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Ski Resort Life

Warren's World: Going Up

"A pickup truck, a clever railroad engineer and a pair of roller skates transformed skiing one dusty day in Omaha."

Skiing forever changed in 1936, when a Union Pacific Railroad engineer invented the chairlift to move skiers uphill at Sun Valley, Idaho. Not coincidentally, Averell Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific, also founded Sun Valley to help fill his passenger trains.

Finally, you could ski downhill all day long and never have to climb back up. You could just sit down in a moving chair and be hauled back for as many rides as your strength, skill and money allowed. And all of this for only a couple of dollars a day.

Warren Miller February 2004
Warren Miller working on an old chairlift.

When it was decided to build Sun Valley, one of Harriman’s first memos called for “mechanical devices to take people to the tops of the slides. Engineers in Omaha, Neb., home base of the railroad, immediately went to work on variations of the ropetow and J-bar, invented in 1934 and 1935, respectively.

A young railroad engineer named Jim Curran, who had helped build equipment for loading bananas onto fruit boats in the tropics, was a member of the railroad team assigned to the task. To him, transporting skiers or bunches of bananas without bruising them presented the same problem. All Curran did was replace the banana hooks that hung from a moving cable with chairs for people to sit on.

His drawings were almost overlooked in an early presentation. But former Olympic skier, Dartmouth ski coach and consultant Charlie Proctor spotted the drawings and sent them to Harriman with his recommendations: “Curran’s ideas are the best. Let him design and build the whole thing!

By July, a mock-up of the chair was built in the bed of a pickup truck in a railroad yard in Omaha. Timbers were hung out over the side of the truck. Attached to the boards was a free-swinging pipe. The chair seat was welded to the pipe and was the same distance off the ground as a normal chair with legs. Curran’s team thought they could drive the pickup with the chair facing forward and scoop up a waiting skier. Driving the truck at various speeds, they could eventually decide which speed was the best to collect skiers without injuring them.

They had less than five months to design, build and test the chair before Christmas, when they were to begin hauling paying passengers. A decision on the design had to be made quickly, so expert skier John Morgan was summoned. He arrived with skis, boots, poles and woolen ski clothes. He had to feel silly sweating amid the steam engines and a handful of railroad engineers. At first, Morgan stood on a pile of straw as the truck drove up slowly and tried to scoop him up. Straw proved not to be slippery enough, and Morgan picked himself up a few dozen times. At lunch someone suggested, “Why not add some oil to the straw?

They did, and now John had oily straw stuck to the bottom of his skis. Then a junior engineer suggested, “Let’s try roller skates. There’s concrete out by the roundhouse that we can drive on.

A couple of hours later, with John sweating in his woolen ski clothes and skates, the maximum speed for loading live bodies on a chairlift was decided—a speed that is still used in chairlift designs today. In the railroad machine shop, fabrication of the various parts began as soon as they were designed.

While this new device was under construction, Sun Valley’s publicity genius, Steve Hannigan, gave the remote Idaho tramway a name that is as famous today as the sport it serves. Looking to project a favorable image, Hannigan called the new people-mover a “chairlift.”

Not bad for a new revolutionary means of winter transportation invented in Omaha by railroad engineers who had never skied a day in their lives.