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West Virginia’s longest-operating ski area will observe its 50th anniversary this month when Canaan Valley Resort opens its slopes for the 2021-22 snow season, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 18.

The ski area made its debut in late December 1971 at newly established Canaan Valley State Park, offering skiers the luxury of ascending its slopes on the state’s first two chairlifts. One lift served a gentle slope used by novice skiers. The other carried more experienced skiers to a 4,280-foot ridgetop towering 850 feet above the base of the lift, making possible long. brisk runs on five trails with an assortment of terrain features.

Snowmaking equipment augmented the 140 to 160 inches of natural snowfall that descended on Canaan Valley on most winters, and four snow-grooming vehicles were on hand to make the most of it.

Near the base of the chairlifts, two small buildings of contemporary chalet design offered skiers a variety of amenities. One building housed a ticket office, equipment rental operation and ski gear shop, while the other contained a restaurant, snack bar, lounge, changing rooms and warming area.

In a 1971 Charleston Gazette interview that appeared before the ski area’s opening, Uel Gardner, the ski area’s first manager, was prescient in describing the off-slope facilities available to skiers during the 1971-72 season as “elegant but inadequate” to meet future needs.

The state park lacked a lodge with overnight accommodations, sending skiers spending more than a day on the slopes to Davis, Thomas, Elkins and beyond for lodging until a 250-room, restaurant-equipped inn opened in 1977.

As word of the new ski area spread, and new trails and lifts were added, along with snow tubing, Canaan Valley’s slope-side amenities became busy to the point of overcrowding, particularly on holiday and peak season weekends. That sparked the construction of Bear Paw Lodge, a new 20,000-square-foot, two-story day lodge and food court adjacent to the ski area, followed by the $24 million development of a new four-story, two-tower lodge complex that opened in 2013, replacing the one built 36 years earlier.

Developing West Virginia’s first resort-style ski area at Canaan Valley was not as risky a venture as it might have been elsewhere, since skiing had been a part of the Valley’s landscape for some time. In addition to marking the 50th anniversary of skiing at Canaan Valley Resort, the winter of 2021-22 marks the 70th year of skiing in Canaan Valley.

A snow drought in the winter of 1949-50 prompted members of the Ski Club of Washington, D.C., to search beyond their usual drive-to ski slopes in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Hal Leich, a member of the club, had an airline pilot friend who had commented on seeing accumulations of snow lingering in the eastern mountains of West Virginia.

In February 1950, Leich and another club member drove from Washington to Seneca Rocks, where they could see snow clinging to the top of a mountain ridge to the west. After driving west to Harman and turning north on W.Va. 32, the pair entered the 3,200-foot southern end of Canaan Valley and immediately spotted deep snow drifts along the right side of the highway.

They stopped at the nearest farmhouse and asked permission to ski the snowy hillside, which they spent the rest of that day and the next doing. After other club members sampled the slope that winter, the club negotiated an agreement with the landowners, sisters Irene Heitz Mauzy and Christina Heitz Harman, to operate a ski area there for club members.

The Ski Club of Washington, D.C.’s Cabin Mountain Ski Area, which some members nicknamed “Driftland,” opened in the winter of 1951-52 with two rope tows that pulled skiers 300 feet uphill, making possible a 1,200-foot ski run, drawing thousands of skiers to Canaan Valley.

In 1955, Bob and Anita Barton began operating Weiss Knob Ski Area on land that is now part of Canaan Valley Resort’s ski area. There, three rope tows and a T-bar surface lift were available to skiers seeking uphill transportation until that site was bought by the state for inclusion in the planned state park in 1959.

Later that year, the Bartons moved their operation to nearby Bald Knob, where they installed the first snowmaking gear in Canaan Valley and operated four rope tows through the end of the 1960s.

The impetus for creating Canaan Valley State Park can be traced to a 3,149-acre tract of Canaan Valley land willed to the state in the 1950s for the purpose of creating a public park. John F. Kennedy’s win in West Virginia’s 1960 presidential primary also might have played a role.

The land bequeathed by Sarah Maude Thompson Kaemmerling, daughter of an early Tucker County lumberman, stipulated that the state add a similar amount of land for the proposed park in order to receive her gift.

Economic development initiatives launched by the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s channeled $28 million in grants and loans to West Virginia to buy land for, and begin developing, Canaan Valley, Pipestem and Twin Falls as new state parks with recreational amenities to nurture a tourism industry.

From 1964 to 1970, the state used its power of eminent domain, and the flood of federal funds, to acquire more than 30 properties for inclusion in 6,015-acre Canaan Valley State Park.

Since the late 1970s, the lodge, ski area and other visitor amenities at Canaan Valley State Park have been managed through competitive contracts with hospitality industry firms operating under the Canaan Valley Resort umbrella. The state retains ownership of the land and buildings managed by Canaan Valley Resort.

Canaan Valley Resort’s ski area now includes 47 slopes and trails and a terrain park served by three chairlifts and two “magic carpet” surface lifts, providing access to more than 90 acres of skiing and snowboarding terrain.

In recent months, the resort has:

n More than doubled the size of its snow tube park, which now has 17 lanes and a second magic carpet lift to reduce wait time.

n Replaced paper lift tickets with a Radio Frequency ID card system, allowing guests to buy passes online and receive coded, reloadable plastic cards providing lift access without a wait in a ticket line.

n Remodeled and enlarged its rental gear facility and added online ordering for skis, boots and snowboards.

n Added a large outdoor deck to the second floor of the Bear Paw Ski Lodge.

As Canaan Valley Resort enters its 50th year, “we are very proud to celebrate and carry on the legacy of outdoor winter adventure in West Virginia,” said Sam England, Canaan Valley Resort’s general manager.

Rick Steelhammer is a features reporter. He can be reached at 304-348-5169 or rsteelhammer@hdmediallc.com. Follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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