Sunday December 9, 2012

ADAMS

The story of the Thunderbolt Ski Trail is a lively one, filled with Nazis, Olympians and world-class athletes -- both local and international -- skiing down a precipitous slope at hair-raising speeds.

And that story was mostly local lore until a group of historians, skiers and town officials made it accessible to the public by opening the Thunderbolt Ski Museum on Hoosac Street.

"This is one of the most significant local stories, and probably one of the most significant pieces of town history, that hasn't been told very well," said Adams Town Administrator Jonathan Butler.

Blair Mahar -- an educator, skier, filmmaker and local history aficionado -- came up with the idea for the museum in 2009, and he started it this past October with the help of friends.

About $12,000 in funds for the museum -- located in the former Berkshire Visitors Bureau building in Adams -- were provided by the town, the Adams Historical Society and private donations.

"It illustrates a pretty significant part of the town's history and the ski history of New England," said Eugene Michalenko, president of the Adams Historical Society.

The trail was built in 1934 on Massachusetts' highest peak -- 3,491-foot Mount Greylock -- by a unit of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps in response to the growing popularity of Alpine skiing in the United States. That's according to the archives of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners, the local entity that has maintained and promoted the trail.

The 1.6-mile trail, with steep grades of 35 percent in some spots, was named after the famous roller coaster at Revere Beach, also known for its thrilling, abrupt drops. Quickly, the Thunderbolt became known regionally, then nationally, and even internationally, as a first-class trail.

It was the site of the Massachusetts State Skiing Championships, several collegiate competitions, and the Eastern Championships from 1935-59. The latter was an open amateur race that attracted international competitors.

Ski posters are exhibited at the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in Adams.
Ski posters are exhibited at the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in Adams. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Olympians -- including two members of the 1936 U.S. team -- skied the trail, and two years later, a cadre of skiers from the University of Munich arrived in Adams to test the Thunderbolt at the Eastern event.

"They were German students, and they wore sweaters with swastikas on them," Mahar said. "And they kicked some butt."

It wasn't unusual for the Eastern Championships to attract 5,000 or 6,000 spectators, according to Eagle files. Special "ski trains" from New York City running directly to Adams were scheduled, according to Butler.

At one point, he said, Adams was known as "Little Switzerland'' because of the trail and the somewhat Swiss-style village at the foot of the mountain.

Several Thunderbolt skiers from the 1930s even became members of the U.S. Army's highly elite 10th Mountain Division that served in Italy during World War II.

"They were farm boys and factory workers from Adams," Mahar said. "According to the U.S. Army, there were 22 of them in the 10th, by far the largest number of skiers in the unit per capita."

The skiing craze waned in the post-war era, and by the 1960s and ‘70s, the mountain began to take back the trail as larger ski resorts, including Jiminy Peak, blossomed elsewhere in the Berkshires.

The Thunderbolt became a hiking trail, albeit a formidable one, but Mahar almost single-handedly revived interest in the mountain.

A sign points the way to the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in Adams.
A sign points the way to the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in Adams. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
He was intrigued by Mount Greylock's history, and in 1999 he produced a Greylock/Thunderbolt documentary titled "Purple Mountain Majesty."

"When I started looking into the history, I had no idea of its significance," Mahar said.

Mahar and the Thunderbolt Runners, along with other local ski clubs and individuals, rebuilt the trail and revived the Thunderbolt Ski Race in 2010. It was intended as a one-shot celebration of the renovation, but the event went so well -- attracting participants and observers totaling about 1,000 -- that it has become an annual race.

The next event will take place Feb. 9.

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6251.

Mannequins dressed as Thunderbolt skiers from an earlier age are on display at the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in the former Berkshire Visitors Bureau in Adams.
Mannequins dressed as Thunderbolt skiers from an earlier age are on display at the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in the former Berkshire Visitors Bureau in Adams. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

On Twitter: @DerekGentile

Thunderbolt Ski Museum

Where: 3 Hoosac St., Adams.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, except holidays.

Admission: Free.

What you'll see: Exhibits honoring the "legends" of the trail, as well as ones featuring clothing, equipment and other memorabilia. Also, a documentary and films are shown on a regular basis.

Info: www.thunderboltskirunners.org.