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From Banana’s to Bubble Chairs via the American Mid-West: Chairlifts and how we got them.

ChairliftChairlifts. We rarely give them a second thought. They get us up pointy mountain and then are instantly forgotten as now the fun bit starts!

But who invented them?

Those of you who watched Michael Portillo’s recent series on the Railroads of America will recall a familiar theme; as railways were built linking the East Coast to the West Coast so railways owners needed to provide a reason for people to travel. Attractions, natural wonders, state fairs and the like all drew crowds from near and far and generated revenue for the railway companies. But they needed more – particularly to stimulate travel in winter.

In 1937, the President of Union Pacific – a railway company that ran trains through some of the most mountainous and scenic landscape of the American Mid-West - saw that skiing had become popular in Europe and thought that people would travel by rail to a brand-new ski resort in the Mid-West if they had the right infrastructure to carry the skiers uphill.

In the early decades of the 1900’s ski lifts were rudimentary affairs. Horses, water mills and ropes around car wheel drums were all used as a means of hauling skiers up the mountain. Union Pacific figured that no one would travel far to hold on to a wet, greasy rope that ran along the ground to pull them uphill. Something better was needed.

Step forward Jim Curran.

Curran was an industrial designer who was now working for Union Pacific. However, a previous job had seen him design an elevated moving ropeway that transported bananas from the plantations where they grew to railheads. Hooks were attached to the rope and a bunch of the aforesaid bananas mounted on each hook. With no contact with anything during the journey, bruising to the delicate fruit was avoided. Replace the hooks for chairs Curran suggested, and you have a chairlift – perfect for transporting skiers uphill.

Tests were carried out to determine if a skier could be scooped up from a moving chair (we know the answer to that one) and the optimum chair speed at point of “scoop” – just short of 6 kmh – which even now is the speed that fixed seat chairlifts operate at.

The tests were carried out with a chair mounted on the side of a pickup truck and ultimately with the skier on roller skates to mimic the effect of snow underfoot. There are some fabulous pictures of all this in the Union Pacific Museum.

The surface infrastructure for the first lift was built by mining engineers in less than five months and the first chairlift opened in December 1936 at the Sun Valley Resort, Idaho – owned by Pacific Union.

Remarkably the design of the chairlift has changed little over the years. Pictures of the running gear of the third chairlift ever built are entirely similar to the items we see today a full 80 years later!

Some development has occurred though. We now have moving floors (carpet lifts) that skiers wait on prior to embarkation and chairlifts with plastic covers (Bubble Chairs) and even some with heated seats.

Nowadays we all love the detachable seat chair lifts that are easier to get on and transport you up the mountain faster. Such lifts are able to run at 12 kmh – double the speed of fixed seat lifts.

So, next time you get scooped up by a chair lift, sit back, relax and remember you owe it all to the humble banana!

Monsieur Mogul


Monsieur Mogul – Our man in La Plagne

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author

alone and not those of Ice and Fire Ski and Snowboard Holidays

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