Walt Schoenknecht Biography
New England Ski Industry Biographies
Born in Connecticut in 1919, Walter R. Schoenknecht reportedly first strapped on a pair of skis at the age of six at a neighborhood golf course. While a member of the New Haven Outing Club, Schoenknecht met his future wife, a Yale University School of Nursing student named Margaret "Peg" Moss. During World War II, Peg served as an Army nurse in the Pacific theater, while Walt served stateside in the Marine Corps. After returning from the war, the couple was married in 1946.|
The newlyweds celebrated their honeymoon by leasing a small rope tow area in Massachusetts, Brodie, from a person known locally as the "Mad Russian," Gregory Makaroff. Taking over the operation for the 1946-47 season, Schoenknecht installed two new rope tows, including one serving a new novice area. With nearby areas of size taking much of the market, and with Makaroff taking a portion of all revenue, Schoenknecht later remarked that "I lost my shirt."
Looking for a better place to run a ski area, Schoenknecht headed back to Connecticut, where he leased property in the Mohawk State Forest. Starting the project in February of 1947, new trails were cut around the old Mohawk Trail with the help of his wife and father. Schoenknecht invested $45,000 into the project, opening Mohawk Mountain for the 1947-48 season as a rope tow area. Just before the ski area opened, Schoenknecht's daughter (and future Mohawk Mountain owner) Carol was born.
While the ski area was initially successful, a snow drought in the winter of 1949-50 brought operations to a halt. Ever the creative thinker, Walt brought in countless truckloads of ice and used a massive chipper to create a snow surface, which allowed the area to open on one slope, served by multiple rope tows. At the same time, he was also taking part in preliminary experiments in compressed air snowmaking. Further work was done in the fall of 1950 with Larchmont Engineering equipment at Mohawk.
While searching for an area to develop in Vermont, Schoenknecht stood atop Mt. Pisgah in over a foot of snow one October in the late 1940s. In May of 1953, Schoenknecht purchased land owned by Reuben Snow at the foot of Mt. Pisgah.
Named after the farmer, as well as what it would be covered in, Mount Snow opened on December 12, 1954 as a lower mountain, chairlift served area. The upper mountain would open a year later.
Mt. Snow would be a big success, growing into what some considered the "World's Largest Ski Area" in the 1960s. The 1960s also brought word of Schoenknecht attempting to have nuclear bomb testing near the mountain in order to increase the vertical drop. While this didn't work out, he was able to build an outdoor heated pool, Japanese themed lodge space (Peg was born and raised in Japan), a space car lift from the Snow Lake Lodge to the main mountain, and a geyser in Snow Lake (which created an artificial mountain in winter that would be host to summer time ski races).
Mt. Snow was also an innovator in lifts - the first chairlifts were designed with chains, making for an interesting, loud ride. Later, in March of 1965, a "Telecabine" gondola opened. This design was brought forth because Schoenknecht wanted to be able to ride a gondola without taking off his skis, due to back problems.
In addition to operating his ski areas, Schoenknecht was also a sought-after consultant. In the early 1960s, he designed Gatlinburg ski area in Tennessee. In the early 1970s, Alaska Senator Mike Gravel recruited Schoenknecht for the development of Denali City as a domed destination resort with a nearby Denali Slopes Ski Resort. Schoenknecht remarked that it "should carry tremendous prestige that would make it the 'in' place to vacation for the entire year." Advocating for a European design, Schoenknecht advocated for the banning of cars and instead using an aerobus rapid transit system. The futuristic development eventually fizzled.
In 1971, due to financial struggles, Mt. Snow merged with the Davos Corporation. Schoenknecht's role at Mt. Snow was likely significantly diminished after the disastrous 1973-74 season, though he reportedly maintained an apartment there until 1977. Mt. Snow-Davos parent company Okuraya ran into severe financial problems in 1974-75, eventually resulting in bankruptcy and the subsequent sale of Mt. Snow to competitor Killington's Sherburne Corp in 1977.
Throughout the rise and fall of his Mt. Snow empire, Schoenknecht kept Mohawk Mountain running, elevating it to chairlift status in 1960. Steady growth continued in subsequent decades, with Walt continuing to plan expansions and new inventions. Slowed by prostate cancer in the early 1980s, Schoenknecht transitioned control of the area to his daughter Carol. Walt Schoenknecht died in October 1987 at the age of 68. Peg Schoenknecht died in July 2008 at the age of 90.
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Last updated: February 2, 2021