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Pictures by Bill F.
By Bill Fetcher
“That has to be the most stupid idea that’s ever crossed this desk!” This reply was
the initial response to a suggestion that would result in the world’s first chairlift. The
desk belonged to Averill Harriman, Board Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad
that owned and operated the Sun Valley ski resort. The retort was directed at
James Curran, bridge engineer for the Union Pacific. Curran had designed an
endless cable aerial lift for use in various Latin American banana republics for
hauling bunches of bananas from plantation to dock. His “stupid idea” was why don’
t we replace the banana hooks with chairs? (Variations on the “flying banana” lift,
fitted with ore buckets had been in use since the last century in the mining districts of
Colorado and elsewhere. Indeed, some early chairlifts were converted mine trams.)
Harriman mulled over the idea and decided it wasn’t so dumb though the idea would
have to be tested. A chair was rigged to the side of a truck that was to drive along
slowly and attempt to scoop up a willing volunteer wearing skis, John Morgan, a
friend of Harriman. These tests were carried out in Omaha, Nebraska where the
Union Pacific had their maintenance shops. The first attempt met with predictable
results. After picking himself up out of the dirt another attempt was made, this time
with roller skates fitted to the skis. This one was successful and Curran knew they
were on to something. * He was given a go-ahead to design and build the first
chairlift on Proctor Mountain east of the Sun Valley lodge. (Another shorter chairlift
for beginners was built on Dollar Mountain close by the lodge.)
All was ready for opening day, 21 December 1936. On its trial run the lift blew a
fuse, leaving a couple of lady volunteers swinging dizzily in the air until repairs could
be made. Upon unloading, the girls swore they’d never get on the thing again. They
would be replaced by millions of happy skiers and sightseers over the following
decades as chairlifts were installed at ski areas and scenic vistas around the world.
In future articles I’ll deal with lifts in Colorado, which have historic significance, all of
which have been replaced or removed. Meanwhile, back at Sun Valley, Baldy
Mountain was opened shortly before WWII. Three single chairs were installed
there; first "lift system" intended to serve a variety of terrain. Dollar, Proctor and
Ruud Mountains would remain in use for beginners. One of those first chairlifts is still
in place on Ruud Mountain with its single chairs and wooden towers resembling
utility poles. Despite its forlorn look, given a few shots of grease it could probably
rumble to life.
* Various speeds were tried, topping out at 500 feet per minute, the maximum
practical speed for a fixed-grip chairlift.
|Pictures of the Sun Valley single chair on