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The history of the ski resort of Chamonix

The Benedictine Priory of Chamouny

Chamonix belonged to a succession of Gallic tribes, despite a hostile climate and geographical location, prior to its incorporation into the Roman Empire, and subsequently into the earldom of Geneva. 

In 1091, Count Aymon I of Geneva gave the valley to the Benedictine monastic order who first built a mill and a farm, followed in the 12th century by a priory. The monks tried continuously to impose their authority, leading to numerous conflicts with the local Chamoniard population. The priory stood until 1786 on the site of the present day Maison de la Montagne. 

The First Ascent of Mont Blanc and the Beginning of Mountain Tourism

For a long time, the local economy was based on livestock farming and growing of cereals such as oats and rye. In 1741, however, two English aristocrats, William Windham and Richard Pocock, 'discovered' the priory of Chamouny and the Mer de Glace glacier, making them famous throughout Europe with their stories published in several literary gazettes. 

This discovery gave rise to a somewhat mystical kind of tourism because it was said that evil spirits reigned over the glaciers. This is why the task of showing the area to outsiders fell to local crystal makers and hunters, who then went on to become guides for the mainly English tourists. 

In 1760, whilst passing through Chamonix, the scientist Horace Benedict de Saussure became fascinated by Mont Blanc. Wishing to carry out scientific experiments there, he offered a reward to the first person reach the summit. It was not until 08 August 1786, that Jacques Balmat and Michel Gabriel Paccard climbed Mont Blanc for the first time. The following year, Balmat accompanied Saussure there  so that he could successfully complete his project. 

From then on, the summits no longer inspired fear. As early as 1770, Chamonix's first guesthouse, the Hotel d'Angleterre, was opened Madame Coutterand. By 1783, around 1,500 people were spending their summers in the valley. The romantic movement further demystified the high mountains, presenting them as a haven for nature preservation. 

Mont Blanc, known as the "roof of Europe", has attracted many famous historical figures, including Louis Pasteur, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Goethe and Théophile Gautier. Even Chateaubriand and Napoleon III paid a visit to the Mer de Glace.

Photograph: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Tourism

The Savoie Becomes French and the Beginning of Winter Sports in Chamonix

In 1796, when the duchy of Savoie became part of France, Chamonix remained  an almost exclusively summer tourist destination. In 1816, the town's first luxury hotel, the Hotel de l'Union, was built, quickly followed by three similar establishments. 

In 1821, following the disappearance of three guides attempting an ascent of Mont Blanc, the Compagnie des Guides (Company of Guides) was founded. Until the end of the 19th century, mountain guiding remained the dominant activity of the local economy.

In 1893, the first pair of skis appeared in Chamonix, thanks to Dr. Payot, a Chamoniard physician who realised that skis were the ideal way for him to visit his patients around the valley.

In the early 20th century, the hotel sector was the driving force behind tourism in the area. In 1914, there were already 39 hotels in and around Chamonix. In 1909, the Montenvers rack railway began transporting tourists up to admire the Mer de Glace. 

The first passable road between Chamonix and Geneva was built during the reign of Napoleon III. But it was the arrival of the railway that opened up the town and began the explosion of interest in winter sports. When the PLM company brought the railway to the valley in 1901, the way was clear for winter tourism and Chamonix became one of the country's first winter sports resorts.

The first true season took place in 1906 - 1907, thanks to the efforts of the French Alpine Club, who organised several weeks of winter sports competitions.

On 21 November 1921, in order to capitalise on Mont Blanc's status as the valley's primary tourist attraction, the state authorised, by decree, the renaming of the town to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. 

Photograph: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Tourism

The First Winter Olympics and the Boom in Tourism

In 1924, the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix sealed the resort's destiny once and for all. The  administration of the organising committee was entrusted to Roger Frison-Roche, celebrated writer and mountain guide, and the first non Chamoniard to become a member of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. 

A bobsleigh run had to be constructed as a matter of urgency, along with the first stage of the cable car up to the glaciers in order to reach it. This lift was the first French cable car open to the general public. A ski-jumping stadium and an ice rink were also built in record time. In the end, 15,000 people came to cheer on the 300 competitors representing 16 nations.

The Pranplaz cable car opened in 1927, followed by a second stage to Le Brévent in 1930. At the time, it was the world's highest ski lift. 

In 1955, the Aiguille du Midi cable car was opened, with a route that ferrys passengers to the summit at an altitude of 3,842m. The Flégère cable car followed in 1956, and the ski area was extended to include Brévent, La Flégère, Le Tour, and finally Les Grands Montets in 1964.

In the 1960s, the development of the resort was at its peak, with the Alpine Ski World Championships in 1962, and the opening in 1965 of the Mont Blanc tunnel which opened up a direct route to Italy. 

The 1970s saw the arrival of many public amenities, including the library, MJC, secondary school and vocational college.

Unfortunately, the growth in tourism also resulted in increased levels of road traffic, which has become a major nuisance for the local inhabitants. Today, the resort is implementing measures to preserve the natural environment despite its economy being almost entirely based on tourism. In 2009, Chamonix committed itself, along with the other four settlements making up the Community of Communes of the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Valley, to a regional climate and energy plan in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt the area to climate change.

The historical architecture has also been preserved. Today, protestant chapels, traditional farms and Art Deco facades all sit alongside more modern buildings. 

Whatever the future may hold, Chamonix remains one of the world's major winter and summer tourist destinations, and continues to host many important international events. 

Photograph: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Tourism
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