Published February 22, 2013
You may never have heard of him, but Jim Curran—the inventor of the chairlift—changed my life forever.
Let’s start here. It was a hot summer day in 1936 in the railroad yard in Omaha, Neb. A former Olympic ski racer, Charlie Proctor, was there along with Averell Harriman, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad. Also at the meeting was a young engineer named Jim Curran. He had been at the forefront of an operation moving bananas from plantations to railroad cars—without bruising the bunches of bananas. Curran had attached hooks to an overhead moving cable. In that fateful Omaha meeting with the decision makers, he said, “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?”
So, in the next three or four days, a revolutionary new machine was developed that would change the mountain winter landscape around the world forever. Harriman had seen the success of a destination winter ski resort in St. Anton, Austria. He had also seen the shadow of World War II shutting down skiing in Europe, so he thought, “Why not build a destination ski resort in America?” I believe the rope tow had been invented in 1933, but Harriman also felt his guests would not travel halfway across America on his railroad to hang on to a wet rope in order to be hauled up the hill.
He already had a man named Felix Schaffgostch traveling America to find the perfect place. Harriman said, “It only has to be on the railroad line.” But Schaffgostch said the resort also could not be near a large city because of potential weekend crowding and it had to be lower than 6,000 feet elevation because of potential pulmonary and cardiac problems. Fitting the criteria was Ketchum, a remote Idaho mining and sheep town.
Two days after the Omaha meeting, Curran had built a scaffold on the back of a pickup truck and hung a chair on it. They needed to determine the speed and method of pickup. Ski racer Proctor had phoned a friend and asked him to bring his skis and poles and be the experimental guy to be scooped up by the dangling chair. They tried half a dozen pickups on straw, but it didn’t have the same slipperiness as snow. They added a little bit of oil to the straw. All it did was ruin the skier’s pants. They tried another kind of oil and hay. None of it worked as well as snow. Because it was 96 degrees out, they didn’t try to shave ice and use that.
After quitting time, they were relaxing with a beer when someone in the engineering group said, “There’s a big patch of concrete out behind the roundhouse. What if our skier stood on a pair of roller skates and got scooped up?” They tried it the next morning and it worked. The skier said, “These roller skates are great. They move freely. I think you guys are close to the sliding of skis.” Then they figured out how fast to drive the skier-picking-up pickup truck. After 20 pickups they found a speed that was fast, but not so fast that the moving chair hurt the back of the skier’s legs.
Deciding the location was next. Where would they build it in Ketchum? How big would the cable have to be? How would they get the cable up the hill? Stuff like that. And of course they had deadlines.
This new machine had to be designed, built, moved to Idaho, installed and running by the week before Christmas when all of Harriman’s friends would be arriving and the Sun Valley Lodge would be opening. There were no bulldozers strong enough to haul the cable up the hill so they rounded up about 30 pack mules and put two or three coils of the cable on each one of them and marched them up the side of Dollar Mountain one behind the other.
Meanwhile, the railroad engineers had 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. Today it would take that many years just to get the permits to dig the holes for the footings. But, remarkably, the speed of the chair is the same speed that a fixed-grip chairlift runs today!
Mother Nature served up another problem. The snow did not arrive in Sun Valley in time for the Christmas opening for guests. It didn’t arrive until Feb. 2. Anyone who had come up for Christmas was allowed to stay until the snow came to Dollar—with room and board courtesy of Union Pacific.
The Dollar Mountain chairlift was followed by one on Proctor Mountain, which offered more varied 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 Nordic jumpers who competed there once a year. The mountain was great but hardly anyone ever used it. There were no facilities there of any kind except a very small outhouse for the lift operators. And there were no trees on the mountain so you had to go there prepared with an empty bladder.
Another thing—the Ruud Mountain chairlift didn’t have any chairs on it. Instead of chairs there was a small piece of wood about 16 inches long and six or eight inches wide. Covering the wood was a plastic fabric covering. It worked for me. However, it had an unusual feature that I have never seen duplicated on any chairlift anywhere in the world. The loading platform, such as it was, was located a magic distance from the first tower so that if you sank into the seat too vigorously it would set up some sort of sympathetic vibration in the cable that would start magnifying in scope until it just plain threw the rider right out of the lift, much to his or her surprise.
It was 1939 before lifts were built on Baldy because of its steep terrain and the era’s 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. From the top you could ski down College, Christmas Bowl, Ridge and Rock Garden. There was a long catwalk back from College, and from the Roundhouse there were Canyon, Exhibition and River Run. It was never the least bit crowded. When I rode that first-ever-built-in-the-world chairlift in 1947, there had been less than 15 other chairlifts built in North America.
Back then, the River Run chairlift started on the other side of the Big Wood River closer to where the bike path is now. Floating over the river when it was very cold and the river was steaming is still one of my favorite memories of winter in Sun Valley.