by Bob Soden
Previously published, with permission, in the Kingdom Historical (now the Northland Journal) – Feb. 2003
All rights reserved by author
Would it be the big time this time? Problem was, you couldn’t get there from here. They’d gone and built a ski area, but you couldn’t get there. Hard to sell lift tickets like that. Or ski lessons, for that matter. Well, maybe it was the fault of the Green Mountains. That is, they’d put the border too far south and Jay Peak just went too far north. But in the end six men, a high school Ag teacher, a livestock feed salesman, a state forester, two newspaper editors, and a third generation farmer, would save the day. Sadly, two of them would not live to see it.
1956 was a watershed year in many ways. On the international scene, the H-bomb had been dropped over the Bikini atoll, ushering in an era of megaton arms races and nuclear fall-out anxieties. The Russians were Hungary to have more real estate behind the Iron Curtain. And Britain backed out of Suez no longer an Empire. On the national front, the Salk vaccine was bringing needed hope to Polio epidemic victims, Davy Crockett was King of the Wild Frontier, Elvis Presley was King of Rock and Roll, and President Eisenhower signed a $33,000,000,000.00 (that’s 33 billion!) Interstate Bill that would connect all of the contiguous United States with a grid of north-south and east-west divided highways. Closer to home, in Franklin County and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the Jay Peak Ski Area was about to be launched and three separate road projects were underway to provide access.
It was a Tale of Two Counties. Franklin and Orleans (in the Northeast Kingdom). So near, and yet so far. Rent by an unremitting ridge. Plenty of folks had never even visited their sister county back then. Why in 1956, if you lived in, say, East Berkshire in Franklin County, and you wanted to visit, say, North Troy in Orleans County (on the west side of Jay Peak) you’d a thought it’d be a trip of only 15 miles, as the crow flies. Turns out you couldn’t go over the mountain, you had to go around it. The northern route, the choice of the Missisquoi River, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Route 105, took a slow stately stroll through Canada, around the sprawling northern flank of Jay Peak. Total on the meter for the northern route – 30 plus miles, with a couple of border crossings thrown into the bargain.
Alternatively you could take the southern route, first on Route 118 southeast to Montgomery Center, then a gravel road south to Belvidere Corners and Eden in Lamoille County, then blacktop again on Route 100 northeast to Troy and then gravel again north to North Troy. Total on the meter for the southern route – 40 plus miles. Either way it was an uncomfortable trip of an hour or more. An expedition really. Unless you were a crow.
So admittedly – technically – you could get there from here. If you didn’t mind travelling internationally, or touring southern Vermont in the process. And true, in the summer, if you were an adventurer and your car had a low, low gear, a good rad, a new clutch, and a new set of brakes, you could assault the Hazen’s Notch graveled cut-off (Route 58) from Montgomery Center to Lowell (aren’t the survivors of the fated Donner Party reported to have said, ‘don’t take no dang cut-offs’). Though it cut almost 24 miles off the southern route, the problem was that ‘Notch’ road, like Smuggler’s, was closed in winter (and still is). Wouldn’t help you get to Jay Peak unless you were a Laplander on skis.
1956 was a heady year for Harold Haynes and Roy Barnett. The former was the Agricultural teacher at the North Troy high school, and was now also president of the newly formed Jay Peak, Inc. The latter ran a successful livestock feed distribution business in the same town, and was now also Harold’s vice president. Both were Kiwanis Club boosters. Both had boosted Jay Peak like there was no tomorrow, and today their wildest dreams had come true. The project was approved (you’d better be careful what you wish for – you just might get it). Now they had a mountain and had to build a ski area. If they could rise to the occasion.
Well, rise to the occasion they did. Back in ’55 Harold hadn’t wanted them to miss the boat. So they’d caught a freight train instead. Now he and Roy hit the ground running. Beginning in January, they held fundraisers in Newport, North Troy, Richford, Montgomery and St. Albans. By the end of the year they’d sold close to $100,000 in $10 shares. In between they’d hired Charles Lord of Stowe to lay out trails and lift lines and Richard Pope of Eden to cut them, ordered a ski lift from France, and hired a ski pro from Austria to start a ski school. Guess they’d held up their end the load.
So the ski area would be there and waiting. You just had to figure how to get there from here. If you looked at a Vermont map in 1956 you’d find Jay Peak sat isolated in the upper middle of a piece of land, roughly shaped like a small Africa, bounded by roads on the west, south and east, with the Canadian border chopping them off in the north. A gravel road led east into the wild interior about 3 ½ miles, from Montgomery Center to Pond’s farm at the western base of Big Jay. From there an abandoned coach road led a tortuous route through the woods, up and over a high notch on Jay’s southeastern flank, and then down a steep incline to Dave Kennett’s old homestead, just below the present-day Inglenook Lodge (another 4 ½ miles) (a 4×4 in low range, or a mule, would have had a hard time negotiating that track). On the way it passed the old ‘Mountain House’ (a logger’s camp) on the site of Jay’s future parking lot. From Kennett’s down to the Town of Jay was an unimproved town road. From Jay to Junction (future) Routes 101, 105 and 242 was a good gravel road.
Then the essential thing to do here, as far as Perry Merrill saw it, was simply to widen and improve the 3 mile route from the Town of Jay up to ‘Kennett’s’, then replace the coach road above that point with a modern, drained, gravel road to the ‘Mountain House’. With this done, the State Forester would have provided access to his newly created child – the Jay State Forest. A man of action and few words, he quickly engaged a road contractor in June and had completed construction by the end of October. This road would be known for a time as the Jay State Forest Route. It had been built with state funding. It was a trip of only 4 miles, and now you could get there from the Town of Jay. Guess he’d held up his end of the load.
Wallace and Ernest Gilpin were born in Westfield in Orleans County, ‘on the banks of the Missisquoi River, in the shadow of majestic Jay Peak.’ And they never really left. Wallace, the elder, got hooked on the smell ink and paper in the printing business early on in Barton, and soon settled down to his life’s work as editor and publisher of the Newport Daily Express, where some credit him for coining the term ‘Northeast Kingdom’. Ernest apprenticed for a few years with his brother in Barton before moving west, over the Mountain to Richford in Franklin County. In time he became editor and publisher of the Richford Journal-Gazette. So near and yet so far.
Both loved northern Vermont with a passion. For more than a quarter century they waxed romantic about its charms in their newspapers. Oft repeated themes in their editorials were, one, the need to develop the recreational potential of the Jay Peak area and, two, the need to complete a modern cross-state route joining the two counties. As local state representatives they pursued these twin goals in Montpelier. In the late 1930’s, and early 40’s, efforts were made to connect the ‘Missing Link’ of route 105 from Richford to North Troy – south of the border. The steep unrelieved slopes made for daunting work but, before WWII interrupted, determined work had produced the improvement of the old logging road that traced the route, and near its highest elevation a 22% grade was reduced to 18%.
In 1949 the brothers returned to their quest. Korea interrupted. They returned again to their editorial pages and to the Montpelier lobbies. In 1953 their perseverance won through. The Charter Oaks Construction Co. of Boston was selected to complete Route 105A (as it was then known). On November 11, 1956, the ribbon was cut on the new southern route, a scenic hard-topped road with no grade greater than 7 %. A highway of promise now lay open for Franklin and Orleans Counties. But the brothers were not to partake in that future. They had led their readers to the hilltop and showed them the future, but they themselves were not allowed to enter it. Ernest died in February 1956 and Wallace followed in November of the same year. On August 4, 1957, for their leadership and vision, a mountain with twin peaks on the very range that had isolated the two adjoining counties for so long, and which overlooked the Jay Peak Ski Area, was named in their honor. It was a trip of only 16 miles, and now you could get there from Richford and the Town of Jay. Guess they’d held up their end of the load.
In the end the shortest route to get there from here was the longest to achieve. The delay was certainly not due to any lack of entrepreneurial effort on the part of a third generation farmer from Montgomery. In the spring of 1956 when Carl Scott, who also was a town selectman, heard of the imminent start-up of the Jay Peak project, he knew he had a winner. The best route to Jay Peak from the north and west was obviously through Montgomery (he felt). But he soon found that if he wanted to do something about his idea he’d be on his own. There’d be no State financial input. The State had already invested in Route 105A from Richard and in the Jay State Forest Route. And that was all they were now willing to invest for now. But no road would clearly leave Montgomery and Franklin County out in the cold.
Carl knew that ‘one hand washes the other,’ and that success for Jay Peak meant success for all the towns around. If Jay Peak failed because you couldn’t get there from here, then all would lose. The problem was easy access and the Montgomery Center-Jay Peak road was the solution. He met with like-minded people from seven towns surrounding Jay Peak and soon the idea he was ‘sparking’ caught on. The towns would form a cooperative, with the individual towns contributing the equipment and materials, and the men their own free time.
On June 11, 1956 sod was turned with an official ceremony. A wooden stage had been built in a field above Pond’s farm. The Jay Peak parking lot lay far away, up and over the hill, 3 ½ miles distant by way of the old twisted coach road. Gov. Joseph B. Johnson was on hand and, perhaps inspired by the unselfish spirit of cooperation and the natural beauty he saw about him, spoke of the area as a ‘Garden’ and the nearness of a place called Eden. It was reported that some spectators at the groundbreaking noticed a large garter snake sunning on a nearby rock.
The cooperative worked actively throughput the summer and fall, but was hampered by a lack of real heavy-duty earth-moving equipment. They struggled heroically on. When snow began falling they were still short of their goal. But they had made terrific gains. Unpaid, these men from Montgomery, Richford, East Berkshire, Enosburg, Jay, North Troy and Westfield had already wrought a miracle. In a short time they would reach their goal. Route 242 exists today as testament to what a few men can achieve through dreams and sweat – and cooperation. Guess Carl had held up his end of the load. Yes, it would be the big time this time! It was a trip of only 7 miles from Montgomery Center to Jay Peak, and you could get there from here.