Skiing: Shawnee Peak turns 75

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Seventy-five years ago, skiers climbed for most of their runs, and Pleasant Mountain was first viewed as a natural place to ski.

A group of skiers from the Portland area often drove Route 302 to Mount Washington and were looking for a place closer to home where they could ski. The lower open slopes on Pleasant Mountain seemed a likely place to start. They also could see the potential for cutting trails through the woods on the upper part of the mountain.

They approached the local farmer, Harry Douglas, about skiing there. Douglas said it was fine with him as long as they replaced the fences in the spring when it was time for his cattle to reclaim their pastures. Thus, skiing began on Pleasant Mountain.

Obviously we can’t tell the entire 75 year story of Maine’s oldest continuously operated commercial ski area in this space. That could fill the entire sports section. But we can hit the highlights and the many ways in which Pleasant Mountain and Shawnee Peak have led Maine skiing.

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Things really got moving when the Portland skiers were soon joined by some Bridgton skiers, led by Russ Haggett, and in 1936 under the direction of Harry Sampson, then headmaster at Bridgton Academy, they convinced the CCC to cut a trail from the top of the mountain. That run was called the Wayshego Trail. Pleasant Mountain could be skied from the top.

In 1937, the Bridgton Chamber of commerce got involved securing a lease with an option to buy within four years. A 16-by-32-foot building was built and a rope tow installed.

The official opening took place Jan. 23, 1938, with 500 present to ride the 1,100-foot rope tow. The Pleasant Mountain Ski Club was formed, including Ray Riley, Russ Haggett, Luke Evans, Sid Russell, Jack Spratt, and Wes Marco.

Nelson Turner was first manager followed by Jack Spratt in 1939. In 1940, the town bought the property from Harrry Douglas for $800, and soon thereafter Haggett, Riley, Marco and Evans formed the Pleasant Mountain Corporation and bought the land from the town and the Evans family. By 1945 there were three rope tows, and when Haggett returned from the war in the Pacific he became general manager, a post he would hold for 39 years.

The Downeast Ski Club was formed in 1948 and played a key role in bringing more skiers from the Portland area. One member, James Jones, led in the creation of Maine’s first ski patrol.

Haggett, working under the new owners, installed the state’s first T-bar, replacing one of the rope tows in 1951. A new base lodge and parking lot were built. Another milestone was reached in 1954 with Maine’s first chair lift carrying skiers to the summit. In 1960 the Rabbit Run T-bar was added for beginners, and in 1962, the East T-bar added to the uphill capacity for what was becoming a very busy ski area.

Eight Portland area businessmen purchased the area in 1969 and commenced a series of improvements. Those included the Pines Double Chair that year, and in 1972, the East area with its own top-to-bottom double chair truly expanding the scope of the area. Haggett retired in 1978 and was replaced by Tim Cyr.

The winter of 1979-80 was a tough one with no snow until March when the area opened for a single week. The Portland owners decided they had had enough and sold the area. The new owners made a commitment to install snowmaking by Christmas, and while they made it, it didn’t really matter as natural snow was abundant as the season got underway in 1981.

The following year, Ed Rock took over as GM, and he remains in charge today. During his first year a new nursery was built, the base lodge was renovated, and snowmaking extended to the top. The base lodge renovation was actually necessitated by a fire which did extensive damage to the East end of the building. In 1984, Maine’s first chair lift was replaced by a triple, which helped reduce lift lines.

Pleasant Mountain was on the market once again in 1987, and the sale would lead to the name change. The Shawnee Group out of Pennsylvania bought the ski area and renamed the area Shawnee Peak.

That group also made the big improvement that has been a key factor in the success of the area. The first year they installed lights on 60 percent of the terrain, and in 1989 the lights were extended to the summit. This made Shawnee Peak the largest night skiing operation in New England. A double chair was added to the beginner area.

The Shawnee Group decided to sell the area in order to concentrate on their other holdings. Chet Homer became the sole owner bring a solid business and financial background to Shawnee Peak.

Homer’s nearly two decades of ownership have seen constant improvement. The Pines slopes are now served by a quad chair. Snowmaking has been increased several times over. The main triple has been replaced by a newer bigger triple with a conveyor loading system, Maine’s first, and a solar Great Room added to the base lodge. The company got into lodging with the construction of 32 two bedroom condos at the base of the East Slope.

These are only some of the highlights. You can learn more next weekend as the birthday is celebrated at the mountain and at www.shawneepeak.com. If you visit next weekend, you will realize that it may be 75 years old, but Shawnee Peak at Pleasant Mountain is as young and vibrant as ever, worthy of a great legacy in Maine skiing.

Dave Irons is a free-lance writer who lives in Westbrook.

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