If you’ve never seen an Olympic medal up close and personal, imagine taking in five at once. At the New England Ski Museum, nestled at the base of the Aerial Tramway at Cannon Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire, you can. There, the gold, bronze, and three silver medals awarded to champion New Hampshire skier Bode Miller at the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympic Games are on display year-round, along with dozens of other objects, videos, and exhibits that celebrate New England’s contributions to American skiing.
New England was a natural landing spot for the sport when it crossed the Atlantic Ocean from northern Europe in the late 1800s, building momentum by the turn of the 20th century. The cold and snowy winters of the mountain region satisfied the terrain requirement, while youthful daredevils like those of the Dartmouth Outing Club were quick to fall in love with the thrill of racing down the slopes. As more and more Americans strapped on skis during the 1930s, the thriving mountain summer-resort industry, with its established railroad routes from Boston and New York, welcomed the opportunity to serve winter travelers as well, and soon new trails beribboned the landscape. Love of skiing was born in New England, and its pulse still beats in the hearts of the north country’s millions of visitors each winter and spring.
The museum’s entrance is dominated by one of Cannon’s two original bright-red tramway cars. “This used to be the vehicle-maintenance garage until they filled in the grease pits,” jokes executive director Jeff Leich. The museum, which opened in 1982, is compact but comprehensive. Leich puts it simply: “If you’re interested in the history of skiing, this is the place to be.” It’s one of only four American museums (and the only one in the East) recognized by the United States Ski & Snowboard Association.
The museum’s permanent display, recently updated, chronicles the evolution of skiing: from prehistoric transportation mode to recreational activity to Olympic sport. While Bode Miller’s Olympic loot is a modern draw, you can also watch skiing videos, ponder a reproduction of an ancient set of Mongolian skis with horsehair bottoms, remember the 10th Mountain Division (the first large-scale U.S. Army unit created specifically for ski-focused mountain combat, in 1943), and lose yourself standing before a 12-foot-wide photomural of Tuckerman Ravine. And, of course, Cannon Mountain’s proud history as a ski-industry pioneer gets its due as well.
Vast donated archives also enable the staff to display a new exhibit each year, featuring artifacts and photos ordinarily kept behind closed doors. Available to researchers by appointment, the museum’s holdings include some 1,000 pairs of skis, 350 pairs of ski boots, 500 pieces of clothing, and endless shelves of carefully documented images, brochures, periodicals, books, trophies, movies, and posters. “We get so much stuff that we can’t keep everything–but we try,” Leich notes. “Each item is part of the story, and you never know what’s going to interest someone in the future, so we’ll keep hanging onto it.”
New England Ski Museum. 135 Tramway Drive, Franconia, NH. 603-823-7177; skimuseum.org. Free admission; open 10-5, Memorial Day weekend through end of ski season.