Mandan News

Twilight Hills: a look back at Mandan

In the winter of 1966, skiers enjoyed the slopes at Twilight HIlls. The next year, the resort would close.

By Dustin White
Mandan News, editor
In the winter of 1966, skiers enjoyed the slopes at Twilight HIlls. The next year, the resort would close.

Descending the slopes at Huff Hill Ski Area, many don’t realize that beneath their skis lies what was once the first ski resort in North Dakota. But for a few short years in the 1960s, the state joined in the rapid growth the ski industry was experiencing throughout the country.

Twilight Hills, which once occupied the land of Huff Hills, launched with a blast in June 1963. Two-hundred pounds of dynamite were used to signal the first physical efforts of establishing the ski resort.

That explosion though only signified a small portion of the work. “I’ve searched throughout North Dakota for about two years,” said Noel Later, who had been a Canadian ski resort operator, in a 1963 interview. “This is the best I’ve located.”

At first, Later’s observation proved to be true. The excitement for such an attraction was so strong that on Jan. 28, 1963, Twilight Hills opened on a limited basis.

“Although the warm weather has been unsatisfactory for either skiing or snow-making the past week, the intense interest in snow skiing in the area makes it desirable for us to start on a limited basis now, ” Later had told Bob Raymond in an interview before the opening.

While the first season had a late opening, the initial weekend seemed to promise a great future. On that Sunday alone, an estimated 1,200 people visited Twilight Hills. “We couldn’t be more encouraged,” said Vern Peterson, president of Dakota Winter Sports Inc., which managed the ski resort, following the first weekend of skiing. “We never expected the onslaught of people that were here. It definitely points to a great deal of interest. We’re very gratified.”

The actual grand opening shadowed the initial weekend. 12,000 or more people gathered at the ski resort on Jan. 19, 1964. Present at the ceremonies were Gov. William L. Guy, Mandan Mayor John Handtmann, and Bismarck Mayor Evan Lips.

However, during the day, skiing was nearly at a standstill because of the weather, which was in the 40s. While it proved to bring a throng of people to the hills, it had also turned much of the area into slippery mud.

The event was promising. “We are overwhelmed in the reception give the opening of the area,” said Lyle Porter, Dakota Winter Sports Inc. vice-president, during the event. “We feel certain, judging from the enthusiasm shown over the weekend, that Twilight Hills will be a great addition to North Dakota’s recreational program.”

When the first season ended in March, there were high hopes for the coming years. “We got an awful late start,” Peterson said in a 1964 interview. “But the very few days of good skiing we had leave us much encouraged for next year,”

Having battled a year that produced severely warm weather, which broke numerous records, as well as being the warmest February recorded in the last 10 years; the turn out was still spectacular. During the 60-day period that the resort was open, over 30,000 people visited, with some 4,000 having taken to the slopes.

With the first year behind them, and having learned from their past experience, Twilight Hills was expected to fulfill the high hopes that had been set.

After just four years though, those hopes had came crashing down. Citing a lack of long-term financing, Peterson announced that Twilight Hills would be closing its doors for good, and that the Dakota Winter Sports corporation would be dissolved.

A short two years later, Frank E. Fitzgerald, the receiver of Twilight Hills, began selling the ski resort’s equipment. It appeared that the dream of skiing in the Bismarck-Mandan area was no longer.

For some though, such dreams die hard, or not at all. Beginning in the 1980s, serious discussion once again sprouted up in regards to creating a ski resort at Huff Hills. There was quite a bit of talk about resurrecting Twilight Hills, much of it centered around Bismarck Mayor Marlan Haakenson.

In 1986, after he and a group of serious skiers had been seriously looking at reopening the ski resort for, the time seemed right. Four years earlier, Haakenson had said that the group was scared away because of the steep price of snow-making machines, but that was no longer the case.

Potential investors began appearing, and in 1988, Haakenson seemed quite sure that it would be short time until the resort was reopened. “I’m bringing it out of the freezer where it was put,” he said.” I hate spinning my wheels. Let’s get the job done.”

After two decades, the hope was once again alive, and appeared to refuse to die. By 1989, the Morton County Commission was fully behind the idea, and pushed forward with what would have been known as White Mountain.

Not everyone was thrilled with the idea of tax money being used to fund such an endeavor though, and after three years of debating, criticism and mild-controversy, Morton county backed off the project.

As we know though, that was not the end. In the spring of 1992, Jim Beck, who headed a small group, pursued the dream. “It’s going to have to be a combined, community effort. That’s what we’d like to see,” Beck said in a 1992 interview. ” It’s too bad that people couldn’t get behind the county to make it go. We’d like to see somebody make it go.”

Beck would prove to be that somebody you made a go at it, and on Jan. 15, 1993, Huff Hills Ski Area opened for business. Bringing, once again to the area, a dream that seemed to have died off so many years ago.