By Karen D. Lorentz posted Aug 30, 2012
A big man with a Vermont sense of humor and abundant Yankee ingenuity, Royal Biathrow was one of the first locals to notice the potential in the Killington Ski Area. A logger since high school, he “saw the price of logs drop as plastics came out in the 1950s and was ready to leave town when Pres Smith arrived.”
His earliest memory of Smith was of towing his car. “I could always count on Pres to come up and get that old Lincoln stuck on Friday nights. I’d pull that old car out and take him back to the farmhouse. I could count on making ten dollars from him every weekend,” he chuckled.
Royal became Killington’s first employee in 1957 helping Smith to build a “work road” from the farmhouse to the mountain and then, using his steep-mountain dozer expertise, to carve trails. He became a construction supervisor in summer and carved trails, roads, and lift lines with a large TD-14 bulldozer. He helped “build every lift up until Bear Mountain and worked on the installation of the first snowmaking system.”
In winter he operated lifts and supervised snow removal along with cooking, grooming, or working in the ski shop. “We helped out wherever needed. I did just about every job at Killington in the early years, including Pres Smith’s,” he recalled, explaining that, “Pres went to Colorado for a week and left Bob Van Beever, the ski school director, in charge. The second day Van Beever hit a tree and broke both ankles. Joe Sargent [a Killington founder and chairman of the board] called me that night and said, ‘You’re it!’ He told me to call day or night if there was anything I couldn’t handle. I held down the fort on a busy weekend, but I never had to call for help,” Royal proudly noted.
One of the jobs where Royal used his “know how” was the setting of the first lift towers. “Pres and his crew were doing the first Pomalift and my crew went up to set the second Poma. We didn’t have any cranes. I told a fellow to cut me a tree, and I rigged up a pole, cable, and pulley to create a makeshift crane and had all the towers set by 4:30.”
On their way off the mountain, they passed Smith and told him the job was done. Smith incredulously inquired, “What? How did you do that?”
The ever-mischievous Royal had replied, “Oh, a little Yankee ingenuity.”
Royal also recalled the agony of building the first chairlift in the cold through the winter of 1959-60 (because it had arrived late on Thanksgiving Day). Several inches of the threads on the main pin on the top bullwheel had been damaged in transit, and he and Smith had painstakingly worked outside all day, refiling them with a hand file. “I never came so close to freezing to death as we did right there. You didn’t dare force it; we filed and turned, filed and turned. I’ll bet it was 50 below; the wind blew something fierce. That was an awful day. We froze the whole time.”
Royal said the most difficult challenge was building the first gondola. “We had enough experience by that time to know how things were supposed to go, but it was confusing because the blueprints were in metric measurements and mostly in Italian. They sent one Italian fellow over, but he didn’t speak much English.” Being a cautious man, Royal devised a method for anchoring the lift tower feet so that the helicopters delivering them could immediately take off and leave the men to secure the bolts to the concrete foundations without the danger of vibrations moving the tower on them.
With his hearty laugh, he recalled a time when his snow removal/heavy equipment crew was put on a grooming shift. Being more accustomed to moving earth and reshaping it into nicely contoured areas, they “bulldozed some boilerplate until we had created a 14-foot platform of new snow where the mountain previously had a sharp drop off.” Thinking they had done a “nice job,” Royal was amazed to see George Bradley come down the Chute in his smaller grooming machine only to have this loose snow avalanche out from under him and carry man and machine backwards down the mountain in a big ball of snow.
A favorite story goes back to the early days of the state parking-lot toll booth up near the Killington Base Lodge. After a snowstorm, Smith was anxious to clear out the entrance to the lodge and not finding Royal decided to do it himself. Unfamiliar with the operation of the large bulldozer, he got to the booth and couldn’t stop. “The little house – with toll collector Gracie Barrows screaming all the way – ended up in the snowbank,” Royal recalled.
Coming upon the scene, Royal demanded to know, “Who’s been driving my dozer?!”
A young and worried Smith fumed, “Never mind that. Would you just get that house back before we get in trouble with the Forest and Parks Department?!”
Smith wasn’t the only one to get into some occasional trouble. Workers relish telling about Royal’s expertise at lift evacuation. Exhibiting his “can-do” attitude, he declined instructions on how to evacuate a chair, proceeded to grab the wrong end of a rope, and crashed to the ground. His injuries only kept him out for a week. He escaped serious injury another time when he drove a groomer over a cliff of machine-made snow at Snowshed.
Asked what it was like to be among the early workers who carved a famous ski area out of a wilderness, Royal replied, “There was plenty of opportunity for people to work hard and get ahead. We had a lot of dedicated people. Some couldn’t hack the long days – 6 or 7 a.m. to midnight at times, so they left. Those who stayed felt that the work mattered.
“We were proud of what we built. I liked my job because I was working outdoors and nobody bothered me. I was creating something I knew would be there for a long, long time, something our grandchildren could see. We built 95 percent of everything by hand.”
Norma Biathrow grew up in Sherburne. Her father Howard Towne had a construction and heavy equipment business (he lent equipment to Killington to help build the area) so she was familiar with the type of work Royal did on the mountain. She recalled the nightmares he often had when working on particularly difficult or steep terrain. “I knew better than to ask about them. I knew how dangerous the work could be,” she noted.
Norma stayed at home for a few years caring for their young children and then worked at the area for 16 years, beginning with the 1961-62 season. “Phil Camp was just starting mailings, radio snow reports, daily and weekly bulletins. Gay Littler Johnson, Ruth White, and Don Guy worked for him then, and I joined them in a growing public relations department.”
She became supervisor of the mailroom and information services, which “entailed a little bit of everything from overseeing the switchboard to snow calls.”
Recalling the genesis of job sharing, Norma added, “Everyone helped out in the restaurant or wherever needed; it was like a family operation. The original Ambassadors were a helpful group, too.”
Explaining that she felt “a part of the team effort and connected to the area’s growth and success,” Norma added, “You could see the results of the mailings and other public relations work. We had a larger inquiry tally each year, and we saw more skiers each year. We felt part of that.”
Norma left Killington in 1976 to become a dispatcher with the State Police in Rutland, and Royal retired in 1980. She recalled “the good old days, the company picnics at Lake Dunmore, the convenience of working close to home with a schedule that fit the school year, the sense of togetherness and contact with people, and the interesting variety of work” with a fondness that equals Royal’s pride at having been one of the early Killington pioneers.
Photo by Bob Perry
One of Killiington’s original couples, Norma and Royal Biathrow on their 35th wedding anniversary, in 1979.
Photo by Mac McGillivray, courtesy of Norma Biathrow
Royal Biathrow, Pres Smith, and Henry Biathrow at Henry’s retirement party in 1995.