Within the span of nearly a century, inconsistent snow, financial hardships and even a fire eroded the viability of Marshall Mountain ski area just a short drive from Missoula. But, now, thanks to the intervention of local governments, there is hope again that the mountain’s legacy will continue.
Twenty years after the ski resort closed and its lifts were shut down, Marshall has remained a staple of the Missoula backcountry skiing scene for those hearty enough to make the hike. In the summer, it also hosts an ever-growing mountain biking community and provides birding and hiking opportunities. Now, thanks in part to fortuitous circumstances and strong public support of easy-to-access recreation, those activities can continue as the mountain comes under the ownership of Missoula County, adding to the history of the community’s ski hill.
“Everyone from Missoula has a story about Marshall Mountain. Every generation so far does have a story about Marshall Mountain,” said Sanda Vasecka, Missoula City Council Ward 6.
Vasecka ultimately voted against the city allocating funds to purchase the mountain at a meeting earlier this month, but she was in the minority. In a 9-2 vote, Missoula City Council approved allocating $1 million toward the acquisition of the area. Missoula County commissioners unanimously supported their own resolution, also pledging $1 million.
According to a recent county news release, the three adjacent 160-acre parcels — one of which used to be Marshall Mountain ski area — will be acquired by the county using in-kind donations, secured grants and private donations in addition to the $2 million secured in early October. These funds will cover the $3.2 million purchase price. After $600,000 in initial improvements, the maintenance is estimated to cost $400,000 a year, according to the release.
THE BIRTH OF A COMMUNITY
Marshall Canyon was named after an old prospector, and before there was Marshall Mountain, the area was homesteaded by a man whose only recorded name was Somers, according to a thesis by James Hall Burn in 1971 at the University of Montana. In 1919, Tollef Olson purchased the property for $500 from Somers.
For skiers, a connection to the mountain goes back as early as the 1930s when backcountry skiers frequently hiked the mountain. Olson was a native of Norway, who visited his brother in the Marshall area and decided to stay, according to the document. In 1937, Marshall Moy built the first rope tow in the canyon with several friends and parts from old motorcycles, according to Burns’ thesis. The book, “Downhill in Montana” by Stan Cohen, attributes the erection of the rope tow to Olson.
Either way, in 1950, Olson sold the property to the Denny family for $6,000 and the aging Norwegian moved into Missoula. Any record of skiing activities from 1950 until it was sold again in 1956 is “hazy,” according to Burns, although he does note that the Dennys had multiple rope tows running three days a week.
In 1956, Si and Velma Green visited Montana, and the couple decided to swap their home in Pontiac, Michigan, for the $20,000 resort — just six miles out of Missoula but positioned at the end of a canyon, surrounded by public land. By the time the Greens’ took over to 160-acre operation, the machinery was well worn, according to Burns.
Still, a community of close-knit skiers regularly punctuated the mountain solitude, said Carla Green, the couple’s daughter, and the area gradually became a part of Missoula’s collective memory over the next 50 years.
The hallmark Challenger run — the headwall leading to the base — was 3,000 feet long and dropped 400 feet, according to Marshall documents. In 1958, a season pass cost as little as $15 for an adult and $10 for a child, and anyone who was inclined could work during the summer to earn a pass. The resort also featured several gas-powered rope tows, which Si Green brought from Michigan.
“There were no snowmobiles, so you had to haul the gas up the rope tow before the gas ran out, or you’d have to climb the hill with a gas can,” Carla Green said.
Several tragedies struck the resort, including a fire that destroyed the Greens’ log home in 1959, which had stood where the parking lot of Marshall is now, and when John Green, Carla’s brother, suddenly died in 1970. The resort’s snowfall fluctuated between feast and famine, requiring work all year. Carla Green noted that she spent the summers mowing the resort’s runs with a Jari sickle mower in hopes of coaxing the snow to stick better come winter.
“There was skiing and working and going and wandering around in the woods,” she said. “That’s all there was to do.”
When she thinks back to Marshall, Carla Green thinks of her mom, a tough, no-nonsense lady who held her breath waiting for the next catastrophe.
“If anybody forgot their lunch, they’d be fed; if they ripped their pants, their pants would be sewed — by my mom — while she was slinging hamburgers, selling tickets and fixing lifts,” Carla Green said.
Other times, Velma Green ran a herbicide truck up and down the road or wrote letters to the Missoulian.
In 1972, the Greens put in a $150,000 triple chairlift that could handle 1,200 skiers an hour. The lift’s namesake, Grant Higgins, helped survey the areas that later became Snow Bowl and Marshall and was the first recipient of the Missoulian Cup Award in 1968 — a since-annual award given to someone who made an outstanding contribution to recreational skiing.
The snow cover at Marshall was always a concern, but 1979 and 1980 were particularly barren years. Carla Green described 1980 as the year with “no snow.”
“One of our friends joked that the snow report was three inches of goat turd with a light cover of new snow,” Carla Green said, adding that the family had for years raised goats.
The resort started making snow as early as 1970 with two machines that could produce six inches of snow, over half an acre, in eight hours. By 1979, adult season passes cost $85, and the mountain provided private, group and pre-school ski lessons.
By the early 70s, some racing began at Marshall, which had always focused on allowing people to master the basics. The Greens were not competitive, but the ski school was a big part of the mountain.
“It was like the who’s who of Missoula was on our ski school staff,” Carla Green said.
One of those instructors was Gary Flatow, who started working at the mountain in 1968. Flatow instructed night skiing on weekdays and all day on Saturdays, but by Sunday, you’d have to find him skiing at Snowbowl.
After its introduction in 1957, night skiing quickly became one of the mountain’s trademark characteristics, Cohen wrote in “Downhill in Montana.” At first, kerosine lamps provided skiers with a basic understanding of the lower runs, but advancements in lighting technology quickly made night skiing a staple of the mountain.
“On weeknights, university students break the study routine with a couple hours of skiing under mercury vapor lights and shush past classes of husbands and wives taking their weekly lessons,” according to a 1970 edition of the Skidaddler, a skiing pamphlet distributed by the Hellgate Ski Club.
At Marshall, Flatow was among the first to be certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA.) In the beginning, there were around 10 instructors, he said. Marshall served as a stepping stone to Snowbowl, and the two mountains complemented each other, as Marshall would train kids to a point where they could ski at the more challenging Snowbowl, he said.
“I’d run across some people I taught years ago, and they say, ‘Hey, you taught me, and now you’re teaching my kids,'” Flatow said.
He still talks with old Marshall ski school staff and remembers how they used to have meetings at a bar in East Missoula.
“We’d close down the bar in East Missoula quite a few times,” said Dave Fellin, a fellow Marshall instructor and longtime friend of Flatow.
“First, I was a skier up there. Then I was on the ski school, and then I was the director of skiing for a long time” Fellin said.
While working as the director, he made an arrangement with the area allowing his wife and kids to ski for free. His family still talks about their days at the old resort. The mountain had a natural community feel, Fellin said.
“My kids all grew up there, so to speak,” he said.
When there were issues on the hill and the Greens no longer skied, Fellin found he became an ambassador of sorts to the rest of the hill. Fellin even took the neighborhood kids up to the mountain when he went to work.
“They knew that my Volkswagen bus would leave early in the day and be back late in the day,” he said. “They liked that because they could ski from beginning to end.”
END OF AN ERA
Due in part to the rising cost of liability insurance, Carla Green said, the Greens sold the ski area to Bill and Mary Anne Barrier in 1983. Si and Velma Green passed away a few years after the sale.
When the late Bill Barrier was young, he moved to Kalispell and became involved in ski racing, said Bill’s daughter Karen Barrier. She said he competed on the U.S. ski team, won nationals in the 1960s and went on to coach the U.S. ski team before managing Big Mountain near Whitefish.
He was passionate about skiing and intentional about building the skiing industry, Karen Barrier said. While he owned Marshall, he created a few new runs, among other efforts to improve the mountain, she said. Karen Barrier stayed in Whitefish but visited Marshall over school breaks to race. Her father intended to bring more ski racing to the mountain.
“He was trying to build more of a race environment. That was his passion. He was a coach, he was a teacher,” she said.
Although the mountain never sold alcohol under the Greens, Marshall had at the base of the mountain a saloon popular with University of Montana students who could take a ski class for credit and indulge in a beer or two before hopping a bus back to campus.
“But it didn’t snow,” Karen Barrier said. “The years that he was there it just did not snow, and then when it did, things would just happen. Like, the snowplows couldn’t make it up, and so the cars couldn’t make it up.”
The inconsistency didn’t work for Bill Barrier’s investors, and the ski area was sold again, Karen Barrier said.
“It was really, really hard for him when it all failed,” she said.
The resort changed hands in 1987 and then again when Bruce Doering purchased it in 1993. Doering declined to comment for this story. However, R. Scott Duncan, the tech director under Doering’s management, spoke about Marshall’s last years.
After Marshall’s closure, Duncan went on to head Snowbowl’s ski school. He has spent more than 30 years working in the ski industry, and he’s seen instructors who started at Marshall become some of the best in the country.
“It’s like an old brotherhood,” he said.
At Marshall, he began as a teacher, and by the end of his first season, Doering asked if he would run the ski school, Duncan said. He was at the resort for its last five years. In addition to being a ski instructor, Duncan was also an early snowboard instructor, a certification that was just becoming widespread.
“It was at that point where it was still kind of new,” Mathew Nord, a former Marshall snowboarder instructor, said.
Nord grew up in Missoula and spent time skiing and snowboarding on the mountain when he was a college student.
Other Marshall ski instructors started there and have gone on to work with Duncan at Snowbowl in more recent years. Carla Green has taken up teaching once again, and she instructed for Snowbowl in 2022.
“The majority of baby boomers, and maybe a couple of decades above them, all learned how to ski at Marshall,” Duncan said.
Under Duncan, Marshall’s ski school grew to 75 instructors, teaching 265 kids a day and about 1,500 a week. A weekend race program, the Marshall Cougars, was established. Duncan also began a University of Montana instructor program, which lives on at Snowbowl.
Eventually, the resort purchased a chairlift from Jackson Hole, Duncan said. Although Doering never installed the new lift, runs off “the Knob” were cleared. Duncan reflected on one day when the owner, Doering, drove him up the knob on a snowmobile, where he dropped into untracked powder.
“It was like going down an elevator,” Duncan said. “Tom Petty’s Free Fallin was running through my head.”
Doering ran the mountain until 2002 when the mountain shut down due to financial problems and inconsistent snowfall. At this point, Duncan became the real estate agent for the resort, and he held the listing for eight years. Although he never made the sale, there were many times the mountain could have gone a different direction, he said.
“I could have had it sold twice, to a corporation,” Duncan said.
Now, as the city and county plan to purchase the old resort property, the area will be open to the public for backcountry skiing and other year-round opportunities. Many Missoulians applaud the government’s decision to free up bonds to purchase the old area that, according to a conceptual Marshall master plan, is anticipated to become a high-use, all-season outdoor recreation and education area.
Landon Gardner, who grew up in Missoula and spent eight years on the U.S ski team, said he’s excited to have access to a relatively safe backcountry area where his kids can learn to ski, although they still need a few more years.
“We’re groomer-bound right now,” Gardner said.
Despite its reputation as a learning ground in winter, Marshall still has much to offer those who know how to backcountry ski. The proximity to town offers enthusiasts the option to do so within only a few miles of town.
The newer opportunities carry an old sentiment, the desire for easy access to recreational outlets. In the last years of Marshall, Duncan remembers a “Chihuahua pass,” where people could ski for just a few hours. The pass got people out of town, which improved the mental health of everyone, from stay-at-home parents to lawyers, Duncan said.
“A couple of runs keep the blues away; one or two runs really helps clear your mind,” he said.
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