Chairlift Invention

By Beacon Staff

It was a hot summer day in 1936 in the railroad yard in Omaha, Nebraska. A former Olympic ski racer was there along with Averill Harriman, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad. In the next three or four days, a revolutionary new machine would change the mountain winter landscape around the world forever. Averill had seen the success of a destination winter ski resort in St. Anton, Austria.

If anything, this was all happening by accident rather than science. Averill had also seen the shadow of World War II shutting down skiing in Europe so, “Why not build a destination ski resort in America?”

He already had a man named Von Gottschalk traveling America to find the perfect place. Averill said, “It only has to be on the railroad line.” But Von Gottschalk said the resort also had to be far enough away from a large city to prevent weekend crowding and it had to be lower than 6,000 feet above sea level because of potential pulmonary and cardiac problems. Ketchum, Idaho, a remote mining and sheep town with a railroad fit that criteria.

The rope tow had already been invented in 1933, but Averill felt that his guests would not travel halfway across America to hang onto a wet rope to be hauled up the hill.

Hence, this meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. A young engineer named Jim Curran had been at the forefront of moving bananas from the plantations or farms to the railroad cars without bruising the bunches of bananas. He had attached hooks to an overhead moving cable. In a meeting with the decision makers, Jim asked, “Why don’t we just build the same overhead moving cable and substitute chairs for the banana hooks and skiers can be scooped up while standing there and ride to the top of the lift?”

Two days later Jim had built a scaffold on the back of a pickup truck and hung a chair on it.

Olympic ski racer, Charlie Proctor, had phoned a friend to bring his skis and poles and be the experimental guy scooped up by the dangling chair. For whatever reason, his friend wore all of his heavy wool ski clothes for the inauguration ride that lasted two days.
Where would they build it at Ketchum? How big would the cable have to be? How would they get the cable up the hill? Stuff like that.

This new machine had to be designed, built, moved to Idaho, installed and running by the week before Christmas when all of Averill’s friends would be arriving.

The railroad engineers designed the bull wheels, lift towers, everything necessary to make this new machine work and work safely. The railroad engineers had the new-fangled chairlift up and running on time in only four and a half months.

There was only one problem. The snow did not arrive in Sun Valley in time for the opening for guests. It arrived on Feb. 2 and it was announced that anyone who had come up for Christmas could stay until the snow came.

The lift on Dollar Mountain was followed by one on Proctor Mountain, which offered a lot of variety of terrain. However, it only operated until Sun Valley shut down during World War II and became a rest and rehab place for the Navy.

Another lift was built on Ruud Mountain to support and service the Nordic jumpers who competed there once a year. The mountain was great but hardly anyone ever used it. There were no facilities of any kind except very small outhouse for the lift operators.

It would be 1941 before the lifts were built on Baldy because of its steep terrain and poor ski equipment. The first winter I skied there in 1947, there were very few runs on the mountain. The three chairlifts hauled 426 people an hour to the top of Baldy.

I don’t know about you, but Jim Curran changed my life forever. And you may never have even heard of him as the inventor of the chairlift!