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Ski Resort Life

Sun Valley’s Legacy as the Inventor of the Chair Lift

Technology that was once used to move bananas through the tropics now moves thousands of skiers up Bald Mountain every day. 

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There are ski resorts that might be more frequently visited or more notorious for their challenging terrain, but few resorts boast the glamor and pedigree of Sun Valley.

Ski resorts in the U.S. had existed since 1915 with the opening of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but when banking magnate and Union Pacific owner William Averell Harriman set out to make a ski resort, he aimed to make something with the grandeur of an all-inclusive resort. The man who would eventually become the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Governor of New York was always thinking on a big scale and when laying out his vision for Sun Vallye, he modeled his plans on the winter sports meccas of Europe, chiefly the Swiss towns of Davos and St. Moritz. These locations combined ice skating, skiing, and sledding (in the case of Davos, the precursor to the world’s inaugural luge competition in 1883) with fine dining, and natural hot springs. 

The move made sense for the railroad because a prime winter sports destination could boost tourism travel along his railroad. In fact, he hired an Austrian count, Felix Shaffgotsch, to scout the entire western half of the country to find the ideal location with the stipulation that it needed to be near a railroad. 

The search produced the Wood River Valley located between the Bald and Dollar Mountains. Located in a dense part of the Sawtooth Mountain range, it was shielded from northern winds and boasted over 250 days of sun a year. Harriman’s marketing wiz Steve Hannagan renamed the area Sun Valley and set out to attempt to attract the jet set by courting Hollywood stars and creating an international campaign.

Within a mere seven months, a $1.5 million, four-story lodge was built.

However,  skiing was still a niche sport at the time. It wasn’t particularly appealing outside of a small group of mountaineers who would do the strenuous work of scaling the mountain before gravity gave them an assist on the way down.  

Since skiing was made popular in the Alps in the late 19th Century, however, a continuous series of advancements have been made to reduce the work needed to get up the mountain and convert skiing from a grueling form of exercise into a recreational activity. 

According to the International Skiing History Association, German innkeeper Robet Winterhalder invented the first overhead cable tow in 1906. In 1910, the French municipality of Chamonix signed an agreement with a company to create the first cable car. World War I slowed down the production but it was completed in 1922, just in time for the inaugural 1924 Winter Olympics. 

North America lagged quite a bit. A toboggan tow was built in Truckee, California in 1910 that was later used for skiers, but it wasn’t until 1931 that the concept of a rope tow spread across the ocean in Shawbridge, Quebec.

The invention was first reproduced in the US in 1934 when a skier, Bunny Bertram, shared his experiences using the Quebec model with the owner of the Woodstock, Vermont inn where he worked. His bosses and a local farm owner—on whose hilly property people enjoyed skiing and sledding—each pitched in $100 to build what became the first rope tow in the country the following winter.  

Ski resorts in the U.S. had taken off by this time and an estimated 20 more ski resorts opened throughout New England, the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest by the time Sun Valley opened. Yet without the means to achieve much height using these rudimentary contraptions, skiing wasn’t much more than a local attraction.

In order for Harriman to create an experience worth traversing the country over, he needed to create a better skiing experience which meant getting skiers higher up the mountain in a more efficient manner. 

He would put the railroad’s engineering department to use designing ways to transport skiers to the slopes. Rope tows, J-bars, and cable cars were considered but a young engineer, Jim Curran, had a different idea. Curran was previously a structural engineer with an ironworks company. Working in the tropics, he designed a system to unload bananas onto cargo ships using a system of conveyer belts with hooks. 

Curran thought the idea could work with chairs in place of bananas. Several prototypes were tested in the company’s repair facility in the company’s Omaha headquarters. A lift chair was attached to the side of a truck and the skis were attached to roller skates to simulate their off and unloading from a snowy surface. 

Tests also included how fast engineers determined the speed at which skiers could comfortably pick up and drop off a skier. This was determined to be between four and five miles per hour.

When the resort opened in December of that year, Sun Valley debuted the chairlift on the smaller Dollar  Mountain and would improve the technology for the taller Bald Mountain in 1939.

Today, chair lifts are ubiquitous but technology has long marched past the single chair lift that debuted in Sun Valley. Still, a handful of ski resorts throughout the world still employ the single chairlift for nostalgia’s sake and to ensure that some prime powder areas are poorly trafficked, including Alaska’s Mount Eyak which purchased Bald Mountain’s original chair lift in 1970,  keeping Harriman and Curran’s legacy alive to the present day.

Sun Valley, of course, now has TK.