[dropcap letter=”O”]ver Saddleback’s 56-year history, the Rangeley-area ski resort has had a bumpy ride. Fits and starts of limited development never matched the big-mountain potential. So when lifts didn’t open last season, employees, local business owners, and downhill rippers were dismayed but not shocked. A non-profit community co-op’s current efforts to save the state’s third-largest ski resort look like an uphill battle. But considering how many feeble winters, economic slumps, and ownership debacles Saddleback has survived in the past, we’re not counting it out yet.
Amid the post-war ski boom, Rangeley businessmen saw huge potential in Saddleback. Leasing the land from Hudson Pulp and Paper, they started construction in the late ’50s. The mountain hyped as the “Sun Valley of the East” promised long runs and deep snow, but the project fell behind schedule. Saddleback opened a year late, on New Year’s Eve, with only one T-bar to serve a small section of the lower mountain.
The original owners spent big bucks on a double chairlift, the state’s longest at 4,600 feet (besting a 4,300-footer at what’s now Shawnee Peak). But consecutive seasons of poor snowfall sunk revenues. Strapped for cash, the owners sold to Guy Gannett Publishing, a media conglomerate that ran the Press Herald and WGAN.
Maine ski pioneer John Christie, the former Sugarloaf general manager, purchased Saddleback with ambitions to make it a major destination. One of the worst seasons on record stymied him: terrible weather conspired with Carter-era gas shortages to keep skiers at home. Christie never recovered, and the resort went into foreclosure.
Donald Breen, a pharma bigwig from Massachusetts, acquired Saddleback and some 12,000 surrounding acres, planning a massive four-seasons resort. His scheme drew the ire of conservationists, who wanted to preserve the wildness of the Appalachian Trail, which spans the summit. After a decade, the spat came to a head when the National Park Service threatened to exercise eminent domain over 3,000 Saddleback acres.
Breen eventually backed off his plans, announcing that if he couldn’t sell Saddleback, he’d close it. That’s when retired Maine geology professor Bill Berry and his family, heirs to an insurance-company fortune, stepped in. As owners, they cut fresh runs, improved snowmaking, and built a new lodge.
For the first time in 55 years, the mountain didn’t open for skiing. The Berry family had sought a buyer for years, unable to finance all the aging resort’s needs, including a new quad lift to replace the original double. Now, Saddleback’s future is up in the air — business as usual at the home of some of Maine’s best steeps.