How the Snow Trains Provided a Spark to Winter Recreation in the Mt. Washington Valley
In 1931, the United States, and the world, for that matter, was deep in the throes of the Great Depression. People were looking for any sort of relief from the hard economic times that befell them. To help address the depressed mood of the time, the Boston & Maine (B&M) Railroad began an “experiment” with the creation of “Snow Trains.” This innovative idea would quickly become a model to advance winter sporting activities across the country.
While the B&M receives the credit for the Snow Trains, the idea for these trains was actually one that was brought forth by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). However, the B&M Railroad played a huge role in facilitating, promoting, and running these trains. They seized upon a great opportunity that would be the lightning rod for the growth of winter sports in New Hampshire’s “Eastern Slope Region,” today known as the Mt. Washington Valley.
THE ORIGIN OF THE SNOW TRAIN
Trains carrying passengers on winter excursions were commonplace in Europe and Canada. As early as 1868, French railway winter trips to Switzerland brought people to the Alps. Soon after, rail connections were made between Switzerland and Italy, establishing passage between the Swiss and Italian Alps. German railways brought people from Munich to the Swiss and Austrian Alps. Similarly in Canada, in the early 1900s, a train was organized from Montreal to the Laurentian Ski Club in Shawbridge (currently Prevost), Quebec to deliver winter sports enthusiasts for weekends of fun in the snow. Winter trains were also running in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
In 1930, the AMC had members exploring the new sport of cross-country skiing to add to the established winter activities of snowshoeing and winter mountaineering. According to a 2000 retrospective article titled “The Snow Train Tradition” in the MBTA News, AMC member A. John Holden took a trip to the Alps in 1930. He rode aboard the Deutsche Reichsbahn (the German state railway) from Munich to his Alpine destination. Thinking this idea of a winter sports excursion train had potential in the states, he brought the idea to Park Carpenter, the chairman of the AMC Committee on Ski Excursions. They presented the idea to Boston & Maine Railroad general passenger agent, Frederick T. Grant. During the Depression, the B&M Railroad was struggling to attract passengers. Grant saw this idea as a means of increasing the economic state of the railroad. He decided that the B&M Railroad should promote this idea.
In addition to B&M promotions, the AMC also promoted the idea of a winter sports train. A brief statement appeared as an item of “general interest” in the January 1931 Appalachian Mountain Club publication the Appalachia Bulletin. It read, “If plans at present being considered by the management are adopted, the Boston & Maine R.R. may, as an experiment, operate a special train for ski-runners and snow-shoe hikers for several weeks during the mid-winter season, leaving North Station each Sunday morning at about 8:30 a.m. for such suitable points as on the particular week-ends afford sufficient snow for the enjoyment of winter sports.” While downhill skiing was not a popular sport in the early 1930s, other sports, such as ski-running (cross-country skiing), skating, tobogganing, and snowshoeing were hits with outing clubs. Add to that, the winter beauty of the White Mountains, and these trains offered people an opportunity to try new sports in a picture-postcard setting.
To make this sports train adventure successful, a third member was needed on the B&M, AMC team. B&M Railroad provided the trains; AMC reported on snow conditions in New Hampshire. The third component was the weather forecast for the weekends. In stepped meteorologist, E. B. Rideout, of radio station WEEI. Together this committee met on Thursday to discuss snow and weather conditions for the upcoming weekend. They made a plan for the “best” place to send the Snow Train that weekend. Announcements were made on the following day in the Boston newspapers, on fliers at North Station, and on Rideout’s Friday, 11 p.m. WEEI weather report.
On January 11, 1931, the first “Winter Sports Sunday Train” later shortened to the “Snow Train,” (sometimes errantly referred to as “Ski Trains”), left Boston’s North Station for Warner, NH. It carried 196 people, mostly members of the AMC and Dartmouth Outdoors Club. Ridership on this train expanded and the “experiment” paid off. There were 12 trains run in the 1931 season with total ridership recorded at 8,371. An April–May 1931 B&M Railroad Employees’ Magazine article listed the different destinations of the trains for that season. Following the January 11 trip to Warner, the trains ran every weekend until March 22, stopping at (in weekend order) Goffstown, Canaan, Newport, Epsom, Greenfield, Wilton, East Jaffrey, Laconia, Lincoln, Canaan (again) and Greenfield (again). Ridership peaked at 1,744 on the Washington’s Birthday train to Wilton. In total, 8,334 people rode the 1931 Winter Sports Sunday Train. B&M had a hit on their hands!
The 1931 B&M Railroad Employees’ Magazine article declared, “A new institution in New England and the first of its kind in the United States—the Sunday Winter Sports Train—has been established by our railroad.” It went on to say, “Even after the arrival of spring it was still going strong with new enthusiasts shouting, ‘Keep her running as long as there is snow, anywhere.’” The train to Lincoln was to be the last for the 1931 season, but popular demand caused the railroad to add on two more weekend trains. With that success in hand, the 1932 Snow Train made its way to North Conway and the winter sports and recreation boom began in our region.
SNOW TRAINS MULTIPLY QUICKLY
While the B&M Railroad is credited with the origin of the Snow Train in the United States, other regional railroads soon established their version of the snow trains to northern regions across the country.
In New England, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad started a train in 1935, with destinations in CT and western MA. They would eventually bring trains from New York City through Providence, RI and Worcester, MA that would connect with B&M Snow Trains. Also, in the late 1930s, the Boston & Albany Railroad began running snow trains that also connected with the B&M Snow Train. Even the B&M saw New York City as a great market for passengers and started the “Ski Lark” train in the late 1940s. The train left Grand Central Station at 8:30 p.m. on Friday evening, bound for North Conway. It would return to Grand Central Station at 8:12 a.m. the following Monday. This train made its way through CT, MA, and VT before finally coming into North Conway by way of Littleton, Whitefield, and Lancaster, NH.
The B&M Railroad also expanded their service to the North Country by adding snow trains that traveled through Franconia Notch, stopping in Lincoln and Littleton, NH, among other stops. The North Conway train also made stops in several towns on its route, including Dover and Laconia, NH. On Sundays, as many as four or five trains brought passengers to North Conway. Because the North Conway railyard was too small to park all of these trains, some were driven to the Bartlett railyard for keeping until it was time for the return trip to Boston. In a January – February 1995 article by John Gruber in Locomotive & Railway Preservation magazine, he describes a scene in the late 1930s at Fabyan Station in Bretton Woods where seven 12-car B&M trains transported winter sports enthusiasts from Boston and Worcester for a day in the snow.
PROMOTION OF THE SNOW TRAINS
From 1931 to 1956, the B&M Railroad had an extensive marketing campaign to promote the Snow Trains. They enlisted Boston radio, television, and newspaper outlets to advertise these trains. Each year, a Snow Train poster was created. Hand-drawn by an artist from 1931 to 1950 and done with photographs from 1950 on, these posters depicted people, generally attractive young ladies, on skis in “chic” winter snow outfits.
The B&M Railroad also produced a yearly “Snow Trains” brochure. These brochures were generally 30 to 40 pages packed with information about the winter sports experience, the trains, schedules and fares, accommodations, and winter sports at train destinations. The brochures were loaded with photographs by Stanley Bauman of Brockton, MA. He was the official Snow Train photographer from 1931 to 1943. As the years went on, they started carrying advertisements for winter sports equipment and clothing.
Reading through the brochures available from the B&M Railroad Historical Society, a history of the trains emerges. In the early editions, considerable space is given to addressing questions such as “What is a Snow Train?”; “Is the winter sports business expensive?”; Where do they [the trains] go?” The early brochures even provided clothing or “costume” advice on what to wear to stay warm, yet look trendy on the slopes or in other winter activities. They also offered advice on what not to wear; for example, high heels for women were strongly discouraged. Each question is addressed in a manner to entice the hesitant reader to join the Snow Train passengers for a fun day or weekend in the snow of the North Country. The 1937 brochure describes the Snow Train boldly as “Fun – Real fun – Healthy exercise for red blooded folks and pleasant companionships,” as well as, “Your home for a day.” A Boston physician described it as the “Health Train.”
In the 1939 brochure, we see a shift in the marketing approach. Instead of explaining the Snow Train to the readers, the brochure states, “… there is no longer a need for informative matter as to ‘What is this Snow Train’ … “ They advise new readers to find a friend who will “give you first-hand information on how they have fun on the ‘Snow Train.’” The focus of the brochures leans more on where to go and what to do. These brochures tell a fascinating story of the popularity of the Snow Trains.
The trains were also promoted as a safe alternative to driving. B&M’s rationale was why drive on slippery country roads when the trains can get you to and from your destination while you enjoy time with your new friends. Also, on the Sunday trains, trainmen and railroad police watched over the trains while people went off to play. Passengers were told they could leave their valuables, “furs and cameras,” on their seats.
To help promote skiing, and indirectly ridership, in 1937, B&M published a handbook titled the Do’s and Don’ts for Safe Skiing. It was written by Charles Lund, M.D. of the Harvard Medical School, and Charles Proctor, a former intercollegiate champion and Dartmouth Ski Team Captain. The handbook cost 10 cents.
The Snow Trains were loaded with passengers and room was provided for their skis and other sports equipment. Often, skiers would be checking their equipment while on the ride north.
The first company to get into the sporting equipment business was the Armstrong News Company. In 1931, working with the B&M, the Armstrong Company “fitted out a baggage car as a rolling ski shop, selling or renting the wooden ‘boards’, leather boots and bamboo poles to passengers,” according to a 2000 MBTA News article.
The article goes on to tell of a common practice of “placing a pair of skis across two coach seatbacks and then using a small blowtorch to heat them before applying wax!” Courtesy of the David Saums Collection.
ECONOMIC IMPACTS OF THE SNOW TRAIN
With people flocking to the Eastern Slope Region during the winter months, the economic impact of the Snow Trains quickly became evident. Prior to the arrival of these trains, hotels and inns were essentially closed during winter. Businesses saw patronage only from local people. The arrival of the weekend Snow Trains changed the economic outlook of the region in very positive ways. A February 13, 1937 article in the Boston Globe declared, “More hotels and inns in Northern New England than ever before will remain open during the winter months for the accommodation of the winter sports enthusiasts.” The article went on to state that the B&M hoped to “further stimulate the development of Northern New England as the leading winter sports area in the country.” With this type of forward thinking, the economic impacts of the Snow Trains would be felt far beyond the inns and hotels. A column in the 1931 B&M Railroad Employees’ Magazine quotes the New England Council, a business strategy group, proclaiming, “The economic importance to the communities of these excursions is very real … large numbers of excursionists have patronized local inns and restaurants … the amount of products bought in local stores is impressive.”
As the Snow Trains expanded from one-day excursions on Sundays to weekend trips in the late 1930s, more people came to the region to stay for extended periods. Increased winter sporting activities meant an increased demand for winter sports equipment, accommodations, dining, entertainment, and general shopping.
The first company to get into the sporting equipment business was the Armstrong News Company. In 1931, working with the B&M, the Armstrong Company “fitted out a baggage car as a rolling ski shop, selling or renting the wooden ‘boards’, leather boots and bamboo poles to passengers”—according to the 2000 MBTA News article. During the week, the Armstrong rail car was at North Station in Boston, ready to service customers for their weekend snow trip. The 1937 Armstrong advertisement in the B&M Snow Train brochure began listing snowshoes and toboggans as available for sale or rent, plus a whole line of clothing for winter sports for men, women, and children.
Over time, other companies joined the winter equipment and clothing supply chain by advertising in the B&M Snow Train brochures. The Oscar H. Hambro Company of Boston and New York City proclaimed themselves as “Maker and Importer of Finer Ski–Equipment”; the James W. Brine Company of Boston began advertising the sale of skis, poles, bindings, waxes, and winter clothing. In a 1939 B&M Railroad Snow Train brochure, G. H. Bass and Company started advertising their Bass Ski Boots, priced from $6 to $14, “comfortable and form fitting” for downhill skiing; Asa C. Osborn Company of Boston also began advertising their Edwin Clapp Ski Boots, “hand cut, hand pegged, hand lasted.” These are just a few of many companies jumping into this new market of winter sports enthusiasts. Along with the increased availability of equipment over the years, the advertising also announces increased technology in the equipment.
The first example of the celebrity promotion of a product in the B&M Snow Train brochures is seen in their 1940 edition. Northland Ski Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, MN promoted their skis with the headline, “Hannes Schneider uses Northland’s.” Schneider was an Austrian skiing expert who came to North Conway in 1939 at the invitation of Harvey Gibson to promote downhill skiing in the Eastern Slope Region. The advertisement highlights that Schneider helped design Northland’s “spectacular FIS model skis.” They even include a “How to Ski” folder with a purchase of their skis.
Now open in the winter months, businesses advertised their wares in the B&M Snow Train brochures. While many of the inns are no longer in business, establishments such as the Eastern Slope Inn, Cranmore Inn, and Eagle Mountain House, to name just three, are still entertaining guests today. To move people from the trains to the hotels and inns, ski areas such as Cranmore provided busses to bring people to their mountain. The Tom H. Harris Taxi Company advertised in the 1956 B&M Snow Train brochure. In an interview with Norman Head of Bartlett, he told of how he and three or four other teenagers working for a small wage and tips, in the mid-1950s, would load the skis of weekenders onto a special rack on the Harris station wagon taxis, go to the inns where they were staying, and unload them.
Each brochure advertised several different ski slopes, such as Mount Cranmore Skimobile, Thorn Mountain, Black Mountain, The Intervale Ski Area, and the Bear Mountain Ski Trail, each offering “Snow Train Specials” for skiers. The 1937 B&M Snow Train brochure even announced a skiing adventure on Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine.
The Snow Trains were an economic boom for the railroad, as well as a major boost to the local economies where the trains stopped. A review of the increasing level of advertising in the B&M Snow Train brochures announcing “special pricing” for Snow Train visitors provides the distinct impression that these trains helped the economics of the Eastern Slope Region through the Great Depression and well into the Baby Boom era.
THE SNOW TRAIN EXPERIENCE
The big question people ask about the Snow Train is, “What was it like to ride on these trains?” The B&M Snow Trains were marketed as family-friendly trains with people riding from ages “six to sixty.” While ridership was predominantly young adults in their 20s and 30s, the trains were enjoyed by families with young children and older adults, some just out for a Sunday train ride. The B&M wanted to bring people to the winter sports venues, regardless of age.
Many friendships were formed while riding the trains. In a 1932 article written by Olive E. Anson in the B&M Railroad Employees’ Magazine, she describes a conversation with a “young lady” who said, “On the train, we found many friends.” She went on to say that this particular group of friends would always congregate at “the second car behind the diner. We started in on the first trip as strangers. Now we are all friends. Those who get here early save the seats for those who get here a little later.” Accounts such as these are commonplace. Anson also described a gentleman who, at the age of 76, was riding the train. He stated, “I like watching the young folks … I like to hear them laugh and chat; it keeps me young.” This man stayed on the Sunday train while it was in North Conway, enjoyed the scenery, read the Sunday newspaper, smoked his pipe and ate dinner in the dining car. Other accounts tell of mothers on the train bringing their children north to experience the snow and winter sports.
The trains were loaded with passengers and room was provided for their skis and other sports equipment. Often, skiers would be checking their equipment while on the ride north. One story in the 2000 MBTA News article tells of a common practice of “placing a pair of skis across two coach seatbacks and then using a small blowtorch to heat them before applying wax!”
A dining car was attached to the larger and more passenger-laden trains. The menu from the 1939 season is headlined with the statement “Anything you want – At anytime of the day.” The typical menu included soups, grill selections, entrées, breakfast options, salads, beverages (non-alcoholic), cigars, and cigarettes. Snow Train brochures stated that you could have a great meal for just $1. This is in keeping with their low ticket prices (in 1936, the price of a round-trip ticket from Boston to North Conway was $2.75). Photographs of people dining show nicely set tables with linen napkins.
An article written by B&M Railroad passenger traffic representative, John C. Alden in the December 1973 edition of the B&M Bulletin, mentions, “Members of the Passenger Traffic Department were assigned to each train in addition to the regular train crews.” They were on board to help passengers with information about the ski conditions and attractions in the destination town. “On their snowsuits was a red badge reading ‘Boston and Maine – Passenger Representative – Snow Train.’” Another example of B&M Railroad’s service to Snow Train riders.
The B&M wanted to ensure that their passengers had a very positive Snow Train experience. A story from North Conway showed just how far they would go to keep their riders happy. In the Alden article, he tells how the weather forecast for Sunday, March 26, 1939, was completely incorrect. Instead of snow conditions, a heavy rain came down washing out the winter sports scene for the day. Riders were wet and unhappy. The idea arose to open the local movie theater and let the people enjoy a show, but there was a catch. Sunday blue laws in NH would not allow movie theaters to open. A quick telephone call to the proper state official obtained permission to show the movie. The Snow Train for that Sunday was renamed the “Theater Train.”
Snow Train Sing-Alongs
The popularity of the Snow Trains led to the development of some musical, television, and movie entertainment to promote interest in winter sports. In 1946, a song titled “The Snow Train” was written by a husband and wife team, Jesse and V. Bernice Richardson of Waterville, ME. Mr. Richardson, a B&M Railroad engineer, wrote the lyrics, and his wife penned the melody. This song was performed by the musical duo, The Murray Twins. The sheet music for the song was handed out to Snow Train riders on the Sunday Snow Trains. A rare copy of that sheet music, from the collection of rail fan, David Saums, gives us a look at the notes and lyrics to that song.
Lyrics to “The Snow Train” by the Richardsons
High up in the moun – tains, Win – ter sports we’ll
find … Let’s put on our snow – togs …
… And leave the world be – hind ….
[chorus] Let’s ride The Snow Train …
Where we’ll have fun to – day … Let’s take a
ride on The Snow Train, To moun – tains far a – way
Let’s task a day to be hap – py … where all the
crowd is gay … We will go up where the
snow – peaks, Will thrill us while we play …
There we’ll find the skat – ing and the ski – ing
will be fine … to – bog – gan slides will
thrill us as we go down ev – ‘ry time …
Let’s take a day to be Joy – ful … Out where the
skies are blue … It will be fun on The Snow
Train … Rid – ing a – long with you.
The Richardson’s tune was also used as the theme song for a first-of-its-kind public service television program sponsored by the B&M Railroad. The program, which aired on Boston’s WBZ for 15 minutes on Thursday evenings, featured skiing expert Peggy Sayre Marshall. In the program, she would introduce viewers to different Northern New England winter sports locations, as well as interview special guests. The program also provided a brief movie clip of a skiing lesson according to a January 1948 edition of the B&M Railroad Employees’ Magazine.
The January 1948 magazine article also stated that the Richardson’s song was used as the “theme song for the railroad’s new Winter sports moving picture titled, The Snow Train.” A search for this movie, unfortunately, came up empty.
A new song, simply titled “Snow Train” was written by Cambridge, MA songwriter, Arthur Korb in 1948. Vocalist Ray Dorey and the Twin Aires performed the song with the Don Alessi Trio. Played by Boston disc jockeys, the February 1949 B&M Railroad Employees’ Magazine tells us, “The words are set to a catchy tune and fast tempo that are sure to make the song a popular hit with the younger dance set.” As with The Snow Train movie, the Korb version of the song appears to be lost in time.
Running the Snow Trains on Sunday raised a concern for B&M Railroad officials. From the beginning of this new tradition, they wanted to show the proper respect for the day, while still running the trains. The passenger agents promoted a “dignified” atmosphere among the train passengers. In the 1956 B&M Snow Train brochure, they even have a notation informing passengers of a “Special Snow Train Mass, at North Conway, Our Lady of the Mountain Church, 11:30 a.m., Rev. Leo K. Ryan, Pastor.”
Over time, unfortunately, some train riders developed a reputation for being unruly. In the early years of the Snow Trains, many of the train stops greeted riders with marching bands and horse-drawn sleighs, creating a very welcoming, festive destination atmosphere. Over time, however, the jubilation of receiving the Snow Train riders started to be tempered, as we learn from a comment in the 2000 MBTA News article where “the festive welcomes that the Snow Trains enjoyed in the 1930’s gave way to local opposition, as some passengers often made them into ‘party trains.’” Instead of hitting the slopes on arrival, these riders would hang out in the bars and restaurants of the destination towns until the train left.” A November 23, 1969 article in the Boston Globe quotes a minister referencing train riders of years past, saying, “… many people who took the train to North Conway arrive ‘so drunk they don’t even know where they are.’” As with so many things, sometimes the welcome gets worn out as some of the guests overdo it.
THE ENDING OF AN “INSTITUTION”
During WW II, in 1943 and 1944, Snow Trains were sidetracked in favor of military rail traffic. In 1945, the trains were restarted and the excitement for riding the trains to the Eastern Slope Region and other winter sports areas seemed to be coming back. By the end of the 1940s, however, ridership on the Snow Trains was starting to decline. B&M retired its fleet of large conventional coaches during the early 1950s in favor of the new smaller and lighter Budd Rail Diesel Cars (a.k.a. Buddliners). This was a sign of declining ridership.
There is some discrepancy on when the last B&M Snow Train came to North Conway. A November 23, 1969 Boston Globe article says that “the original White Mountain snow train died in 1950, victim of the automobile.” However, other documentation in the B&M Snow Train brochures and in the 2000 MBTA News article states that the service to North Conway ended in the “late 1950s.” The B&M Railroad Historical Society, as well as other B&M rail fans, confirmed that the service ended in 1956. This corresponds to the last year the B&M Snow Train brochure was published.
In the end, a combination of shrinking availability of rail equipment, improvements in the interstate highway system, better highway snow plowing, the increased reliability of automobiles, plus a desire of the sporting public to be more independent and less tied to the train schedules, brought the Snow Trains to an end. In their 1956 brochure, B&M proclaimed that their Snow Train brought over one million people to different North Country destinations, including North Conway, Intervale, as well as points north and west.
In 1964, the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts (Mass Bay RRE) organization revived the Snow Train with one-day charters through the B&M Railroad. On Saturday, February 29, 1964, the train, made up of several Buddliners, left Boston’s North Station for North Conway and Intervale. The trip was promoted to people looking to ski, skate, and enjoy the scenery. People were encouraged to bring their cameras, as photo stops were being arranged. The Mass Bay RRE club chartered these once yearly excursions from 1964 to 1972.
The trainman for that very last 1972 Snow Train was Alan MacMillan, Jr. Then, 26 years old, and working for the B&M Railroad, he said in an October 2019 interview he was filling in for another crew member who called out on that day. Describing the ride, he told how there had been a snow storm raging since the day before, and while the tracks were cleared by a rail snow plow, when the Snow Train, with two diesel engines (#s 1730 and 1751) with eight Buddliners, came up the tracks, there was nothing but snow visible. The train had about 650 to 700 people. The ride to North Conway was full of conversation and laughter. The train stopped in Dover, NH before making its way on the final leg of the trip to the North Conway station. When it arrived in North Conway, everyone disembarked and either went skiing, walked around town, or visited a favorite restaurant. At 5 p.m., the train left for Boston.
MacMillan said the mood of the train passengers on the ride back to Boston was quite different. People were engaged in quiet conversation in an almost contemplative atmosphere as they knew this was the last Snow Train. B&M was abandoning the 29 miles of track from Intervale to Ossipee the very next day. MacMillan rode in the last car on that train as it made its way to Boston. With snow still falling, he, along with the 13 other people on the car, turned their attention out the back of the train. He opened the back door of the train car and turned on the large headlight to illuminate the tracks as the train left them behind. The scene was perfect as the light illuminated an ever-moving scene behind the train. The snow was swirling up in the turbulent air caused by the motion of the train. As the train moved on, the snow resettled on to the tracks turning the two steel ribbons white as they silently disappeared into the darkness beyond the reach of the light. A fitting scene for the end of a “New England Institution.”