February 7, 2014

Joe Ryan's mountain vision

Eventually someone surely would have taken the initiative to turn what the Algonquins called Manitonga Soutana and the locals called Mont Tremblant into a popular outdoor recreational destination.

As it turns out, though, it was an American, Joseph Bondurant Ryan, described as an eccentric young millionaire from Philadelphia, who not only had the money, but the vision and perseverance to turn the large Laurentian lump north of Montreal into a world-class year-round resort and training ground for Olympic athletes.

Perseverance, we say, because in 1936, when he tried to buy the mountain from the Quebec government of the day, he was required to meet a long list of conditions for development, including having his resort project finished in two years.

This he did, with the aid of his determination and famously deep pockets, and 75 years ago, Mont Tremblant welcomed the first wave of the millions of skiers and winter enthusiasts that would follow.

Until roads were built to pierce the mountainous wilderness, people would take the train — le Petit Train du Nord — to access Mont Tremblant and the other ski centres that began sculpting the hills.

The train was abandoned in 1991, and the tracks ripped up to create a popular cycling and cross-country ski trail, and now a freeway speeds motorists to ski territory and the foot of Mont Tremblant.

Coincidentally, 1991 was the same year the Mont Tremblant ski resort, at that point falling into decline, changed hands from a local ownership group that had bought it from the Ryan family. Intrawest, an ambitious company that scored a winner with the iconic Whistler-Blackcomb resort in the Rockies of British Columbia, sought to do the same thing with Laurentians of Quebec.

Though some might quibble with how Intrawest has transformed the formerly sleepy resort with its faux Quebec village look and proliferation of condos and how it altered what had been a more regional and family clientele, few can argue that Joe Ryan’s mountain vision has developed beyond his wildest expectations and been a tremendous boost for the local economy.

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