan Lodge could soon begin.

Fowler originally lobbied for naming the new AMC property Cardigan Reservation, a name that would embrace both winter and summer seasons. He lost out to the club's significant ski contingent, who succeeded in naming it the Cardigan Ski Reservation. It's now known simply as Cardigan Lodge and Reservation, so perhaps Fowler's original desires have been realized with time.

Beginning that spring of 1934, club members volunteered their time straight through summer and deep into fall. A core group of 15 members did much of the work, though many more people laid their hands on the project before the lodge was complete. Fred Markus, an AMC member, served as architect for the project. Although the Shem Ackerman farmstead survived the Firescrew blaze, it still didn't leave Markus much to work with. The original farmhouse "was one of those black, weather-beaten, patched, forsaken New Hampshire farmhouses," wrote Helen Welch in 1934. The property also had a ramshackle woodshed, leaky roof, condemned chimney, barn in bad disrepair, and dilapidated carriage sheds. What's more, the main house was occupied by John Yegerman, a hermit with a one-eyed dog (Yegerman peaceably relocated to a nearby shack).

The real work began on May 1, as soon as the muddy roads sufficiently dried out. There was much demolition, and not all that much construction, in the beginning. AMC volunteers camped in a field up the road where they were close to water and away from the dirt and debris of the construction.

The Cardigan Lodge was eco-friendly decades before its time—the AMC volunteers built an addition onto the main Ackerman house constructed entirely of reclaimed materials: timbers from the carriage house, windows, a door, as well as "every pile of second-hand brick between Boston and Bristol." (Though, admittedly, this circumstance was motivated more by thrift than by "green" building principles.)

By July 1, the midges and mosquitoes and flies proved unbearable, and workers moved into the dilapidated barn. Amazingly, the club hired out only two jobs to professionals: installing new window sashes, and laying brick for a new fireplace and chimney. The rest of the work was done by the AMC volunteers—men and women alike—in a true it-takes-a-village community effort.

As the end of August neared, the lodge showed true progress. A second story dormer was complete, filled with three rooms and eighteen bunks. The workers moved yet again, this time into the relative comfort of the lodge house itself. By November 1, most of the major jobs were done, and later that month, the club declared Cardigan Lodge complete. It's worth noting that Mount Cardigan also features the High Cabin, perched just below treeline at the saddle between Cardigan and South Peak. Located two miles by trail above Cardigan Lodge, it has a similarly long history, dating back to 1931, and was renovated in 2004. In contrast to Cardigan's relative luxury, High Cabin is self-service and fully rustic.

Finishing the construction of the lodge allowed the AMC to shift its focus to continued trail clearing, which had already started, partly under the auspices of the CCC. The CCC had been quite active in the Shem Valley, resurfacing and extending the road leading to the ski reservation, finishing the Duke's Trail, and cutting the Alexandria Trail. (Some sources suggest the Alexandria Trail was cut during the summer of 1934. Others say 1935. Both agree the CCC did the work.) Then, in December 1934, the AMC added the Kimball Trail, named in honor of Helen Kimball, whose funds had allowed the AMC to buy the property.

Finally, the AMC and its members could stand back and admire their work. "With all of us who have shared in the work . . . there is no such thing as modesty about our accomplishments," wrote Welch in late 1934. "We are ready to purr with satisfaction whenever anyone mentions the improvements made. Indeed, we are frankly proud of our handiwork, as well we may be, for very charming and satisfying is the transformed Shem Ackerman Farm, now Cardigan Ski Lodge. Behind the lilacs on a small knoll sits a little gray shingled Cape Cod house, trimmed with white," She added that it had "an enclosed porch, waiting to store skis and poles."

And store skis and poles it did. That 1934–1935 winter proved fortuitously snowy, almost too much so. The first skiing had actually already taken place on October 12. The "real" snow began to fall in late November and didn't stop for much of the winter, permitting continuous skiing from December 19, 1934, until April 22, 1935. Cardigan welcomed her first guests, though, in December 1934, using blankets borrowed from Pinkham Notch. Husband and wife Wendell and Eleanor Stephenson served as the first caretakers, cooking and serving meals (though guests helped to wash the dishes).

Compared with today's skiers, who hunt for fresh powder, Cardigan's early skiers sought to pack down the snow runs. The smoother the better and more beautiful, in their eyes. In fact, a snowstorm on Christmas night 1934 covered the practice hill, and skiers described having to "break it out" to make it a great, skiable run once again. Skiers revealed that same aversion to powder a few days later, when ten inches of fresh snow fell. Seven skiers broke trail up the Duke's run. But rather than ski in the tracks of the person breaking trail ahead of them to preserve the powder, each person made sure to have at least one ski in the fresh snow, so that together they could smooth out the run for the descent.

With the new lodge, and the epic snowfall, skiers came to Cardigan in droves to schuss the beginner, intermediate, and expert runs, which ranged from 16 degrees steep to 30 degrees or more. "We were positive we had landed in the mythical snow-belt when people from all over New Hampshire came driving in and crowding our hills and trails," wrote Fowler. Skiers felt that the Cardigan-Firescrew ridge was a natural snow trap, intercepting clouds from the northeast and dumping the snow into the Shem Valley.

They may have been right. At one point, so much snow fell that skiers were trapped at the lodge, forced to wait until a plow could get them out. A plow did arrive, its driver bursting into the lodge late one night around 11:30 p.m. He told the guests that unless they wanted to stay until the next plow arrived four days later, they should go with him then. The wind was so strong it would drift over the road in snow as fast as the plow could open it, he said. Six cars hurriedly filled with guests and got in line behind the plow. One car had to be towed by another stronger vehicle. Yet another car had to be towed by the plow itself. Everyone made it out and back to points south, including some who arrived in Boston around 7:30 a.m. the next day.

Plows weren't always able to keep the road open, and guests sometimes skied the last mile or more to the lodge. There, they were treated to "ideal skiing conditions rewarding those who struggled in," wrote Fowler.

On March 24, 1935, Cardigan hosted its first ski carnival. It may have been the biggest day of the year, when more than 50 cars lined the road leading to the lodge. By the end of that first season, 884 people had lodged or eaten at the Cardigan Ski Lodge. Who knows how many more skied the slopes surrounding it?

One year later, for the 1935–1936 winter, the AMC added a rope tow to one of the beginner slopes. Cardigan's popularity continued to grow, such that by 1938, the crowds strained its capacity (the lodge was built to accommodate 24 guests at a time). The AMC had aspirations of using the adjacent barn, but it proved unsuitable. They salvaged the barn's wood and used it to build a new lodge that was completed by December 1939.

The Cardigan Lodge remained popular through World War II. Also during the 1940s, Cardigan installed a rope tow powered by a 1940 Ford sedan. By 1962, that Ford sedan had been replaced by a Ford tractor. That 1962–1963 ski season, eighteen-year-old Steve Smith, a native of Alexandria, New Hampshire just down the road from Cardigan, got his first job running the rope tow. "I earned $25 per week, plus room and board," he remembers. "Cardigan was a winter-oriented place at the time. Hardly anything happened there in the summertime."

Smith had Tuesdays and Wednesdays off work. Thursday was devoted to food shopping in Laconia. By Friday, guests and lodge staff alike were arriving. And by Saturday morning, skiing was in full swing. Smith walked a half-mile from the lodge to the base of the rope tow, carrying two five-gallon fuel cans, which he tied to the rope. Smith then hiked to the top of the runs, powered up the tow, and hauled up the cans of fuel. Meanwhile, the rope tow's lone ski patroller—who always wore orange—inspected the safety release for the tow. The particular concern was small children, whose wet gloves would often freeze to the rope. Unable to let go, if the safety release malfunctioned, they could potentially be pulled into the tractor system (fortunately, that never happened).

Despite the early popularity of Cardigan's rope tow, the post–World War II era also saw the return of 10th Mountain Division soldiers (and others), who founded larger, more modern ski areas. Cardigan's popularity waned. Bankruptcy loomed, and the AMC needed a way to salvage the reservation and its lodge. The solution: summer.

By the late 1960s, the AMC had unveiled a series of summer programs that resurrected Cardigan's popularity. In fact, Cardigan remained prosperous enough to use its profits to acquire additional land, which today totals 1,200 acres. That land abuts another 5,000 acres of the Mount Cardigan State Forest, which too has grown from an original 3,000 acres in the 1930s.

Tom Kehoe, a Manchester, New Hampshire, native who joined the AMC as a boy scout in 1963, worked at Cardigan for eight summers throughout the 1980s. (He later went on to become a committee member, and then committee chair, for Cardigan in the 1990s.) He remembers fondly those summers, not only for the many AMC members who came to hike at Cardigan, but also for the activities that took place at the lodge: "There was something every weekend," he recalls. "Football and Frisbee. Square dancing in the evening. The Boston chapter ran a sailing weekend on a nearby lake. There were fall foliage hikes. And we had six weekends of different themes: English country summer/fall 2009 103 dancing, Scandinavian dancing, Dixieland jazz. It was all about hiking during the day, music at night, and not a heck of a lot of sleep." On summer Sunday afternoons, lodge staff offered a barbecue, complete with hand-cranked homemade ice cream.

Cardigan began as a place defined by winter, but its long-term survival was ultimately achieved thanks to summer. Nowadays, the lodge and surrounding reservation have embraced all the seasons, and Cardigan has become a genuine year-round destination that's as popular as ever. Rick Silverberg knows that fact firsthand. An AMC member since 1976, he's been the director of the New Hampshire chapter's winter and spring schools at Cardigan since 1981. "Whether you're snowshoeing or skiing in winter, or hiking in summer, the setting is perfect," he says. "You don't have to travel anywhere but out the front door of the lodge." What's more, he notes, is that "it's a destination with a really long history. The lodge and the CCC trails add a lot of mystique."

It's the kind of mystique that brings people back again and again, not just on a person-by-person basis, but generation after generation. "We regularly have people come whose grandparents came, and then whose parents came, and now they come bringing their kids," Silverberg says. As a point in fact, consider that Smith—who ran the ski rope tow in the early 1960s—saw his own children go on to become a part of the summer crew at Cardigan decades later. When it comes to tradition and legacy, it seems that Cardigan's runs deep. N ow, with backcountry skiing more popular than ever, and with a renovation of the Cardigan Lodge completed in 2005, Cardigan should prove as popular as ever. It is an historic winter playground for the AMC and its guests, who now begin to write the next 25 years of history for a destination that already has 75 years of stories, memories, and adventures to tell.

Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer and frequent contributor to Appalachia. He is the author of Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Runs in Colorado's Lost Ski Resorts (Wilderness Press, 2008).

This story appeared in the Summer/Fall 2009 Issue of Appalachia.