Sightseers and leaf peepers come to the Adirondacks every autumn to take in the scenic beauty of the region, and as the leaves begin to change - tourism is given a breath of fresh air. One of the mainstays of our local economy is recreation, and for over a century, Whiteface Mountain has been at the center of it all.
A new Arcadia book, "Images of America - Wilmington and The Whiteface Region," has recently been published. It is a collaborative effort of 11 authors from the Wilmington Historical Society, and it is full of historical photographs and information that tells the story of how Wilmington went from an agricultural based community in the late 1800s, to a tourism based economy by the mid-1930s.
The book tells of how it all started with Whiteface, the state's fifth highest mountain peak at 4,867 feet. The first trail up the east side of the mountain was cut in 1859 by pioneer guide Andrew Hickok Jr., who was soon leading hikers to the summit. It wasn't long before visitors were coming to the Adirondacks for recreational boating, hiking and horseback riding. By the early 1870s the Whiteface Mountain House was operating as a full service hotel, offering guided hikes and good saddle horses to make the ascent up the mountain easier. It was also in 1870 that local hotel owners built Camp Welcome, a small rustic log cabin, about a half mile from the mountaintop. Located at the site of the highest water source, Camp Welcome provided overnight lodging for hikers who wanted to view the sunset and sunrise from the mountain peak.
Seen on Aug. 16 at the signing for the new Arcadia book, “Images of America — Wilmington And The Whiteface Mountain Region,” are the Wilmington Historical Society writers who co-authored the book. From left, Gilbert Dyke, Linda Joss-Dyke, Laurie Bepler, Doug Wolfe, Bob Peters, town historian Merri Peck, WHS president Karen Peters, Nancy Cressey, Guy Stephenson and Bob Cressey. Missing is Julie Robards.
(Photo — Lora Bushey)
By the 1890s, hiking was an established recreational activity for tourists who stayed in the many grand hotels and lodges that dotted the region. Hiking parties, fully clothed in suits and long dresses, donned pack baskets loaded with provisions ( including telescopes and firearms) and climbed to the summit with seasoned guides leading the way.
As the new century dawned, so did the age of automobiles, and motor roads began to crisscross the state. In the early 1920s, a group of local business men and politicians lobbied the state for a paved highway to the top of the mountain. The state funded project was finally approved with Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt breaking ground at the four corners in Wilmington on Sept. 11, 1929. The highway was opened to tourists in the summer of 1935 with an official dedication to World War I Veterans taking place on Oct. 14, 1935.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, now President of the United States, returned to the Adirondacks to presiding over the festivities. Crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, in his speech he said, "For the millions of people who have not the facilities or the possibilities of walking up to the top of our great mountains, we have provided one mountain that they can go to on four wheels. To me, this is one of the finest things New York state has ever done." Furthermore, he added, "I wish very much that it were possible for me to walk up the few remaining feet to the actual top of the mountain. Some day they are going to make it possible for people who cannot make the little climb to go up there in a comfortable and easy elevator."
With that said, construction on the monumental stone castle began. When it was completed in 1936, excavation for an access tunnel and elevator shaft got underway. When all was said and done, the tunnel at the base of the castle was two tenths of a mile long and the elevator rose 276 feet through solid granite to the top of the mountain. By 1938, the summit of Whiteface was completely handicap accessible.
However, the story of tourism on Whiteface doesn't stop there. In 1947 construction began on the Marble Mountain Ski area with access from the Wilmington road that lead up to the Memorial Highway. The ski area, which opened in 1948 and operated until 1960, featured down hill and cross country trails, a rope tow and t-bar, a lodge, cafeteria, bunk-houses and a shop. (Whiteface Mountain Ski Area wasn't opened until 1958 and was dedicated to the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division that served in World War II).
Furthermore, in July of 1949 Santa's Workshop, the nation's first theme park, also opened on the Wilmington road just a short distance below the ski area. Tourists came to the region in droves and business in Wilmington boomed. On Labor Day 1951, the line of cars leading up Whiteface was four miles long and the town was forced to shut down by the state police. It is estimated that 14,000 tourists passed through Santa's Workshop on that day alone.
To this very day, Whiteface Mountain remains the crown jewel of our Adirondack State Park and the castle at the top offers a touch of historic nostalgia.
The book Wilmington and the Whiteface Region is available for $21.95 at retailers throughout the Wilmington, Lake Placid and AuSable Forks area, and through the Wilmington Historical Society. For more information or to download an order form visit the WHS website at www.wilmingtonhistoricalsociety.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 518-420-8370.