The story of Timberline Lodge is a strange but heart-warming tale. It revolves around two men: one, an ambitious opportunist and his first, disastrous fling at a really big-time operation; the other, a wealthy young man who abandoned a career in social work to become what he had never dreamed of—the operator of one of America's largest ski resorts, the man who brought Timberline back from the brink of ruin to its rightful place as one of the nation's most spectacularly beautiful and popular skiing areas.
Twenty years ago Timberline Lodge was conceived in the minds of a group of businessmen and bankers in Portland, Oregon. They saw, high on the vast snow fields of Mt. Hood, some 50 miles away, the prospect of a magnificent skiing area which could be used by Portland's 370,000 people and other skiers from more distant places the year round. The U.S. Government, in a unique make-work project born of the Depression, realized the dream. CCC workers hacked and blasted a road to the area, 6,000 feet high at the timber-line, where a great lodge was to be built. They moved the massive rocks into place for its walls, winched the huge timbers which supported it up the mountainside and set in place the massive uprights, three and a half feet thick, 40 feet high, which stand in its main lobby. Hand-wrought iron, hand-made furniture, hand-carved railings and newel posts went into its construction. WPA artists contributed more than 100 paintings of Mt. Hood flora and fauna, and government sewing projects sent the hand-woven draperies and upholstery in original designs that decorated its rooms and windows. It took one million dollars and two years to finish the 360-foot-long lodge, four stories high, topped by a 750-pound brass and bronze weather vane. Five million dollars could not duplicate it today, with its chair lift along the Magic Mile to Silcox Hut at the 7,000-foot level; yet it took barely a year to bring the entire resort to the point of dissolution.
For 14 years Timberline was leased out by the U.S. Forest Service (which, as the agency in charge of Mt. Hood National Forest where the resort is located, was responsible for it) to a quasi-public organization of the Portland businessmen and bankers who had conceived it. By and large, it paid its way. Sometimes, in stormy seasons, it lost as much as $100,000, but the losses were always made up by better years. For the men who ran it, however, it was a time-consuming, un-remunerative enterprise. In 1952 they decided a resident manager with his own investment would be better for the resort and everyone concerned. Three Portland citizens put up the money, and the lease was transferred to them.
That was when Timberline's troubles began. "They made a mistake right away," one of the trustees said later. "They put a lot of money into improvements, 'and ran out of working capital. When other things didn't work out for them, they were in trouble."
January 23, 1956
Within 18 months the trouble had amounted to $80,000 worth of debts, with no foreseeable profits from which to pay them. The three operators were quarreling among themselves as to what should be done. It was a situation just right for a clever man to make a killing—and, like a character in a Grade B movie, the man appeared.
His name was Charles W. Slaney. He was 49, the owner of a number of movie theaters in and around Portland, a man who had collected an impressive roll of $1,000 bills which he was able—and willing—to flash when the occasion warranted. (He also had collected an impressive array of civil suits, tax liens and attachments, but that was not generally known.) Slaney had lived in Portland for several years, acquiring his theaters from the profits of a popcorn-vending operation. Although on several occasions fire damaged or destroyed Slaney's theaters—one of them three times—the diversity of his enterprises enabled him to stay in business and to look for new opportunities. Among the acquaintances he made in the course of his theater operations were two of the three men, Carl Mc-Fadden and his son John, who had taken over Timberline Lodge.
"We knew Slaney," McFadden explained subsequently, "because he was in the theater business; but we didn't know much about him. When he came to us and offered to take over Timber-line—that was late in 1953—we were happy to get out." To which R. P. Bottcher, assistant supervisor of the Forest Service in the Timberline area, added: "Slaney was quite pleasant, and he assured us that he was going to build up Timberline. It was only later that we began to get complaints."
A careful inquiry into Slaney's business history might well have persuaded the Forest Service that he was hardly the man to manage a resort patronized by upwards of 90,000 skiers each year, from 50¢-per-lunch youngsters to $33-a-day luxury guests. No such investigation was made, however, and Slaney got Timberline virtually for nothing: he took over the stock in exchange for the burden of debt. But Slaney lacked the ability—or the working capital—to make the most of his windfall. The deterioration of the great resort began almost at once. Slaney was careful always to meet the quarterly payments to which he was obligated under the terms of his lease, but many other commitments went unpaid.
As creditor after creditor turned his back on Slaney, the lodge and the skiing area fell into disrepair. When the 1954 season began, none of the usual preparations had been made for winter. The chair lift was out of order, the rope tow was buried in snow. No winter shutters had been put up. Employees, many of whom were paid by checks sent along with requests for reservations, were sullen and disgruntled. Dirt and broken equipment piled up in the kitchen, lounges and rooms. Slaney's economies reached something of a high point when 24 rooms were without keys. Guests who had mistakenly taken them along dropped them in the mails to be returned to the hotel; but Slaney would not pay the 2¢ due on each key and so they stayed in the post office.
PROMISES AND THREATS
The Forest Service, gradually awakening to what was happening, made appeals for improvements. They got soft promises in reply, but no action. They tried threats but Slaney had been threatened by experts. Timber-line Lodge began to acquire a new reputation among skiers, and it was not a healthy one. "People were coming to me," said one of the former members of Timberline's board of directors, "and saying they would never go to Timberline again, the way they were treated and the way things were up there." The number of visitors dropped steadily. The Forest Service was nonplused—"After all," as Bottcher later explained, "we had an obligation to keep the lodge open for the public, and we never came to the point where we thought we could or should cancel the lease—not until January."
Finally, in midwinter, the Sandy Electric Cooperative, tired of promises instead of payments, cut off the electric power to the lodge. The darkness fell on Timberline, and it seemed like the darkness of death.
From January to March 1955, the great lodge on the southern slope of the mountain lay empty of guests. Snow piled up outside the doors and filtered in through the unprotected windows. The chair lift lay abandoned. While Slaney faced thousands of dollars in civil suits, the Forest Service, awake at last to the full gravity of Timberline's deterioration, searched everywhere for a new operator to take over the lease. Ironically enough, they found him among the skiers who loved Timberline, a man to whom Slaney had once tried to sell the operation for $200,000.
This was Richard L. Kohnstamm, the 29-year-old social worker from New York, member of a family that owns the coast-to-coast chemical firm of H. Kohnstamm & Co. Inc., formerly of the U.S. Air Force in World War II and lately the recipient of a master's degree in social work at Columbia University. From there Kohnstamm went to the community social project of Neighborhood House in Portland as program director; and from there, on skiing weekends, to Timberline Lodge.
From the first he was struck with the place. It was the kind of lodge which he did not know existed in America, a monument to American arts and crafts, the kind of work which many think modern times and mass production have bred out of the American way of life. It was also a lodge in deep trouble. Kohnstamm could not get it out of his mind; he spoke about it often to his wife, a Swedish girl whom he had met on a trip to Europe in 1951. "If it bothers you so," she said at last, "why don't you do something about it?"
A few months later, after he had turned down Slaney's offer to sell him the lease for $200,000, Kohnstamm acquired it from the Forest Service. When he took stock of his new property, he found it in appalling condition.
"We knew things were bad up there," he said later, "but we weren't prepared for what we found at the lodge. It's a work of art, you know, and it's hard to understand how anyone could treat it that way. There must have been a thousand fire violations. And the filth was almost indescribable. The grease was inches thick in the kitchen. We hired professionals—industrial cleaners—to clean the place from top to bottom, and even some of the professionals got sick, physically sick, at what they found in the rooms.
"And the destruction! Hand-woven draperies had been used for rags and shoved into windows to keep the snow out because the panes were broken. No one had protected the woodwork—it was scarred everywhere, and initials had been carved into the railings. The skiers' hut at the top of the chair lift, Silcox Hut, was filled with snow, and some of the furniture there had been used for firewood."
It took Kohnstamm from March until July to repair the lodge. It took him even longer to get the chair lift fixed. It took money—thousands of dollars—before Timberline was ready for the public again. But when the season opened in December, it was ready—and more money was earmarked for improvements that will make it one of the great ski resorts of the continent.
"It's a gamble," said Kohnstamm recently, "but then, that's why I took it on. For the challenge of it. It's a wonderful place, the sort of place that men make only when they take a pride in what they can do with their hands.
"We've put in a new $100,000 double chair lift below the lodge. It won't be knocked out by storms, as the other one is from time to time. The next thing will be to build up the summer business. We have plans for a riding stable and horseback trips and trips to fishing streams. We want to add a skiers' chalet. That will give us more room.
"And we'd like to drill for hot water—for heating and a swimming pool." Mt. Hood, an ancient volcano, has areas where skiers can cook a can of beans in the hot soil that crops out near Crater Rock. "And then," Kohnstamm may add with a faraway look in his eye, "there's the idea of building a chair lift to the top of the mountain. I didn't think it possible because of the weather, but Pepi Gabl, our ski instructor, says that new, improved lifts could do it. The cost might be tremendous, but the business ought to be too."
Meanwhile, the attendance at Timberline Lodge is what it should be—close to the best of any ski resort in the U.S. Once more skiers are swarming on the beautiful, snow-hung trails, dotting the wide-open slopes, warming themselves at the great stone fireplace in the main lounge. For the youngsters, there are dormitory beds at $2.50 a night in midweek, $3 on weekends; for the luxury-minded, private rooms on the American plan ranging from $25 a day for two up to $33 a day for a larger room with a fireplace. There is a cafeteria, a bar, dining room, gift shops and ski shop in full operation once more. Folk dances, jam sessions and special programs by Portland colleges make weekends lively for the swelling crowds—as many as 3,000 in a weekend—who have been turning out since Timberline reopened. "Right now," says Kohnstamm, the young man who accomplished the miracle of restoration, "I think that things are looking up."
A Portland banker, a man who witnessed Timberline's trials and ultimate tribulations through all its years, went even further. "You know," he said, "I advised that young man against Timberline. But, by George, I'm beginning to change my mind. It may become a big thing for him."
WHEN KOHNSTAMM TOOK OVER, LOUNGE WAS HEAPED WITH SNOW AND BROKEN FURNITURE
CLEANED AND REDECORATED, THE LOUNGE IS ONCE MORE A PLACE OF CHEERFUL WARMTH