Lake Placid: America's first winter resort

Recreational and competitive winter sports have long been associated with Lake Placid. This quaint Adirondack village hosted two Olympic Winter Games in 1932 and 1980, but the area's history as the nation's first winter vacation destination actually spans over 100 years!

Popularity of the Adirondack region as a destination soared in the late 1800s, when the nation's most wealthy and influential citizens built their Adirondack Great Camps here. The social elite would "vacate" the stifling summer heat of northeast cities for the cool Adirondack air. Yes, this is the origin of the word – it's where vacations began.

The cool Adirondack air offered additional benefits. Nearby Saranac Lake is best known as a pioneer health resort - in the late 1800s, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau discovered that the fresh mountain air provided a perfect environment to help treat tuberculosis. Hence you'll still hear many people refer to their houses as a 'cure cottage.'

Competitive sports stage

Lake Placid's winter sports history began with Melvil Dewey, who refused to listen to skeptics, extending the Lake Placid Club's season through the winter of 1904-05. By 1914, Dewey had garnered the support of the community as he succeeded in creating the country's first winter resort.

Lake Placid has been part of the competitive world sports stage since the 1920s.

Charles Jewtraw, James Hennessy, and Ray Bryant - referred to as the "Lake Placid Skating Trio" - were the first in a long line of Lake Placid athletes to compete on the national, and then international scene. The three speed skaters were members of the thriving Lake Placid Skating Association, which in 1920 boasted a membership of 472, and trained on Mirror Lake. These skaters were the most significant factor in creating the association between Lake Placid and winter sports. In fact, Jewtraw went on to win the first gold medal at the very first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.

A vintage black and white image of people skating on a frozen lake.

1932 -1980: The Winter Olympics come to Lake Placid

Melvil's son Godfrey Dewey is responsible for securing the bid for the third Olympic Winter Games. Many were skeptical about Lake Placid's chances, but once the bid was awarded in 1929, the Town not only supported the effort, but it made a standout decision: it voted in a new tax to pay the town's portion of the 1932 games. This unique legislation created and funded the North Elba Park District, which, along with state and federal funding, facilitated the construction of the venues for the '32 games; all accomplished during the Great Depression.

The Olympic venues built for the 1932 Games were designed for future use. The arena, with its refrigerated floor, allowed the presentation of ice shows year round. The cachet of 'Lake Placid' attracted celebrities of the time, many of whom were crowned at the Winter Carnival: Roy Rogers, Perry Como, and Kirk Douglas among them. Arthur Godfrey broadcast his radio and TV show from the arena, and Kate Smith was a long time summer resident. This high profile activity kept Lake Placid on the media agenda and in the public eye throughout the 40's and 50's.

The oval, an outdoor refrigerated surface, was built adjacent to the local high school and could also be used for track in the summer seasons. During the 1932 Games, it was at this facility that local athlete Jack Shea (grandfather of skeleton racer Jimmy Shea) won his two gold medals.

The arena facility was home to another economic driver, and this one wasn't forecasted. Just as the sport of speed skating supported the association between Lake Placid and winter sports prior to the 1932 Games, figure skating became synonymous with Lake Placid through the 1970s. The Lake Placid figure skating program, led by professional Gustave Lussi, produced a dynasty of Olympic skating athletes from the late '30s through the '70s; most notable among them Dick Button. Almost every US Olympic figure skater in the '60s and '70s either trained at Lake Placid at one time or had skated in the arena's ice shows.

Following the 1932 Games, community leaders continued to promote the area as a premier winter sports center. They pursued national and international events, and maintained and upgraded the sports facilities as much as possible. The important addition of an alpine sporting venue was accomplished in 1958 with the development of Whiteface Mountain. In 1967, an addition to the arena included another rink. However, the facilities really needed major funding to appropriately modernize them, and the general consensus was that the way to accomplish this was to host a very big event.

Although Lake Placid continued to position itself as a major winter sports center, hosting major international sports competitions that included the World Nordic Championships in 1950, and multiple World Bobsled Championships, it was the World University Games (FISU) in 1972 that made a statement to the world. This was the first time that the FISU Games were held in the U.S. It was the biggest international multi-sport winter event outside of an Olympics, featuring 500 athletes, from 23 countries, in 27 events. The magnitude of the FISU Games showcased Lake Placid's ability to host an international event of this caliber.

1980 Olympic Winter Games  

From 1950 on, individuals from the community infiltrated the winter sports scene with the specific objective of bringing the Olympics back to Lake Placid. Every major winter sport had an official from Lake Placid in its ranks. A nucleus of extraordinary and somewhat stubborn individuals were responsible for bringing the Games back to this little village, spending 20 years of their lives dedicated to this process. They traveled worldwide, unpaid for their efforts. They made themselves known to the IOC members, including the President of the Organization. And, they prepared seven bids, three of which were approved by the USOC. In 1964, 1973, and finally in 1974, these bids were presented to the IOC.

The tremendous efforts of many individuals resulted in a globally successful event that just happened to produce some of the most significant sports moments in U.S. history.

The 1980 Games had a great impact on the infrastructure of the community. In addition to the updated Olympic facilities, the private sector made sizable investments for the Games. A great sense of pride in welcoming the world, and the potential return on investment, compelled most lodging properties to upgrade their facilities.

Probably the biggest consequence of the 1980 Games was the state's commitment to the sports venues. In 1981, New York state announced its decision to place the responsibility for maintaining, managing, and promoting all of the Olympic venues under one organization, the New York Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA). ORDA's key initiatives have been instrumental in nurturing Lake Placid's status as a world class winter sports center. Over the last 23 years, initiatives have included continued bidding on international winter sports events, construction of the Olympic Training Center in 1995, construction of the new combined bobsled, luge and skeleton run in 2000, improvements at Whiteface Mountain including the addition of a gondola, and most recently, the construction of the new Conference Center at Lake Placid.

Lake Placid today

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the area has continued to host a variety of competitive events, and to welcome participants and enthusiasts from all over the globe. Thousands of Ironman Lake Placid competitors converge on the area in July, the Lake Placid Horse Shows have been an annual favorite for over 40 years, the popular Rugby Tournament, the Lake Placid Marathon, and the expanded lacrosse tournaments continue to grow.

The area continues to beckon visitors year-round; to shop on the charming Main Street, to enjoy a variety of performance arts, and to sample area dining fare. The primary draw to the area, though, is the opportunity to explore the mountains and lakes in the Adirondack wilderness in which Lake Placid is sheltered. 

Lake Placid Olympic Museum
2634 Main Street, Lake Placid
(518) 302-5326

Explore the legacy of the Olympic Games with exciting exhibits, including video highlights, athletes' uniforms and equipment, a collection of Olympic torches, mascots, the first gold medal ever awarded, and more! This activity and many others are FREE...

John Brown Farm State Historic Site
John Brown Road, Lake Placid
(518) 523-3900

Tour the last home and burial site of the famed abolitionist. Open year-round, Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m. John Brown, the famous abolitionist of Civil War days, first came to Essex County in 1849, when he acquired 24...

Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society/Museum
242 Station Street, Lake Placid
(518) 523-1608

The Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society has operated The History Museum in the historic Lake Placid Railroad Station since 1967. The Museum reveals the rich and unique history of the Village of Lake Placid and the Town of North Elba. Exhibits in...

1980 Lake Placid - XIII Olympic Games
Main Street, Lake Placid
(518) 523-2445

The legacy of the 1980 Games has been preserved, and its heritage upheld here in Lake Placid, NY!

1932 Lake Placid - III Olympic Games
Main Street, Lake Placid
(518) 523-2445

The year was 1932.

Fort Ticonderoga
102 Fort Ti Road, Ticonderoga
(518) 585-2821

Spend the day, discover the beauty, and experience the history! Every day is an event at Fort Ticonderoga and every year is a new experience. It is the only site in America that tells a new story each year through dynamic historical interpretation and...

LIBRARIES of Essex County
8256 River St, Elizabethtown

The Libraries of Essex County are rich with information about the Adirondacks, the history of the communities and genealogy. AuSable Forks/Ausable Forks Free Library 9 Church Ln, Au Sable Forks, NY 12912 518-647-5596 Crown Point/Hammond Library of...

History s'Peaks

Looking for a new adventure that will let you explore the Adirondacks and learn cool things? Get in on the latest challenge! New in 2021, History s'Peaks is an Adirondack museum challenge in the High Peaks region.

Adirondack History Museum
7590 Court Street, Elizabethtown
(518) 873-6466