CHERRY CREEK - For the first time in 45 years, the iconic ''A'' frames of Cockaigne Ski Center were not visible to drivers on Thornton Road on Tuesday morning.
The three 96-foot-tall frames were somewhere among the ashes and remains on the ground as fire crews continued to knock down hot spots of the overnight blaze that destroyed the center's lodge, which began life as the Austrian pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City.
Longtime employees who were on site Tuesday morning referred to the sight as a nightmare, with some visibly emotional as they watched fire crews continue to work the scene more than 12 hours after the original call.
A firefighter from the Cherry Creek Volunteer Fire Department operates a hose as the battle continues to fight a fire at the Cockaigne Ski Center lodge Tuesday morning.
P-J photo by Dave Emke
Firefighters search for hotspots Tuesday morning after a fire destroyed the Cockaigne Ski Center lodge.
P-J photo by Dave Emke
The ski center's lift supervisor, Todd Lawson, said the disaster was akin to losing a home. However, he said, he is confident that the resort will continue to live on.
''The building was kind of an icon to us, but our moral structure is still here,'' said Lawson, an 11-year employee of Cockaigne who works at the resort year-round. ''We're already talking about opening and of how to get through the season.''
CAUSE OF FIRE LIKELY ACCIDENTAL
The call of fire at the ski lodge came just before 10:30 p.m. Monday, when a passing Chautauqua County Highway Department plow driver spotted flames from the road.
According to Jim Abbey, Cherry Creek fire chief, the lodge was too far gone to be saved by the time crews arrived.
''When I pulled in last night, the whole back part near the ski rental was fully engulfed,'' Abbey said. ''By the time our equipment got here, it was immediately a defensive battle.''
The raging blaze was brought under control within about three hours, Abbey said. The battle continued throughout the night and into Tuesday, however, to contain hot spots that flared up.
Volunteer crews from Cherry Creek, Ellington, Kennedy, Sinclairville, Conewango, Falconer and Mayville responded to the scene Monday night. The Cassadaga Volunteer Fire Department was called in Tuesday morning for relief, Abbey said.
The Chautauqua County Fire Investigation Unit arrived on the scene at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Lt. Rich Telford said it was the building itself that was hampering firefighting efforts.
''It's the age of the building and how it was built,'' Lt. Telford said. ''It is made of very heavy timber.''
An excavator was summoned to the scene Tuesday to help with the process, and the fire unit's investigation lasted until nearly 6 p.m. Tuesday evening. At that time, Lt. Telford said preliminary results were pointing toward an accidental cause. Because of extensive damage to the building, however, a definitive cause could not be pinpointed as of the end of the day.
''We still have a couple loose ends to tie up, and even at that point we may not be able to specify exactly was caused it,'' he said. ''But we feel we have it narrowed down to a particular area in the building, and nothing right now looks suspicious.''
Lt. Telford said the unit's on-scene work came to a close Tuesday evening, but that its investigation would continue with interviews of employees and other potential witnesses for at least a couple more days.
''We just want to rule a couple things out before we close out the case,'' he said. ''But like I said, nothing suspicious is jumping out at us right now.''
FROM NYC TO CHERRY CREEK
After the World's Fair closed in New York City in the summer of 1965, a group of businessmen under the corporate name Cockaigne Inc. purchased the Austrian pavilion at a cost of $3,000.
The businessmen had dreams of developing a four-season recreational area in the hills between Cherry Creek, Ellington and Sinclairville - and the pavilion was to be its centerpiece. Carefully dismantling it in New York City, transporting it to Cherry Creek and reassembling it there was an arduous task that took nearly two full years.
Fourteen tractor-trailers and 21 railroad cars were used to transport sections of the building across the state, according to records. One of the most difficult challenges of the journey came when the largest beams had to be transported from the rail station in Cherry Creek to the site of the ski center via five miles of winding rural roads.
Entire portions of road needed to be blocked off as trucks carefully transported the multi-ton beams up Southside Avenue, onto Route 83, up Center Street and then carefully through the ''rock-cut'' region of Erwin Road to their final destination.
Slopes opened at Cockaigne with a tent serving as its operation center in 1966. The pavilion was finished and opened in the spring of 1967. In the early 1970s, the pavilion's lower portion was enclosed to create the lodge's indoor picnic area, ski rental room and school space.
In a 1996 interview with The Post-Journal, Melvin Pearson, who was foreman for the construction of the lodge at Cockaigne, said that many in the area were skeptical about bringing the building to the area.
''A lot of people said the Austrian pavilion was only a temporary building built for the fair and it wouldn't hold up to our winters,'' Pearson said. ''Others said we would be lucky if the building lasted 10 years. I guess we have the last laugh.''
Not only did the ski center have ''the last laugh'' with the non-believers, the lodge had a successful 45-year life in Cherry Creek until it suddenly went up in smoke Monday night.
NOT THE END
A welcome sign bearing the German word ''Gemutlichkeit'' - an abstract noun representing acceptance, cheerfulness and the opportunity to spend quality time - that had greeted visitors for decades was partially destroyed but still visible amid the devastation. What was left Tuesday morning read ''Gemutlich'' - which in and of itself translates to English as ''warm and congenial, pleasant and friendly.''
While there was a great deal of sadness around the lodge Tuesday morning, much of the conversation that was occurring revolved continuing that mission of ''Gemutlichkeit'' through rebuilding.
''This is a major landmark here,'' Abbey said. ''As far as the economy of Cherry Creek goes, it's a major player. An awful lot of people from Pennsylvania and Ohio come and ski the hill.''
More than 200 people are employed by the ski center. A brief meeting of the ski center's managers was held early Tuesday morning, Lawson said, and the topic of conversation was on how to get Cockaigne back onto its feet as quickly as possible.
''We want to be able to satisfy our contractual obligations with school groups, season pass owners, and anyone else who still wants to come out and ski the slopes,'' Lawson said.
Cockaigne owner Jack VanScoter, who purchased the lodge in 1970, declined to comment to local media on the scene late Tuesday morning.
Lawson said his ties with the ski lodge go much deeper than his employment, as he learned to ski and snowboard at Cockaigne as a boy. He said he believes that though the iconic structure is gone forever, its spirit will live on.
''We've obviously lost this,'' he said, gesturing back toward the remains of the lodge, ''but I don't think we've lost Cockaigne.''