Waterville Valley is a town with a past - and it started with a vision

Waterville Valley is a planned family resort nestled in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest that attracts thousands of visitors every year. This small town is home not only to a world-class ski area, but an award-winning tennis club, golf course and miles of hiking and mountain biking trails – all within a short walk or bus ride of your hotel or condominium door.

Unlike most New England vacation destinations, this well-designed community didn’t just happen. It was carefully crafted from the vision developed by the late Olympic skier Tom Corcoran.

Before Corcoran came to town in 1964, Waterville Valley was a sleepy summer community with a small but lively ski scene. In the early 1900s, the valley was a retreat for wealthy city dwellers who came to spend their summers hiking, fishing and swimming. Over the years, a few amenities were added, including a gold course, tennis courts and the Waterville Inn, the hub of social activity not just for summer residents, but for the growing number of skiers who came to ride the slopes carved out of Mount Snow.

Corcoran had developed a love for the White Mountains when he took his first run down a rough ski trail on Mt. Tecumseh as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy. After graduating Dartmouth College, his skiing skills took him to the 1956 Olympics and again in 1960, where he earned the highest ranking performance in the Giant Slalom for a U.S. male skier, a rank he held until he was topped by New Hampshire skier Bode Miller.

After Corcoran left the Olympic arena and completed an MBA from Harvard Business School, he headed west to Aspen to learn the ski resort business. Corcoran grew up in a ski resort community in Canada and dreamed of starting his own ski resort in Northeast. After a few years in Colorado, Corcoran moved his family to Middlebury, VT, where he began looking for the home of his future resort.

Corcoran sought out the help of Sel Hannah, a White Mountains resident who had done extensive work surveying the range. Hannah pointed Corcoran toward Waterville Valley and Mt. Tecumseh, not only for its ski resort potential, but because Hannah knew Waterville Inn owner Ralph Bean had significant land holdings in the valley and was looking to sell. Unfortunately at the time, it was to another buyer.

Hannah set up a surveying flight for Corcoran to look at other sites. On their way back home, the plane circled over the valley and Corcoran knew he had found the spot. “It was like a light bulb went off,” said Corcoran. When the plane touched the ground, Corcoran again asked about Waterville Valley and learned that Bean’s buyer had fallen through. Corcoran immediately asked to set up a meeting with Bean at the Waterville Inn to discuss buying the land. Corcoran and Bean met that weekend and by Monday, Corcoran had made an offer on the property and the Waterville Company was born.

During the winter of 1965-66, Corcoran became the owner of the Waterville Inn and 425 acres at the base of the mountain. He negotiated a contract with the U.S. Forest Service, stewards of the mountain, to use the land as a ski area. Hannah and Corcoran quickly surveyed and mapped out the Waterville Valley ski area and began construction in February.

The local community was largely receptive to Corcoran’s plan. “It was an economically depressed area and I think people were happy to have him building in the area and bringing in jobs,” said Corcoran’s former wife Birdie Britton.

Sally Harris, a Waterville Valley resident who worked for Corcoran and the town for many years, said people were at first surprised when he announced his plans. “They thought he was crazy,” Harris said. But soon the locals lent their support and were eager to see new economic opportunities in the valley.

That year, 135 acres were cleared, four lifts and a J-bar were installed and two base lodges were finished in time for the start of the 1966-67 ski season. When Waterville Valley opened, it was among the five largest snowmaking areas in New Hampshire.

“It was very popular right off the bat,” said Britton. “There were long lift lines, the parking lots were full and there were even cars parked all the way down the road.”

“We were the only game in town back then,” said Tom Day, Former General Manager of Waterville Valley ski area. “From 1966 to 1980, Waterville Valley was the place.”

Waterville Valley attracted skiers from around the region – and some well-known faces as well. Corcoran had developed a friendship with Robert Kennedy during a stint working on his senatorial campaign. The ski area -- located only two hours from Boston – became a favorite destination for the Kennedys and their children. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1969, the popular “Bobby’s Run” was renamed in honor of Corcoran’s late friend.

Corcoran understood that developing a strong competitive racing program was important to the vitality of the ski resort and he worked hard to bring top competitions to the mountain. From the first years of the ski area up to the 1990s, Waterville Valley hosted 11 World Cup events, as well as a broad range of competitions for both youth and adults. The biggest was the 1969 World Cup Slalom and Giant Slalom Finals, a televised competition that drew national attention to New Hampshire.

Corcaran’s design wasn’t solely focused on the expert skier. All the trails at this family-friendly ski area end in a common area near the lodges, making it easy to find friends and children after a run. With a mix of difficult and easy terrain, Waterville Valley draws skiers of all levels.

Grooming the resort’s own skiers to compete at higher levels was just as important to Corcoran as bringing in big races. He approached a local ski club, the Black and Blue Trail Smashers, about developing a ski training program. The group, now called the Waterville Valley Black and Blue Trail Smashers, or WVBBTS, became a top-notch ski training program under the leadership of “Doc” Sosman. By the early 70s, WVBBTS students had earned places on the US Ski Team, World Cup circuit and US Alpine Olympic Team. The group also developed the Waterville Valley Academy, a full-time winter term academic and training academy for high school students. At 75, WVBBTS is one of the oldest ski clubs in the country. It continues to turn out champions, most recently Hannah Kearney, who won the Gold Medal in moguls at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Freestyle skiing was introduced to the mountain during the 1969 World Cup races, making Waterville a leader in this new and exciting sport. A few years later, Waterville Valley hosted the First National Open Championship of Freestyle Skiing and the WVBBTS began offering freestyle skiing training. By the 1990s, it had fully embraced the sport by building the second freestyle terrain park in the North East.

Cross-country skiing also became a big part of the Waterville Valley ski culture. The U.S. Olympic Team trained in Waterville for the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan and the area hosted the U.S. National Cross Country Championships in 1979. Today, Waterville Valley’s Nordic Center features 75 km of wide-groomed trails with terrain for every ability level.

While skiing was the obvious center piece of the resort, Corcoran believed it was vital to develop a well-planned community that provided rooms, food and a little night life for the skiers. After the Waterville Inn burned that first winter, Corcoran launched his master plan, building two inns and a restaurant. Soon after, a convention center was built, followed by condominium developments. Nearly every year saw some new building, funded by either the Waterville Company or private developers. Waterville quickly grew into the first master planned community in the Northeast.

“Fortunately for Waterville Valley, there’s no McDonalds, no lighted sign. That won’t happen,” said Bill Cantlin, current president of the Waterville Company. “That’s one of the advantages to having a whole resort planned from day one.”

Sally Harris, the former long-time town administrator, remembered that Corcoran worked very hard to ensure the town was included in the planning. “He very much led the building of town,” said Harris. “There’s no question Waterville is what it is today because of him.”

Corcoran served 12 terms on the Board of Selectmen, helping oversee construction of town projects, including public water and sewer, a recreation center, ice arena and school for the local children. When Corcoran retired after 35 years on the board, he was the longest serving selectman in the state.

“I worked very hard to always keep the company’s interests separate from the town’s interests,” said Corcoran. “I felt really strongly the town had to be respected, stand on its own two feet and that the town and the ski area had a good working relationship.”

Part of Corcoran’s vision was to have a central square with shops, inns and nightlife. Expanding out from there would be close-knit condominium complexes and stretching further would be more residential condos and single family homes. Corcoran saw his plans for the central Town Square come to fruition 1987. Unfortunately, this key piece of the Waterville Valley community came just as tough economic times hit New England. The Savings and Loan crisis hurt the real estate market and although The Waterville Company worked hard to weather the storm, it declared bankruptcy in 1994 and was purchased by the resort company SKI Ltd.

The Waterville Company was able to keep its real estate holdings and the golf course and by the end of the decade, the company and the community were once again on an upswing. Cantlin said the early 2000s brought unprecedented growth to Waterville Valley and that the number of summer vacationers has increased steadily in recent years.

Recent decades have seen other areas of the community grow and flourish, as well. The town recreation department has become an active part of Waterville Valley, hosting ice cream socials, hiking trips, summer day camps and dozens of family events year round. The 9-hole Waterville Valley Golf Course, one of the oldest in the nation, was expanded and redesigned in 2005. The Waterville Valley Tennis Center has also expanded over its 125-plus year history into an 18-clay court center that is recognized year after year as a top club for its facilities, value and programs for children.

In 1992, the town took ownership of Hans and Margaret Rey’s summer cottage, where the authors of the popular Curious George children’s book would spend their summers. A steward group began hosting events at the cottage and in 2006, the Margret & H.A. Rey Center opened in Town Square, dedicated to fostering the study or arts and science in memory of the authors. The center features reading hours, art and astronomy seminars. At the cottage, the center hosts summer events and has recreated Margaret Rey’s beloved garden.

Tom Corcoran left the valley when he retired in 1999 and settled in South Carolina. He passed away this apt summer.  

The Waterville Company still plans to continue to grow and offer the most modern amenities, such as a grand hotel and spa, or a cozy bed and breakfast. To help support the community, the Waterville Valley Resort Association was formed in 2006 as a kind of Chamber of Commerce, which promotes both town programs and local businesses. These organizations have also been working to promote more year-round activities, including creating the Summer Unlimited activities package that has become a popular perk for the region.

From day one, Waterville has been a family friendly vacation destination, said Cantlin. It’s part of Corcoran’s original design and the long term master plan to make sure the valley stays that way. 

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