Part 10 of 10: Winter Sports in Utica's Olmsted Parks
Utica's Olmsted parks were always used year-round--for winter as well as summer exercise
Utica's parks were always intended for winter use. Horse-drawn sleighs were known to have traveled through Conkling Park in its early days. Ice skating was also a popular winter pastime from early on. When Thomas R. Proctor bought the Jewett Farm on the corner of Oneida Street and the Parkway and added it to the acreage of Conkling Park in 1913, he hoped to create a small pond there for skating, and in 1916 he also created a pond in T.R. Proctor Park by damming the Starch Factory Creek for swimming in summer and skating in winter.
Proctor also wanted to promote skiing, a sport that had been familiar in the northeast since around 1900 (it had been introduced by Swedish and Norweigian immigrants in US western states in the mid-1800s). Skiing became even more poplular thanks to the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and, especially, the third Winter Olympics, held at New York's Lake Placid in 1932. In 1919, Conkling Park hosted a winter carnival featuring skiing, as well as skating, tobogganing, hockey, and similar sports; such events took place for decades, although a report in 1921 said that only boys were permitted to participate in carnival competitions!
The first references to skiing in Utica seem to have been to cross-country skiing, but by the 1930s, perhaps earlier, people began scaling the hills of Conkling Park to ski downhill. In 1946, a rope tow was installed on the eastern slope of Conkling Park to whisk skiers to the top of the hill. Together with the skating rink located at the park (which was named for local sportsman Walter McBride in 1958), the City expected that the rope tow would "attract enthusiasts from other places" and make Conkling Park "a first class winter sports center."
Adults paid 50 cents and "juniors" paid a quarter for a one-day rope tow pass that first year; eventually, there were different prices for Utica residents and for those living outside Utica, as well as discounted family ski passes. Throughout much of its history, the ski hills were open, when snow was sufficient, from 4:00 until 10:00 PM on weekdays and from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM on weekends and holidays.
In 1964, Utica became the only city in New York State to have a municipally owned T-bar ski lift within its limits. Existing ski trails were extended, skiing lessons were offered, a hill was opened for beginners, and lighting was enhanced. This expanded winter sports center was named in honor of Valentine Bialas, an Olympic skater and Utica's former parks commissioner. In 1968, the City announced that a chairlift and snowmaking equipment would be added to this facility.
The Bialas Center was a lively place—tens of thousands of Uticans learned how to ski on Conkling's hills and to skate on its rink. Unfortunately, since the 1990s, construction of the Parkway Recreation Center eliminated the skating rink, climate change made snowfall too inconsistent for skiing, Utica's snowmaking machines have aged out, and the internet diminished the number of children seeking the outdoor activities that young Uticans sought on evenings, holidays, and otherwise boring winter weekends only a few generations ago.
People on a sleigh ride (circa 1915)
People on a sleigh ride (circa 1910-15); note the person with the toboggan at left. This was most likely taken in Conkling Park, the only park with hills steep enough for tobogganing; the man in the back of the sleigh might be Thomas R. Proctor.
Valentine Bialas, 1926
Bialas was born in Boston but brought up in Utica, and he participated as a speed skater in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and in the 1928 and 1932 Winter Olympics. Although he set a world speed skating record at Lake Placid in 1929, he never won Olympics medals, and before the 1936 Olympics, he lost a leg in an automobile accident. Although this ended his speed skating career, he continued to skate for recreation and play tennis in local competitions with an artificial leg. He also served as Utica's Parks Commissioner for a number of years, and the Parkway Ski Center was named in his honor shortly before he died in 1965.