No. 2953: CHAIRLIFT

by Andy Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 2953

Today, getting to the top. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Jim Curran was an engineer with a special skill; a skill that led to a 1936 meeting with then president of the Union Pacific Railroad, Averell Harriman. The skill? Loading bunches of bananas onto rail cars.

A bunch of bananas
A Bunch of Bananas (Pixabay)

To keep workers from bruising the bananas, Curran loaded them using hooks attached to an overhead cable system that moved from the loading dock to the rail cars. Harriman, meanwhile, was busy building a luxury ski resort. The two men concurred that the overhead cable system might prove perfect for moving skiers up mountains -- with chairs attached to the hooks, of course.

Two days later, in summertime Nebraska, Curran and a small team were busy working out the details. Curran built a scaffold in the back of his pickup truck. Attached was a chair hanging over the side. Picking up a skier could be simulated by driving the truck forward while someone stood nearby. A friend was called and asked to bring his skis and poles for experimentation. The first step was to make the skis slide properly on the ground. With temperatures reaching the mid-nineties, a bed of shaved ice wasn’t an option. The team tried various combinations of straw and oil but all they seemed to do was make a slimy mess. Relaxing over a beer that evening, someone suggested abandoning the skis in favor of roller skates. It proved a brilliant idea, and following an afternoon of trial pick-ups, the basic chairlift design was in hand.

James Curran and the first Ski Lift in Sun Valley, ID
James Curran and the first Ski Lift in Sun Valley, ID (Snowbrains.com)

James Curran testing and showing off the prototype chair lift to J.P. Morgan
James Curran testing and showing off the prototype chair lift to J.P. Morgan (Snowbrains.com)

Railroad president Harriman had grown intrigued with the idea of opening a ski resort while visiting Europe. The idea was to generate new demand for his rail lines, which stretched from the Midwest toward the Pacific. Harriman felt that to lure people to ski in the west required more than the promise of a soggy rope tow. His newfangled chairlift seemed just the ticket.

Stein Eriksen, Norwegian alpine ski racer and Olympic Gold Medalist
Stein Eriksen, Norwegian alpine ski racer and Olympic Gold Medalist (Oslo Museum/Wikipedia)

The resort was situated in picturesque Sun Valley in central Idaho. In order to ready the chairlift for the resort’s grand opening, railroad engineers raced to complete the necessary components. In a mere four and a half months, they managed to construct, and install, everything needed to get the chairs off the ground -- a truly remarkable feat. Machinery at the site was insufficiently powerful to haul cable to the top of the lift, so instead, thirty pack mules were put to work.

On December 21, 1936, the Sun Valley Ski Resort opened its doors, on schedule and with the world’s earliest functioning chairlift. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. Snow wouldn’t arrive until early February.

Chairlifts have since gone through many refinements. But they remain the workhorse of ski resorts. Ski in, sit down, and away you go. They’re the perfect mix of convenience, comfort, and speed to the top. And among others, we can thank Jim Curran for getting things started: an engineer with a pickup truck and experience loading bananas.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

This essay was largely based on the reminiscences of Walter Miller in: Jim Curran’s Union Pacific Chairlift. Idaho Mountain Express, February 22, 2013. See also: http://www.mtexpress.com/index2.php?ID=2005146196#.U6lkbbFg-So. Accessed June 24, 2014.

Chairlift. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chairlift#History. Accessed June 24, 2014.

This episode first aired on June 26, 2014.