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The Phenomenal Snowman of Connecticut: Walter Schoenknecht

An ex-Marine from East Haven was the first to use snowmaking devices and to develop Mohawk Mountain in Cornwall, Brodie Mountain in the Berkshires, and Mt. Snow in Dover, VT.

It’s difficult to imagine a single person who has had more impact on the development of skiing in the Northeast than Walter Schoenknecht formerly of East Haven. Born in New Haven in 1919, Schoenknecht (pronounced “shawn-connect”) leased a rope tow area known as Brodie Mountain immediately after the war in 1946. After operating Brodie’s rope tow for a year, he returned to his native state and then opened his first ski area — Mohawk Mountain in Cornwall, CT — in the winter of 1947-48. Mohawk is by far Connecticut’s oldest ski area.

A snow drought similar to this season occurred during the winter of 1949-50, bringing the business at Mohawk to a screeching halt. Undaunted, the Marine Corps veteran began experimenting with snow-making machines. Initially, he tried trucking in large amounts of ice and chipping it. Schoenknecht then began working with Larchmont Engineering to develop machines that used compressed air and water. The result was the development of the modern snow gun. When the North Atlantic Oscillation is in its positive phase, and snow is scarce in the Northeast, ski resorts can turn on their guns and cover their slopes thanks to the pioneering efforts of Connecticut native Walt Schoenknecht. Mohawk Mountain today has 95% coverage with snow-making equipment. Sub-freezing temperatures enable it to make snow and to stay in business.

A seemingly tireless promoter of skiing, Schoenknecht soon turned his attention to southern Vermont, where he planned to create the world’s largest ski resort. Standing on the top of Mt. Pisgah in Dover, VT, in October of 1946, Schoenknecht realized he had found the place of his dreams: 

I stood at the top of that mountain — Mt. Pisgah they called her then — and I looked all around me. I looked down at the snow at my feet — October snow 18 inches deep. I looked out over that broad and beautiful valley falling away below me. And most of all I looked far off into the future. And there, just waiting for me, I saw the ski resort of my dreams: it would be the largest in the world, it would be second to none, it would be absolutely fabulous.*

In 1953, Schoenknecht returned to Dover, VT, and purchased the 500 acres that would become Mt. Snow from Reuben Snow for $15,000 -- $30 per acre! The lower mountain opened for skiing on Dec. 12, 1954; the upper part of the mountain opened a year later. It soon became a ski resort featuring amenities not found anywhere else: a heated outdoor swimming pool, walk-in fireplaces, an indoor skating rink in the lodge, a geyser in Snow Lake, dogsled rides, a movie theater and, in the “off” season, an 18-hole golf resort. Schoenknecht even contemplated having the government conduct nuclear bomb testing at Mt. Snow to increase the vertical drop of the mountain; fortunately, that never occurred.

Connecticut’s irrepressible snowman also was a notable lift innovator . He was the driving force behind the first chairlifts — loud because they were chain driven—at Mt. Snow. Walt later developed a gondola-style lift that enabled the riders to keep their skis on, reportedly because Schoenknecht had back problems himself. He brought the first chairlifts to Mohawk Mountain as well in 1960. The Arrowhead double chairlift debuted there in 1969, followed by the Boulder triple chairlift about 10 years later.

Walter Schoenknecht strapped on his first pair of skis in 1929. It was a transformational experience. Even when he was with the Marine Corps in Florida during World War II he formed a ski club there. Asked by a Sports Illustrated reporter in 1961 what he could do with a ski club in Florida, Walt replied, “ We didn’t go skiing exactly; we just thought about it.” After being transferred to Washington, D.C., Schoenknecht would drive 33 hours on the weekend to ski for 3 hours and was habitually late returning to his post; as a result the Marine Corps busted him from corporal to private.

Obviously obsessed with skiing, this Connecticut native transformed the world of skiing as few have ever done. Stricken with prostate cancer, Walter Schoenknecht died in 1987 at the age of 68; however, his daughter, Carol Lugar, the current owner of Mohawk Mountain, continues her father’s legacy in the ski industry. During a snow drought such as we are currently experiencing, you can be sure that both she and every other ski-resort owner in New England are grateful for one of Walt Schoenknecht’s many innovations — artificial snow-making equipment. It has transformed the ski industry and has proven to be a lifesaver when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with snowstorms.

Notes, Sources, and Links

  1. *Sports Illustrated—March 20, 1961 issue.
  2. Newenglandskihistory.com
  3. North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO): This refers to the pressure differential between a permanent low pressure system near Iceland and a permanent high pressure system near the Azores Islands. If there is a large pressure differential between them we have a NAO+ which controls the flow of westerly winds and gives the Northeast a mild winter with little snow; a negative NAO brings colder weather and lots of snow. We are currently in a strong positive phase.
  4. Over 80 ski areas were operating in VT in the late 1960’s at its peak; today there are 21.
  5. Here is a link to Mohawk Mt: http://www.mohawkmtn.com/
  6. Here is an online link to Mt. Snow: http://www.mountsnow.com/


Chris Dehnel January 12, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Whether it's snowmaking, glitz or the bravery of trying something new, Walt was an icon. Speak his name to anyone in the snow sports industry and the person will just shake his or her head and chuckle. It's a strange reaction, but it's reverence - pure reverence. It's probably good that Walt was never able to make his nuclear bowl, however.
JOE PORRELLO January 17, 2012 at 06:21 PM
I knew his sons as we all grew up together in East Haven and were all scouts. There home was like a stone castle it was beatiful.It, as far as I know is still there on Laurel St. but all the property surrounding it was sold and is now condo land!

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