McKenty Books Selection: Laurentian Invention Revolutionized Skiing

The advent of Ski trains (by the end of the Thirties 325 trains were carrying 145,000 skiers a season) multiplied the number of skiers heading for the Laurentians. And as the decade began, another development changed the nature of skiing itself.
The young man behind this second change was Alex Foster, a former McGill student, who had won the Dominion Ski Jumping Championship while still attending Westmount High School. Karen Foster, Alex’s daughter, says her father was called “the flying ski”. “He couldn’t dance a step but he was a ballerina on skis, very poised and balanced. He enjoyed everything about the sport and what it might mean to other people.”
Although he was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, Alex enjoyed doing acrobatics on skis and liked nothing more than racing down a hill at top speed, spumes of snow tailing him all the way. Perhaps, because of the weight he lugged around, he was less keen on trudging back up the hill for another run. Alex discussed the problem with “Jackrabbit” Johannsen who, by the early Thirties, had organized ski training clubs in several Laurentian villages and towns. How, he wondered, could they save time climbing the hills so as to have more time to devote to downhill racing and slaloming?
Young Foster had a bent for tinkering and engineering and, after graduating from Westmount High in 1929 with his pal, Brodie Shearer, apparently he rigged up a wooden mock-up of a hill using cords for a rope tow, in the basement of the family home. About this time, too, Alex had been accepted on the Canadian ski team for the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. Team officials were not only taken with his incredible jumping but with his “freestyle”, executing a series of fancy twirls. Sadly, a serious accident during the run up to the Olympics ended his Olympic career. “Instead of joining his team mates for a drink,” his daughter Karen recalls, “he went up the hill for one last run, he fell and tore up his knee which the doctors, at first, wanted to amputate.”


Holding on tight (photo W. R. Drysdale; Sally Drysdale Aitken Collection)

His knee gradually recovered but the accident left Alex time to concentrate on his home-grown experiments. In the winter of 1930, Foster, then almost twenty-two, constructed something resembling the model in his basement near the bottom of the Big Hill in Shawbridge. If you looked out from the front door of the Shawbridge Club, across the tracks and over the river beyond the trees, you would see the Big Hill covered with snow and indented part way up like a two-tiered, white wedding cake listing slightly to one side.
Foster’s original construction involved hoisting an old car on blocks, removing a tire from one of the back wheels, running a rope up to a pulley attached to a tree or a stake, starting the car’s engine and hoping for the best. There is no doubt that Alex Foster rigged up this contraption but there is considerable confusion about when he did it, the dates ranging from as early as 1929 to as late as the winter of 1933.

Perhaps much of this confusion stems from the fact that Alex Foster developed his tow at different times in two stages. One who had first-hand knowledge of this was Cleveland ‘Clee’ Dodge, Jr., who in 1930 was eight years old. He describes his experience:
“One day about the middle of February, we were out skiing near the Big Hill. I noticed two or three men who were mounting an auto chassis on large beams. The had mounted a pulley in the place of one of the rear wheels. A rope was wound with several turns around the pulley. This rope was then extended up a smaller hill which was just north of the Big Hill.
“I remember coming down the road, probably after crossing the North river on the rail bridge which we children were forbidden to use. Curious to know what was going on, I left the road and skied over to the auto chassis. At that moment the rope started to move slowly above the ground. I pointed my skis toward the hill and grabbed the rope with my gloved hands. The rope pulled me along the flat area just in front of the hill. I was only eight years old and I found the rope very heavy as I started moving up the hill so I let go and fell away from the rope.
“Having watched this performance, the men working on the auto chassis stopped the engine and turned their attention to improvements.
“In January 1932, I returned and found that the ski tow had been removed from the smaller north hill and was now located on the Big Hill…we questioned the operator of the rope tow, Mr. Alex Foster. He told us that the tow had been moved from the smaller hill to the Big Hill in the summer of 1930 and that it had started operating in that location sometime between December, 1930 and January 1931. At that time Mr. Foster started charging for the rides and the tow on the Big Hill became a commercial operation.”
So there would seem to be a natural progression from the prototype in the winter of 1930, on the smaller hill north to the Big Hill, where the first commercial tow began operating in January, 1931.

Foster’s Folly (Photo. W. R. Drysdale; Sally Drysdale Aitken Collection)

Foster’s Folly (Photo. W. R. Drysdale; Sally Drysdale Aitken Collection)

It was then that Alex Foster and a few of his pals jacked up a four-cylinder Dodge (used in the summer as the Shawbridge taxi) onto two low cement blocks, removed a rear tire, ran 2,400 feet of hemp rope around the tireless rim and up to the pulleys he had installed at the very top of the Big Hill, and started the Dodge’s engine while the skiers forked over their five cents and grabbed the rope as it jerkily began to move, not realising perhaps, that they were watching history before their very eyes.
And they were. This cumbersome contraption, soon dubbed “Foster’s Folly”, partly because, at five cents a ride or twenty-five cents for the day, it never broke even, is recognized as the first ski tow in the world.
Foster’s invention in the Laurentians caused a revolution in skiing in North America, then in Europe.

This is an abridged version from Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club by Neil and Catharine McKenty.

For more information on this book and how to purchase your own copy click here

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