The creators of the first ski rope tow in the United States stole the idea from another person. A year later, that person got his revenge. In the process, Vermont’s ski industry was born.
Three cranky New York businessmen inspired the creation of that first rope tow on Jan. 28, 1934.
The New Yorkers were staying at the White Cupboard Inn two miles north of Woodstock, Vt. Over lunch they complained to the owners, Elizabeth and Robert Royce, about paying $40 each for the privilege of climbing up a mountain in order to ski down it.
“You ought to be able to think of something to get us up these hills,” said one of the New Yorkers, a stockbroker named Thomas Gammack. “Each of us is spending $40 apiece to enjoy a weekend in Vermont, yet the most we can do in a day is to climb a hill half-a-dozen times. We want to get in all the skiing we can on these weekends. We want to be carried uphill.”
Wallace “Bunny” Bertram, the Dartmouth ski team’s first coach, had been telling the New Yorkers about a tow rope he’d seen in Canada. He was in the room when they complained about climbing up the hill. Bertram asked the Royces if they had a Montgomery Ward or Sears catalog, explaining he wanted to figure out how much it would cost to build a rope tow.
The First Rope Tow
Robert Royce decided to get there first. He rented a former sheep pasture called Gilbert’s Hill before Bertram could. With an investment from the three New Yorkers, they bought the equipment for the first U.S. rope tow: pulleys, an 1,800-foot rope and a Model T Ford engine. They rented a hilly pasture and the White Cupboard Skiway was born.
They sold ski tickets for $1 a day and 50 cents for night skiing. Skiers grabbed on to the circulating rope and let it carry them up the 900-foot hill.
Though the rope tow broke down frequently, that first ski season was a huge success.
The next year, the Royces intended to rent Gilbert’s Hill again. Elizabeth Royce gave a cab driver $100 in bills and asked him to go to the bank and fetch a crisp $100 bill. She intended to present it to the hill’s owner. The cab driver brought back a limp, crumpled bill. While she took the time to clean and iron it, Bertram rented the hill out from under her for $10.
Bertram worked out the problems with the rope tow, which allowed him to develop the famous Suicide Six Ski area.
Images: Suicide Six By Jared C. Benedict – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67100524.
This story last updated in 2023.