Laurel Mountain was originally designed by European skiing legend Johann "Hannes" Schneider, the renowned Austrian ski guide and inventor of the Arlberg Method, the basis of modern alpine ski technique.
At the height of his career Schneider was arrested by the Nazis because of his opposition to the annexation of Austria. In 1938, Harvey Gibson, of New York's Manufacturers Trust Company and owner of Cranmore Mountain Resort, negotiated Schneider's release and relocation to New Hampshire. Laurel Mountain's founder, Pittsburgh financier Richard King Mellon contacted his friend Gibson for help in designing a ski area for members of the prestigious Rolling Rock Country Club. Gibson sent Schneider to Ligonier and in the winter of 1939, a three year plan for Laurel Mountain Slopes was begun.
By the spring of 1940, construction of a one-mile trail was in progress. An article in the Ligonier Echo, reported that, "The natural slopes of Laurel Mountain afford a trail which is extremely fast and which requires skill to travel. Drops on the trail are often as steep as 35 degrees."
The trail was served by three rope tows totaling 4,000 feet in length. The trial was accessed from the Lincoln Highway by taking the Laurel Summit Road atop the ridge to the Locust Camp Road to the lodge, the Midway Cabin.
Laurel Mountain Slopes was opened the winter of 1940-1941 with Leonard Bughman as manager. The Ligonier Echo reported that the Pittsburgh Ski Club planned a mile long race on the trail in January 1941.
Bughman, also Mellon Bank’s chief executive, was a longtime member of the Rolling Rock Club and often stated that Laurel was at first open only to the Rolling Rock Club whose members were from prominent Pittsburgh families such as Heinz, Oliver, O’Neill, Mellon and Scaife. The Laughlin’s of the local steel industry giant, Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, skied Laurel's slopes.
Improvements for the 1941-1942 season included opening Upper Wildcat slope and an upper mountain beginner slope. A racing slope dubbed Broadway was added atop the original trail. A ski jumping hill was installed adjacent to the new race trail. Touring trails were improved.
All was ready for the 1941-1942 season with Lowell Thomas set to deliver his evening newscast from Laurel's slopes. The weekend before the scheduled event, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the nation's attention turned to war.
The ski industry went on hold but before Bughman enlisted in the Air Corps, he ordered Lower Wildcat be cut “from the ledge” and a crossover rope tow be installed to take skiers back over to the original trail. Upon his return, he was pleased to find his fears that Wildcat was too steep to ski were unfounded. Lower Wildcat's narrow width and northern exposure held snow. It has been Laurel's signature trail ever since.
The post-war economy and baby boom created a growing middle class seeking outdoor recreation that drove the ski industry’s expansion. Laurel Mountain Slopes was officially opened to the general public. Under the direction of manager William Boardman and ski school director Doc DesRoches, Laurel Mountain became Pennsylvania's first destination ski resort taking the moniker “The Ski Capital of Pennsylvania.”
Ski conditions were reported in the New York Times along with other Eastern ski resorts. In the late 1940s and early 50s, Laurel was served by ski trains from the Pittsburgh and Cleveland area. Guests would ride to the Ligonier Station then take busses the last seven miles to the ski area.
Laurel Mountain inherited the Pennsylvania State Ski Championships. The races became an annual event, attracting top amateur racers from across the East. The series was founded by Edna and Max Dercum of Penn State University, where Max was a professor of forestry.
Laurel Mountain grew with the post-war boom. In 1947, the Laurel House was built near the mountain's summit. Dream Highway and Laurel Run were opened.
A local columnist recounted a tale told by an early ski shop employee of an engineer from Maryland by the name of Howard Head. He tested his prototypes for an aluminum ski on Laurel's slopes. Head ski revolutionized not only ski design and ski manufacturing but also the very way people skied.
In 1955, a new two-person T-bar surface lift, perhaps the first of its kind in the state, became the first top to bottom lift eliminating the need to use three rope tows to get back to the summit. The following year, Snow Bowl, Ski Top and Ligonier Run (a trail that no longer appears on the map) were open from the summit.
In 1956 Laurel Mountain was among the first ski resorts to install large-scale snowmaking. Laurel’s new installation bested the early “snow making machines” that came before it by covering four slopes over a 285 vertical drop.
Laurel Mountain Ski Club hosted John Jay and his annual traveling ski lecture movie presentation. Jay invented the movie presentation format and Warren Miller followed suit. Warren Miller was a frequent Laurel Mountain visitor as well.
Ralph "Doc" DesRoches assumed leadership in 1957 and continued Laurel Mountain’s lead in ski industry innovation. Doc was a veteran of the US Army’s famous 10th Mountain Division whose veterans returned from war to lead the industry’s growth in the post-war era. Laurel’s skier visits topped 30,000, besting all others in the region.
During DesRoches’ tenure, Laurel Mountain was the first Pennsylvania ski area to use snow grooming machines. Doc began to thin the trees along and between the trails and by 1958, areas on the mountain called Forest Slalom began to appear on the trail map.
In 1963, R.K. Mellon and his sister Sarah Scaife gifted the ski area to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The ski area became known as the Laurel Mountain State Park. The new state park’s ski operation lease was put out to bid and local Alan Patterson became Laurel’s new leader.