Located in the Belknap Mountains south of Lake Winnipesaukee, Gunstock Mountain has a long, rich skiing history. Initially developed in large part by the Federal government, Gunstock is the only county owned and operated ski area in New England.
Early Skiing in the Belknap Mountains
Early downhill skiing trails on Gunstock Mountain were developed by members of the Winnipesaukee Ski Club. Snow trains carried skiers and spectators up from urban areas to the popular town of Laconia, located just west of the Belknaps Mountain Range. Early ski trails were developed on Gunstock Mountain, Belknap Mountain, and Piper Mountain. Skiing on Gunstock in particular was popular, as it was the location of many races, including the 1932 United States Eastern Amateur Ski Association championship.
A unique, long rope tow was installed on the west slope of Gunstock Mountain for the winter of 1934-35. Known as the Gunstock Ski Hoist, the lift was one of the first in New England. Initially a popular development, the ski hoist was eventually overshadowed by a nearby government development.
Ski jumping was an increasingly popular winter sport in New England in the 1930s. Using Federal Emergency Relief Administration funds, a ski jump was planned for the northern slope of Mt. Rowe in the spring of 1935. The scope of the project soon grew to become a massive year round recreational facility involving the Works Progress Administration. The initial plans for the $300,000 Belknap Mountains Recreation Area included the 60 meter ski jump, a slalom course, and two new ski trails. The multi-sport facility plan was so large that it was even suggested as a location for the 1940 Winter Olympics.
The Belknap Mountains Recreation Area was officially opened on February 28, 1937 when it hosted the United States Eastern Amateur Ski Association ski jumping event. Due to subpar snowfall, an ice chipping operation was put into place to allow the event to go on as planned. A last minute snowfall helped as well.
The Mt. Rowe single chairlift
Belknap Mountains Recreation Area Chairlift Development
Work on the development continued throughout 1937, with Hussey Manufacturing Company leading the way. A novice slope was cleared on Cobble Mountain while the main work effort was taking place on Mt. Rowe - the installation of the East's first chairlift.
The single chairlift, climbing from Gunstock's present base area to the top of Mt. Rowe, was operational later in the winter of 1937-38. The controversial installation was described by the Lewiston Evening Journal as making the ski area "a rendezvous for lazy skiers." Lazy skiers flocked to the Belknaps and eventually made chairlifts the primary form of transportation for downhillers.
Belknap's second lift, an 800 foot rope tow serving the Phelps slope, was added for the 1938-39 season.
A 1,750 foot long rope tow was likely installed on Cobble Mountain in either 1939 or 1940, providing a large novice area with a little more challenge than the Phelps slope. A combination of poor snow retention, as well as the distance from the main base area, put a quick end to this complex in 1941.
Big changes took place for the 1940-41 season at Belknap Mountains Recreation Area. A $100,000 building was opened at the bottom of the chairlift, constructed from local timber, as well as stone quarried from Cobble Mountain. Other things included trail improvements, as well as the addition of 11 chairs on the Mt. Rowe lift.
For 1941-42, the Cobble Mountain rope tow was relocated to the new Viking slope, thus consolidating all lift operations to the Mt. Rowe base area. At this point, the trail network consisted of the Phelps slope, the Viking slope, the Try-Me Trail, the Fletcher Hale Slalom, the Gunstock Trail, the Ridge Trail, and the Stone Bar Trail.
As was the case across the United States, expansion at Belknap Mountain was slowed by World War II. For 1946-47, a novice rope tow was installed.
During the summer of 1949, Belknap made headlines when shaved ice and hay were used to open the 40 meter jump for an August competition. Some 8,000 spectators were on hand for what would become an annual event.
Gunstock in the 1960s
More Than Just A Chairlift
In hopes of reducing skier traffic on the Phelps slope and Try-Me Trail, the Tiger slope was cleared for the 1949-50 season. A rope tow serving the slope was likely added that season. Unfortunately, the single chairlift would not operate. In April of 1950, Frank "Fritzie" Baer and his signature red hat took over as manager.
For his first ski season, Baer oversaw the installation of new chairs plus sheave liners on the single chairlift. In addition, a new beginners area was created adjacent to the chairlift. Dealing with several poor snow years, Baer also oversaw significant reshaping of many of Belknap's trails.
In trying to keep up with other developing areas in the market, Belknap's first T-Bar was installed for the 1954-55 season. The $50,000, 2,300 foot long lift served Tiger and a new trail called Red Hat.
Tragedy struck in July of 1956, when the single chairlift cable snapped. One person was killed, while many others were injured. As a result of the accident, which was caused by a concealed area of corrosion, the New Hampshire Passenger Tramway Saftey Board was established.
While the late 1950s didn't bring much in way of changes to the ski area, many financial records were broken. As a result, plans were being drawn up to greatly expand the area. Prior to the expansion becoming reality, Fritzie Baer was replaced as General Manager by Warren Warner in 1959. The Joe Smith slope would debut that season.
Corresponding with the extension of Interstate 93 up to Northfield, as well as the hiring of hometown hero Penny Pitou and Egon Zimmermann, a second T-Bar was installed for the 1960-61 season, serving the Smith and Phelps slopes. The Olympic duo was married that February in Gilford.
Belknap Becomes Gunstock
The Belknap Mountains area was revolutionized in 1962, a new Mueller double chairlift was built to the summit of Gunstock Mountain. Not only did the expansion significantly increase the operation's vertical drop, but it was meant the renaming of the ski area to coincide with its new mountain. The quarter million dollar project also resulted in four new trails.
The expansion proved to be a great success. Two years later, a second double chairlift was installed as a twin, to help cut down on lines.
As the decade came to a close a third T-Bar was installed, serving the Phelps slope. Lacking snowmaking, Gunstock struggled during that winter. As a result, snowmaking was installed on the lower mountain for the 1970-71 season. In addition, the Pistol complex debuted, featuring four new trails and a new double chairlift. The 1970-71 project was funded with a $334,000 federal grant.
The outdated single chairlift was taken out of service following the 1976-77 season. It was likely fully removed following the 1979-80 season, when the Gunshy platter pull lift was installed near the bottom of the original Mt. Rowe area.
The old twin summit double chairlifts
A $10 million modernization effort took place in the mid-1980s, starting with a significant change in the lift network in 1986. The aging twin summit double chairlifts were removed, replaced with a Doppelmayr triple chairlift. The original T-Bar was also replaced with the longer Tiger triple chairlift. Nearby, a double chairlift was installed, serving the Gunshy complex. Sel Hannah also oversaw the widening and reworking of many trails, including Gunsmoke and Recoil.
The rest of the T-Bars were removed from the operation by the time 1988-89 rolled around, as the Ramrod fixed grip quad chairlift was installed on the lower slopes.
Improvement projects during the 1990s were generally focused around improving snowmaking and night skiing (reintroduced for the 1992-93 season). As was the case with its single and double chair operations, Gunstock was finding itself falling behind the pack with its long summit triple chairlift ride.
For the 2003-2004 season, the summit triple chairlift was replaced with a new Doppelmayr CTEC high speed detachable quad. The triple was then reinstalled in the Pistol area, replacing the aging Mueller double chairlift.
The beginner experience was significantly enhanced in 2009, when the Penny Pitou Silver Medal Quad was installed. Located adjacent to the Gunshy double chairlift, the new Doppelmayr CTEC fixed grip quad served an enlarged beginner area. Once night skiing was added to the new terrain the following year, the Gunshy double chairlift was deemed redundant and subsequently removed.
Four Season Activities
In 2011, Gunstock started a $2.1 million off season activity project that added treetop obstacle course, high speed zip lines, and off-road Segway tours. The three new attractions were all in operation by mid fall 2011.
With four seasons attractions, a lodging facility may be in the works for the future, as well as a corresponding Alpine Ridge expansion.
Gunstock made regional headlines in spring 2014, when the General Manager Greg Goddard told Senator Kelly Ayotte that Gunstock may be forced to scale back both summer and winter operations to 120 days each due to the Affordable Care Act.
We moved to Portsmouth in 1960 and my father immediately bought us skis & took us to Gunstock. He started us on the rope tow that was on a little slope to the right of the lodge. The lodge was beautiful! We spent many years there taking lessons and skiing every weekend. I was able to take my husband there in 2003 & he was just as impressed. I certainly have very fond memories of that time. My favorite ski area at the time.
Phyllis Rogler Jan. 14, 2014
Our family learned to ski here in the 60's . Then transferred to the west coast and Utah . Learned that if you can ski New England you can ski anywhere and with great form. Thanks