‘Zip! Then Walk a Mile’
Building of the Eagles Mere toboggan slide took place last weekend, setting into motion a century-old tradition, and an enthusiastic crowd of 285 fans were on hand on Sunday afternoon to test the newly-built slide.
It was only natural that people would want to sled down the steep hill, known as Lake Avenue, to the lake and out onto the ice. In 1903, the roadbed of Eagles Mere Avenue had been smoothed down by sleds and toboggans for a long run through the village. More adventurous riders took their snow vehicles to the top of Lake Avenue to hopefully have a swift run down the road far out on the frozen lake.
That year, Captain E. S. Chase was at the hill watching his grandchildren sledding, and according to The History and Building of the Eagles Mere Ice
Toboggan Slide by Dudie Cafferata, the kids asked their grandfather why he couldn’t build “a real good” toboggan slide down the slope.
Chase, who had moved to Eagles Mere from Williamsport in 1886 to become the general manager for the Eagles Mere Syndicate, was an engineer and personally initiated a variety of long-lasting Eagles Mere projects, thought his grandchildren’s suggestion was a real good idea, and went to work designing a fast, but safe and sturdy slide down the hill.
His plan involved hauling thick blocks of ice from the lake to the hill and building a slide of solid ice. Grooves cut in the ice would keep the sleds on track and Chase commissioned a special wooden toboggan to be built with metal runners to fit into the grooves.
The winter residents of Eagles Mere quickly became excited about Captain Chase’s plan. During the following winter, 1904, the village declared a holiday and men and boys turned out to help build the toboggan slide.
When the ice on the lake was at least 12 inches thick and considered safe, the workers used hand saws to cut large blocks of ice which were hauled by horse teams and wagons to the hill. Starting at the bottom, they lined up the ice blocks to form a solid ice slide the length of the hill.
The toboggan slide was ready for operation in January of 1904. Electric lights, powered by a generator, were strung over the hill for night toboggan runs.
According to legend, the first person to test Captain Chase’s toboggan slide was a man named Harry Stevens. As no sled was immediately available, Stevens chose to sit down in a heavy iron scoop shovel and away he went. The observers cheered him on until they quickly became aware of a strange cloud forming around him which developed into a trail of smoke as he gained momentum and rode swiftly out on the Lake.
The men raced down the hill onto the ice to find Stevens with the seat of his pants completely burnt out. No permanent injury occurred other than to his dignity.
After that inauspicious inaugural run, others began using the slide-with toboggans and some homemade sleds. The winter of 1904 was one of the coldest on record in Eagles Mere, but for winter sports enthusiasts, Eagles Mere’s first toboggan slide continued in operation until the spring thaw in the middle of March.
The toboggan slide was built many winters following that first year, using essentially the same design Capt. Chase originally drew up in 1903. For several years in the early 1900s, the slide was not constructed because ice density was not thick enough, but in 1925 it was revived, and by the late 1920s, had again become very popular.
During the Depression of the 1930s, the slide also served as a community employment project, with workmen paid 10 cents an hour to build the slide. They also received shares of the profits. In 1938 the Eagles Mere Slide Association was formed to take over the construction and operation of the slide. The revenue from toboggan rentals began going to the Eagles Mere Fire Company.
During World War II, when many of the slide builders were in military service, there was no ice slide.
The Making of the Slide
Today, the run is approximately 1,200 feet-the pitch nearly 18 percent. The slide is made from nearly 300-pound ice blocks cut from the lake and are placed in position. At least two weeks of frigid weather are needed for the lake surface to freeze enough to create the building material. Once Eagles Mere Lake freezes to a depth of 12 inches, with a promise of frigid temperatures to come, volunteers from several county fire companies mark out the ice field on the surface of the almost mile-long lake. From this, 1,200 solid blocks of ice, each weighing 256 pounds, are cut by ice machines, leaving an inch to be cut by hand.
After the cutting is complete, fire trucks water them down so the blocks are ice-fused into a solid run. The next day a planing machine cuts the groove that fits the slide. It takes 380 man-hours to complete the annual toboggan slide.
Visitors can expect long lines for a single ride down the track. Riders in hand-made six or eight-person toboggans rented from the association speed straight down a hill at 35 to 40 miles per hour on an 1,100 foot run. At the end of the run, their toboggans continue out onto the lake for another fifth of a mile.
Various people have estimated the speed of the toboggans roaring down the slide at anywhere between 35 and 60 miles per hour. In reality, the speed varies depending on the condition of the ice and the weight of the riders-the heavier the load, the quicker the trip.
It takes only about 35 seconds for the toboggan to careen down the Lake Avenue hill and out onto the frozen lake. Sometimes the lake’s surface has several inches of water and getting off the toboggan in the middle of the lake offers no option but to wade through several inches of cold water back to shore.
Riders then haul the toboggans back across the lake to the foot of the hill and up to the top, and can usually make no more than two or three runs
per hour when there was a large crowd. Some weekends, as many as 1,700 people rode the Eagles Mere toboggan slide.
Not Just For Fun
Some winters recorded little or no operation or even construction of the slide at all. Eagles Mere businesses that remain open during the winter all agree that February keeps them solvent. Without the slide, it makes it a challenge to be a merchant in the tiny resort town. Not opening the slide also hurts the area volunteer fire companies that build and operate it. The proceeds were divided proportionately among the fire companies, determined by the amount of time members devoted to the slide. It was a major fund-raiser for the fire companies.
At the end of each season, money derived is divided among charities, including the churches, the fire company and the Boy Scouts. In 1986 the toboggan slide raised more than $12,000, which was used by the fire company to purchase new rescue equipment.
As long as the weather stays cold, it will run on Friday evenings and each Saturday and Sunday.
If weekends stay cold, thousands of riders are expected from all over northeast Pennsylvania, and beyond. Operations begin Fridays at 6:30 p.m., continuing until 9:30. Saturday, hours are from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The slide is easy to find: take Rt. 42 from Muncy Valley or Laporte up to the top of the hill at Lake Avenue in the center of Eagles Mere. To double check on operating conditions, call 570-525-3244, or go to the Boroughs web page, www.eaglesmere.org.
Toboggan sleds are rented by the hour, at $15 for a sled for up to six adults, and $20 for a sled for eight. Riders are guaranteed at least two full trips for the hour.
On site, hot drinks, hot dogs, and other refreshments are sold by the Community Church and the Eagles Mere Civic Club.
A few steps away, the Sweet Shop offers drinks, snacks and fuller meals. Free tours of the new Eagles Mere Museum and the shops in Eagles Mere Historic Village will be also be open..
In 2002 Captain Chase, who had designed the toboggan slide 98 years earlier, was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame of the Pennsylvania Ski and Winter Sports Museum in Tannersvilles. He was cited for designing and starting the Eagles Mere toboggan slide.