The Balsams Resort, located in Dixville Notch, 70 miles north of the Mt. Washington Valley and just 20 miles south of the Canadian border, is a grand hotel and ski resort unlike any other in New England.
The resort grounds cover 11,000 acres and feature 95 kilometers of cross-country ski trails and an alpine ski area, including 16 trails, five gladed areas, and a terrain park. The resort is also home to a nine-hole golf course in addition to an 18-hole, Donald Ross-designed, championship course called the Panorama.
After being purchased in December 2011, The Balsams closed to the public and it remains closed at the time of this publication. In 2014, former American Skiing Company head, Les Otten, joined The Balsams redevelopment and expansion effort to build a new hotel wing and renovate the main hotel buildings, the Dix and Hampshire houses, and the golf course clubhouse. Otten also plans to expand the resort’s ski area, quadrupling its current size and becoming one of the largest ski areas in the Northeast.
After years of effort by the property owners, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed the so-called “Balsams Bill” into law in May 2019, allowing Coos County commissioners to create a tax increment financing district around The Balsams. Otten seeks to sell $28 million of bonds under the municipal finance structure in order to begin the redevelopment.
A Multi-Part Series Exploring The Balsam’s Past and Future of a Frozen-in-Time New Hampshire Grand Resort
by Rick Tillotson
From 1874, when the 25-room Dix House was built by George Parsons of Colebrook, up until 1966, The Balsams was known as a summer resort. That year, the hotel opened The Balsams Wilderness Ski Area. Considering the year-round beauty of Dixville Notch, this allowed guests to experience winter in one of the coldest notches in New Hampshire. The Balsams Wilderness was a small ski area with 12 trails built on Black Mountain, located just west of the hotel. The conditions for winter sports in the Notch were ideal. The winter started early, with the snow usually lasting well into April. The hotel would become a destination for those on skis as well as snowmobiles. For the 1967-68 winter season, the hotel maintained a small fleet of the original “Ski-doo” snow machines, which were used over the frozen Lake Gloriette and the trails beyond the surrounding mountains. Interestingly, the winter of 1966 would also be the first ski season for Waterville Valley and Loon Mountain in Lincoln.
The chalet-type lodge had an enormous fieldstone fireplace in the center, with tall windows with expansive views. The south-facing lodge allowed for plenty of sunlight, which helped to quickly warm up the skiers.
Construction of the ski lodge had begun in early 1966 but was interrupted in October by a sudden gust of wind that caused the building to collapse. The building had been framed and roofed but hadn’t been boarded in at the sides. It was rebuilt and was ready for the dedication ceremony in late September 1967, which was near the end of the 93rd summer season. The chalet-type lodge had an enormous fieldstone fireplace in the center, with tall windows with expansive views. The south-facing lodge allowed for plenty of sunlight, which helped to quickly warm up the skiers. The lodge also provided sleigh rides that traveled back and forth from the hotel.
The ride up the 1,000-vertical-foot mountain was by a double-seat red riblet chairlift. The mountain also provided a high-speed T-bar that traveled two-thirds of the way up the mountain.
Most would agree that it was a pure joy to ski at The Balsams Wilderness. The ride up the 1,000-vertical-foot mountain was by a double-seat red riblet chairlift. The mountain also provided a high-speed T-bar that traveled two-thirds of the way up the mountain. It was a difficult lift for anyone under 100 pounds. Near the bottom of the lift, and within easy view of the base lodge and chair lift, the T-bar hit a flat spot, which put the bar at one’s ankles which was an odd feeling. Immediately after, it went to an extreme upward angle which would rocket a lightweight child off their feet. The skiers on the riblet would often keep an eye on the nearby T-bar because funny falls would be common; first-timers would often fall.
Just how large will the expansion be?
With an epic annual snowfall and 2,200 acres of skiing across 3,800 acres of pristine forest, including a 500-acre Balsam Glade in Hodge Valley, skiing at The Balsams will offer a new challenge every day. Along with the expanded terrain, the new expansion will include the highest capacity gondola and the largest snowmaking water source in the East, assuring best-in-class quality snow. Upon finish, The Balsams will be the largest and most technically advanced ski resort on the East Coast.
• Twice the number of acres of skiable terrain than the closest Eastern competitor
• Intelligently designed trails with limited intersections
• Up-mountain dining and ski facilities
• Next-generation snowmaking
• Glades in a place where it snows
• Most modern lift system with 22 lifts
• Well-designed lift alignments
• Only high-performance rentals
Existing: 100 acres (ac)
Year one: 250ac trails, 250ac gladed
Full build-out: 1,250ac trails,
Sunday River: 500ac-750ac
Year one: 1,900’
Full build-out: 2,050’
Sunday River: 2317’, Loon: 2,060’
Balsams: 250”(+) at base
Sunday River : 195”, Loon – 177”
Currently: one triple chair
Year one: 6 lifts – one 8-passenger gondola, four quads, one triple)
Full build-out: 22 total
Currently: 0 gpm
Year one: 5,000 gpm
Full build-out: 15,000 gpm
Sunday River: 8,100 gpm
Killington: Approx 7,500 gpm
One of the great things about the Wilderness was that even when busy, it felt like you had the trail to yourself.
The trails were named after local mountains, rivers, or geographical features. Beginner trails like Connecticut and Monadnock were very fun and relaxing. The intermediate level trails were named Magalloway, Cascade, Abenaki, and Androscoggin. Umbagog or 5a, was one of the steepest trails on the mountain and used for most special events like the torchlight parades or the early days of ski racing. It also had mogul, ballet, and big air competitions in the mid 1980s. These were the days of the Daffy, Helicopter, and Spread Eagle.
Speaking of 5a, how many mountains had a trail 0? The numbers were never printed on the trail maps, but the locals would often refer to the trails by numbers versus the names. Trail 0 was Connecticut, the longest trail of the mountain. The fastest run down the center was Sanguinary to Umbagog, but it was much quicker to say 3 to 5a. Oddly, there wasn’t a trail 5, just 5a. Androscoggin, trail 9, was the NASTAR racing trail. The narrowest trail, and one of the most fun, was Notch or trail 11. It weaved through the woods and had a few particularly sharp curves, which was unique compared to the rest of the trails which were much wider.
One of the great things about the Wilderness was that even when busy, it felt like you had the trail to yourself. The trails were also very well maintained. The natural snowfall and cold temperatures created ideal snow conditions. The views from the summit overlooked the Mohawk River Valley and the mountains of northern Coos County, Vermont, and Quebec.
Any kid growing up in the 1980s also knew the ski area had an excellent arcade. One of those games was the 1975 Allied’s Ski game, the first ski game ever. It was operated by using the foot-controlled skis side to side and holding the poles to control speed. The graphics were pretty rough, but high-tech in those days.
The Balsams Hotel provided an entertaining “après-ski” at the Wilderness Room and La Cave, both on the main floor of the hotel. Following that was a five-course dinner in the expansive dining room. Even until it closed in 2011, gentlemen were required to wear an evening jacket. The dining room was staffed by the finest and most professional group of waiters, bussers, and bartenders. Just as well known was the fine dining, provided by talented chefs. The buffet tables were full of food and adorned with ice sculptures and flower arrangements.
Neil Tillotson (1898-2001)
My grandfather purchased The Balsams at an auction in 1954, and always said he did it out of middle-aged sentimentality for his Abenaki ancestors that lived in the North Country.
Besides The Balsams Wilderness Ski Area, he was responsible for bringing the First-in-the-Nation voting to the town, as well as the rubber factory that operated on the backside of the hotel. The factory produced latex balloons, which he invented in 1931, and latex gloves, which he invented in 1954. He would later be awarded the U.S. patent—at the age of 93—for the nitrile examination glove. By 1982, the factory was employing 300 workers and producing 300 million surgical gloves per year.
With the addition of the rubber factory, which operated year round, it helped provide cheap electricity from the biomass energy plant next to the hotel.
Neil wasn’t interested in running the hotel. His interests and energy were spent managing his rubber businesses. In 1971, he was approached by two employees, Steve Barba and the late Warren Pearson (1942-2001), who suggested they manage the hotel along with Chef Phil Learned, and Raoul Jolin, maintenance foreman.
Neil Tillotson and the Attitash Alpine Education Foundation
Around the same time that Les Otten was negotiating the purchase of Attitash in 1994, the current owners of Attitash were making sure the lifetime pass holders would maintain the rights to these passes. Sitting in a folder were 24 unactivated lifetime passes for Neil Tillotson of Dixville Notch.
Mr. Tillotson was one of the early investors of Attitash in the early 1960s. He was contacted by the Attitash ownership and was asked if he would consider donating the passes to the Attitash Alpine Educational Foundation, which was founded in 1984 to develop and foster the growth of youth alpine ski racing. Each pass was valued at $8,000. Mr. Tillotson’s $192,000 donation was an important investment to the AAEF and the current Attitash Race Team.
The four managing partners were one of the main reasons The Balsams became successful and had such a high guest-return rate. In 1959, Steve was just 13 years old when he started working at the Caddy Camp up at The Balsams Golf Club. He worked practically every available position through the years and knew the value of guest relationships. Warren was hired to manage the Uel Gardner Ski School, which taught the American Technique during the first winter season of 1966.
“The Balsams is best defined by the people whose lives it touches. The essence of The Balsams is in the hearts of the people who love it.”
In 1976, the four men formed The Balsams Corporation and leased the hotel from Mr. T, a name often given to Neil Tillotson. Their hard work and management style helped the hotel build the reputation as a 4-star, 4-diamond resort. It was known for exceptional hospitality and customer service. The dedicated and veteran staff were one of the main reasons that guests returned year after year.
Steve Barba summed it up nicely when asked about the hotel, “The Balsams is best defined by the people whose lives it touches. The essence of The Balsams is in the hearts of the people who love it.”
The Future of The Balsams
Statement FROM LES OTTEN, to Mt Washington Valley Vibe
November 24, 2020
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has made life more difficult for everyone in one way or another. Recently here at the Balsams, it posed challenges to holding our 60th annual First-in-the-Nation presidential election. Due to social distancing measures, we hosted fewer reporters and observers than we normally do. Nonetheless, we were proud to come together in the wee minutes of November 3rd to keep our midnight voting tradition alive, and we were pleased to see the world was watching once again. In total, media coverage of Dixville’s Midnight Vote reached more than 4.5 billion people.
With respect to fully launching our Balsams Resort renovation and expansion, the pandemic has created challenges for us in the short term. But our long-term outlook is brighter than ever. In fact, we have seen increased interest from people who are looking to leave urban areas and purchase the kind of rural real estate we are offering. Even more people today are interested in what we are doing at The Balsams, whether it be shared ownership of a condominium in the historic Hampshire House or the prospect of a permanent, full-time home along our Donald Ross golf course, or on the side of many new slopes envisioned by our ski area expansion.
People are realizing the benefits of living in rural areas that offer incredible outdoor recreational opportunities, as does The Balsams. Our proposed ski area expansion—with 2,200 skiable acres of alpine terrain, one of the largest vertical drops, and 100 km of Nordic trails—will make The Balsams larger and more varied than any other resort in the East. In total, The Balsams offers 11,000 sprawling acres of breathtaking wilderness accessible in all seasons, from hiking and mountain-biking trails, to pristine lakes and streams, and direct access to the U.S./Canadian 1,000-mile snowmobile “superhighway.”
Through the pandemic, many have learned they can work productively from anywhere, including Dixville, where we will build a robust internet and telecommunications network for all of our residents and guests. Working from home, or a vacation home, has become acceptable daily protocol in our collective “new normal.” This workplace paradigm shift bodes well for The Balsams.
To date, we have deposits that represent approximately $20 million in real estate sales. We expect that to grow in 2021 as vaccines are implemented and the world rises above COVID-19. In addition, our development team continues discussions with financial institutions to secure the investment that will allow a magnificent restoration and expansion of the glorious Balsams Resort to move forward.
For additional information and news about The Balsams Resort, please visit www.TheBalsamsResort.com.