The history of Prospect Mountain, from summit hotels to spectacular views.
Story and photo by Josh Schermerhorn
A unique way the Adirondacks allows people to see their captivating sight is from a mountaintop perch. In Lake George, N.Y., Prospect Mountain allows viewers to see up to 100 miles, including the major portion of the south end of the lake. However, the popular highway and vistas are not all the mountain has offered.
Located west of the lake, Prospect has a history unique to not only the Adirondacks, but to the entire country. In the late 1800s, Prospect was accessible to the summit by horse-and-carriage only. At the top, people could visit one of two hotels that were built on the summit. Popularity increased each year, making an easier method of transportation essential. To meet the demand, a cable incline railway system was constructed to allow people a quick eight-minute trip to the 2,024-foot summit.
Not only was this the biggest cable-rail system in New York, but the steepest in the U.S. as well. Although the open-car, canvas-lined railway was a little terrifying, it was very popular. After a few years, the need to find the top of the mountain lost its urge, and in 1903 the railway was shut down.
In the 1930’s, the summit was used not as much for views, but a turning point for people to ski off of. The unique ski-lift system was installed on the north face of the neighboring Cobble Mountain, which extended upward to Prospect. The lift was known as the J-bar lift, allowing skiers to hold on to the cable and let it push them up the slope. The J-bar’s creator, Fred Pabst, whose family also created the well-known beer Pabst Blue Ribbon, first used this system at Vermont’s Bromley Mountain.
"A lot of people can enjoy the views, especially with the fall foliage we have at this time."
Vic Lefebvre may be one of few who knew what skiing on these slopes was like. The 80-year-old Lake George native recalls skiers coming from the upper slopes to a steep slope leading to a “hut” at the bottom.
“They called it a hut,” says Lefebvre, “but it was actually rather spacious with a couple fireplaces.
“The Chamber of Commerce encouraged the youth to ski by giving out 4-foot skis. I didn’t get a pair, but poorer kids like us used the broken skis to make Skip Jacks.”
A Skip Jack, as Lefebvre explains, is a very unique, but simple skiing tool. Known across the country under many different names, the Skip Jack is simply a one-ski seat. The skier straddles the ski, using their legs and feet to guide them down the mountain.
“I remember up to a dozen kids skipping down the slopes between the skiers,” says Lefebvre. “I now build them for people as gifts and for fundraisers or raffles.”
The slopes had their downsides. Since the skiing was done on the eastern face of the mountain, it was very vulnerable to the sun, allowing melting and icing to occur. Each year it had to be cleared of the brush that grew for people to able to ski it in the winter. Kids who did this usually received lift passes.
The mountain began to turn to dormancy however. In 1932, the hotel that once drew crowds to the summit burned down, leaving no uses for the summit besides skiing. With futile attempts to keep the slope active, the Skip Jacks and warm fireplaces at the bottom closed down as well, leaving the mountain inactive for the next 20 years.
The only thing keeping the mountain from complete obscurity was the fire tower sitting in place of the hotel. The structure was one of many on various mountains across the Adirondacks.
Warren Schermerhorn, an 86-year-old Lake George resident, remembers making the most of this tower.
“My father and I would come from Troy, N.Y. when I was a teenager and hike to the top,” says Schermerhorn. “When we got to the top, the forest ranger would hand us a token saying we climbed the mountain.
“The tower was taken down eventually, which is truly a shame. Some people thought it was an eyesore, but most of the public loved it. It allowed people to see the Adirondacks from even higher than before.”
With the tower taken down, the mountain’s only signs of life were from its past existence of ferrying people to the top, or plummeting down it on skis.
Then in the 1950’s, Governor Tom Dewey decided to construct a highway to the top of the mountain. Though the idea surfaced, the funding and construction did not commence until 1966, when the next governor, Nelson Rockefeller, sent the project in motion. In 1969, the Prospect Mountain Veterans’ Memorial Highway opened, dedicating the road to the war veterans of the country.
“I remember up to a dozen kids skipping down the slopes between the skiers.”
Today the highway allows tourists and locals alike to visit the top once again, not by railway, but by car or trolley. On the way up, three overlook areas allow people to gaze upon the lake, letting people see all the way down the south end. Once at the top, the view is no longer secluded to the lake and the neighboring peaks, but to an entire region. Viewers can see anywhere from near Albany to the Berkshire Mountains of Mass., to the Green Mountains of Vermont, to the high peaks of the Adirondacks. The 100-mile span makes this easily accessible summit unique to the area.
It is also well maintained by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
“We have maintenance programs that help with road cleanups, frequent roadside mowing, and crews who check the state of the road every day,” says Gary West, the operations supervisor for the Warrensburg region.
“It’s nice to have people drive up. A lot of people can enjoy the views, especially with the fall foliage we have at this time. It gives some great views of Lake George and the surrounding mountains.”
Though the road and hiking trail are what currently lines the mountainside, remnants of the past can still be found today. While scaling Prospect, one can find a pulley from the cable-car railway, dragging people up with its 1 ¼ inch cables. At the top, a fireplace can be found from the hotel that once drew people to the top. The mountain itself may not have changed in the last century, but the way people have and still do use it has evolved through the generations.
With skiing and snowboarding being the most popular ways to get down a snowy slope today, the Skip Jack is the way an everyday skier would never think of. Here is the basic way to build one:
Carve a board out with a smooth bottom and a turned up point at the front, sort of like a ski.
Take another board and attach it vertically a little behind the center of the “ski.” Then, find a comfortable piece of wood to sit on and attach it to the top of the vertical board. The original Skip Jacks used a barrel stave as a runner, with a stick of firewood nailed on, with a flat board as a seat.
To use the Skip Jack, sit on the seat and straddle the ski. Using your legs and feet, you can guide yourself down the mountain. Please, be careful.
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