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Oregon Trails: 50 Years of Mt. Ashland

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MT. ASHLAND, Ore. — Fifty years ago at this time, work was underway on Mt. Ashland to create the first ski resort in Southern Oregon. The first plans for a ski facility were very modest, until one of the biggest movers and shakers in Oregon got hold of the project.

Interest in developing a ski facility in Southern Oregon grew along with the completion of interstate five over the Siskiyou Pass in the early 1960′s. That opened the area to more tourists, and the need for more year-round facilities. Mt. Ashland was one of two sites in the region the forest service proposed for a ski area. The other was off the yet-to-be built Lake of the Woods Highway, at Brown Mountain.

“Since it was farther East it had good snow. Better quality perhaps than Mount Ashland, but it’s not near a population center as Mt. Ashland is, and I think that’s probably the main reason why the Forest Service decided on Mt. Ashland,” said Ski Ashland supporter Cynthia Lord.

“Dan Boakley was teaching some P.E. classes at the top of the Siskiyou pass to some Southern Oregon College students,” recalls Development Director for Mount Ashland, Rick Saul, “and it started to gain some popularity and some momentum here. He got some funding from the college to buy a portable rope tow, which he used to teach the classes. Then Cynthia Lord and Bill Dawkins got together and they thought this – Mt.Ashland – would be a good opportunity to create a ski resort here in Southern Oregon; and that’s where the momentum first started.”

While the project moved along slowly, the head of the Oregon Highway Commission, Glenn Jackson, was brought into the project and the shape and scope of the plans changed quickly.

“We planned a very simple resort, starting slowly, keeping in the black, modelling it that way on what had happened at Bend, which had been very successful and then Glenn Jackson came in with a controlling interest, and things changed completely from the simple thing to a very special building, a very different financial situation,” said Lord.

“Not only was I designing what started to be a warming hut, but really became a more complete ski lodge, in a sense, but also there was a hotel to go with it, and ski shops, and there were gonna be ice rinks in the winter-time, and stables for horseback riding in the meadows there; and the whole thing was envisioned as a much more extensive kind of project,” said Robert Bosworth, the Lodge Designer.

Due to heavy snow the year before, work on the lodge by Batzer Construction did not get underway until mid-Summer of 1963. It was felt that it would be safer and quicker for workers, if roof units could be built on the ground and lifted into place, but cold weather caused the boom of one crane to snap.

So, two cranes were used. Meanwhile, work had to stop for one week when it appeared the new access road would not be completed. The roof units were finally lifted into place in December of 1963. At the same time, work on the lifts, a t-bar and and poma lift, were completed in time for skiing to begin shortly after Christmas of 1963.

“We got a ski resort, and it’s wonderful! And uh, it works very well most of the time. We’ve had some bad years lately, but uh, we had bad years before and we had good years. We’ve had years so good that we had broken down structures because of too much snow!” said Lord.

Mt. Ashland struggled with a series of managers for several years. Then, facing bankruptcy in 1977, a ballot measure went before Jackson County voters seeking public ownership.

“That was after the thing was folding up and we felt we were gonna lose it,” said Frank Bash, early Ski Ashland booster.

The measure failed, but the sale of Mt. Ashland to grocery chain store owner Dick Hicks ensured it’s survival. Hicks sold out several years later and the Stevens Pass Corporation moved in, making improvements to the lodge and installing new lifts. But then Steven’s Pass decided it wanted out in the early 90′s and it looked like the end again for Mt. Ashland.

“Very cleverly they said, ‘Y’know, if you have one year to find a buyer, and if you don’t have a buyer, we’re gonna take those chair lifts and we’re gonna put ‘em on one of our other ski resorts’, which was Steven Pass up in Washington, and that really motivated the local population to get serious about fund raising to buy the mountain, ” said Rick Saul.

So a non-profit organization was formed and has operated the mountain ever since. Much of that time, they’ve been working to add more beginner and intermediate facilities, facing a series of court battles for the last ten years. Ski Ashland says the new facilities will help ensure the future of Ski Ashland for another 50 years.

“Y’know, ya just kinda take the good with the bad and keep on plugging along and trying make some improvements where you can,” said Rick.

It was 50 years ago this coming summer enterprising Oregon residents decided that Mt. Ashland would be the place to build a ski resort. In that half century a lot has changed, and a lot of changes are coming in the future.

Rick Saul says the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hear oral arguments about construction of a new chairlift on the mountain. He says briefs are being filed right now.