Small ski areas are like individual snowflakes. No two are alike. They can be beautiful, sometimes more so when viewed through the prism of our memories.
They can easily fall prey to the capricious whims of Mother Nature and the ephemeral nature of snow. Perhaps it’s because so many small ski areas have been lost — taking a slice of our childhoods with them — that they tug at our collective heartstrings.
“These were community centers. For some people, they were the family business,” said Jeremy Davis, 37, a Chelmsford native who launched the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (www.nelsap.org) in 1998 and has written four books on the topic. “That’s where people learned to ski. And now people can’t go there, except on the Web. They can’t go back and show their kids or their friends, because it’s gone. It’s obliterated, in some cases.”
Small ski areas once dotted Greater Boston. Only four remain: Ski Bradford in Haverhill, Blue Hills in Canton, Ski Ward in Shrewsbury, and Nashoba Valley in Westford.
Davis has catalogued 63 ski areas in Eastern Massachusetts that have disappeared among 600 in New England. Each lost area has its own page, with brochures, trail maps, photographs, and personal recollections.
“There’s definitely an urgency to get that material now,’’ said Davis. “Not that long from now, there’s not going to be a lot of people who remember these areas from the ’40s and ’50s. They’re passing away, unfortunately. There are a lot of people I wish I had a chance to talk to — or knew about — and I just missed them.”
Davis, who learned to ski at Nashoba Valley, became interested in abandoned ski areas during a family outing to Black Mountain in Jackson, N.H., where he spied remnants of the Tyrol Ski Area.
“I always loved exploring places,” said Davis, who now lives in upstate New York and is a meteorologist. “Whenever you have a hobby that’s a little off-center — it’s not like baseball card collecting — you think, ‘Who else in the world would ever be interested in discussing lost ski areas?’
“Once I put this on the Web, it really started taking off. It hit a nerve with people, in a good way. People really liked this topic.”
Among the listings is Hamilton Slopes, on the North Shore just north of Beverly, off Route 1A in Hamilton.
“This tiny hill seemed huge to my 5-year-old learning-to-ski self,” said Martha Sperry of Beverly, 49. “I never got comfortable with the rope tow, which would jerk you hard and rip your gloves. I initially was OK with the J-bar [a curved metal seat that carried skiers up the hill] until a distracted lift operator hooked it through my safety binding straps, and it pulled me feet first to the top of the hill before the lift was stopped.
“I was pretty terrified, so for weeks after that I would walk up the entire hill with my skis and poles and ski down rather than take the lift,” said Sperry. “But it was a great resource for local kids to learn how to ski, plus a great place to get amazing jelly rolls and lemon-lime soda.”
Boston Hills, which loomed over Route 114 in North Andover, was a bigger operation, with a chairlift and snow-making system. “I used to take a bus from the Danvers YMCA on Saturday mornings with my brother and some neighborhood kids,” said Kathleen Taylor Goeben, 49, of Wenham.
“I remember having a blast, and even feeling challenged on a couple of steep runs. We had fun cruising around the mountain, and getting hot chocolate in the lodge.”
Likewise, Lori Nahabedian Kelly grew up in Waltham, and “every day after school we would head to the slopes” at Prospect Hill in her hometown. “I remember a family membership, and I think it cost around $65 for the season,” said Kelly, 51. ”We were all on the Prospect Hill ski team, and had races on Saturday and Sunday.”
John Egan, one of the world’s most recognizable skiers because of his extreme exploits with filmmaker Warren Miller, grew up in the Boston area. His recollections of skiing at small areas like Klein Innsbruck in Franklin are vivid.
“I think a lot about those little places, because they’re missing now,” said Egan, 56, the chief recreational officer at Sugarbush in Vermont.
“It was just something we did because we were bored on a Sunday. You can go to the park and do so many other free things, but to go skiing at a place where someone is going to pull you up the hill, and let you glide down, it’s hard to do now.
“It’s the sound of kids laughing,” said Egan, who has two sons. “It’s hard for our kids to get those memories of just playing on the hill.”
Rick Devin’s father, Jack, helped build the Abell Ski Slope alongside the former East Junior High School in Braintree. “In the winter of 1973-74, I had been an avid skier for 10 years, but Abell Ski Slope was my first ski school instructor’s position,” said Devin, 54, who now lives in Silverthorne, Colo. “The joy of watching children and housewives make their first snow-plow turns, and their own excitement that they actually did it, is definitely one of my favorite memories.”
Those recollections speak not only to the importance of these areas to an entire generation of skiers, but also to the enduring memories that remain.
“Nostalgia is always a strong sense for people,” said Davis. “As you look back, things always have a rosier look than they did probably at that time. People may not remember that these areas had long lift lines, but everyone remembers all the good times. And that’s what we try to capture in the website and the books that I have.”
For most lost ski areas, nostalgia was no match for spiraling energy and insurance costs, economic downturns, and unpredictable New England winters.
Nostalgia is often accompanied by a sense of melancholy. For many, these lost ski areas underscore the realization of a bygone era.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Davis said. “It’s just sad, because this was an area that entertained, and that people recreated at for decades. And now, as a ski area, it’s gone.”
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.