In the early 19th century, Conway was the main town and North Conway was only one of its outlying settlements, but successive waves of artists, skiers and shoppers turned what was once a village into the tourism hub of the White Mountains.
Like so much else in the region, it all began with the Wiley Slide. On the night of Aug. 28, 1826, a wild storm raged through Crawford Notch, causing an avalanche that killed the entire Wiley family. In the days before photography, newspapers and magazines sent artists to portray the scene. Their often-exaggerated depictions of the White Mountains, as well as the allure of the tragedy, began to draw tourists, among them artists.
One of these was Benjamin Champney, who was so taken by the scenery of the Saco Valley that he bought a house in North Conway in 1853. He painted the mountain landscapes from every angle, even occasionally setting up his easel in the middle of North Conway’s then-unpaved main street.
Champney’s style was influenced by the Hudson River School of artists, and his enthusiasm for the beauty of the White Mountains began to draw others to paint and sketch the scenery. His house and studio became a center for an art colony that became known as the White Mountain School.
Over the course of the 19th century, more than 400 artists came to the region, including Thomas Cole and Winslow Homer, and the images they sent back to galleries in New York and Boston began to draw tourists eager to see these idyllic landscapes for themselves. Valley farms took in guests, then inns and hotels were built to accommodate the tourists as transportation into the area improved. North Conway became the center of all this.
It was still a large summer burst of activity, until an Austrian ski instructor made North Conway one of America’s first ski resorts. Hannes Schneider developed what’s known as the Alberg technique while an instructor at the Austrian resort of St. Anton am Arlberg, but had to leave following the Anschluss, when Nazi Germany took control of Austria.
He reopened his ski school at Cranmore Mountain in 1939 — a statue of Schneider at the mountain recalls him as the father of modern-day skiing — and the skiers thronged to North Conway.
The famed Snow Trains were already bringing winter sports enthusiasts to North Conway, but as skiing reached a more diverse audience, these trains expanded their service, connecting to lines from New York and Connecticut and becoming a weekend social event. A new poster promoting the trains was designed each year, usually picturing attractive young women in stylish winter outfits.
Local inns and hotels no longer closed for the winter, and more services sprang up to outfit, feed and entertain the skiers and others who came for the fun. Snow Trains continued through the 1950s, by which time skiing had caught on and whole families were arriving by car.
You can learn more about the history of the sport at the New England Ski Museum (see story on page 24) next to Schouler Park, through ski equipment and clothing, ski videos and exhibits on the famed World War II 10th Mountain Division and its impact on bringing recreational skiing to America.
The next wave was shoppers. In 1988, Settlers Green opened on the site of the old airport, the state’s first outlet shopping center, with 30 stores. More malls and outlets followed, until the strip of Route 16/302 south of the center was a steady line of retail businesses. These drew bargain hunters and shoppers, including Canadian families who planned their summer vacations to outfit children for school at New Hampshire’s tax-free shops.
My first memories of North Conway were before the malls, of stopping for breakfast in a café on Main Street before heading to the slopes. I remember sliding off the seat in my slippery red one-piece snowsuit and learning to ski between my brother’s 6-foot-long skis. My own were too small for proper bindings and were attached by leather straps around my rubber boots.
My gear is a bit more sophisticated today, and I may stop at Stan and Dan‘s for a quick boot tweak before heading to the slopes. Like me, North Conway has grown and changed since the days when Carroll Reed’s was the main act in town.
Not everything has changed. The grand Victorian Rail Station still overlooks Schouler Park, where a large rink is flooded for skating in the winter. The North Conway 5 & 10 still bookends the blocks of independent retail shops across Main Street. There since 1939, the 5 & 10 is a glorious compendium of retro household goods and toys, along with books about the mountains.
Farther along is Zeb’s General Store, a relative newcomer there only since 1991, selling everything from balsam pillows and moose cuddle toys to gourmet mustards and sensible wool socks. We’ve never been able to get the kids past their long candy counter. The outlets aren’t the only lure for shoppers.
Scenery, skiing and shopping have some serious competition from the natural attractions. The Saco winds its way through the valley in a shallow, leisurely course that invites kayakers. There’s a put-in at First Bridge, on River Road, close to Main Street. Echo Lake State Park is good for swimming and kayaking, with views of White Horse Ledge. That sheer face, along with neighboring Cathedral Ledge, are favorites for rock climbers, along with ice climbers in
For a short hike with a reward, take a picnic to Diana’s Bath, less than a mile off West Side Road. The stream drops and cascades over a series of flat ledges, forming shallow pools and carving potholes and grooves as the waters swirl and fall.