Union Pacific Railroad Invention Still Takes Skiers to the Top

OMAHA, Neb. — The 2010 ski season marks the 75th anniversary of the world’s first chair lift operation.

Skiers riding the chair lifts over the glistening fresh powder at Sun Valley, Idaho, might be surprised to learn Union Pacific Railroad invented the chair lift in Omaha, Neb., and introduced it in 1936 at Sun Valley Resort.

Why would a railroad invent a chair lift? To provide a service, a “transportation” service, for its customers.

During the 1930s, Union Pacific Railroad Chairman W. A. Harriman saw Americans beginning to embrace winter sports and knew his railroad operated through some of the most scenic and mountainous territory in the western United States. His vision – develop a world-class winter sports facility served by Union Pacific.

Harriman enlisted Austrian sportsman Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find land for such a facility. In the winter of 1935, Count Schaffgotsch discovered the area that would become Sun Valley Resort in south central Idaho, about 100 miles northeast of Boise.

“Among the many attractive spots I have visited, this [location] combines more delightful features than any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria, for a winter sports resort,” Schoffgotsch wrote to Harriman.

The original 4,300 acres, adjacent to the Sawtooth Mountain National Forest, was the perfect spot. The Sawtooth Mountains, running east and west, protected the future resort area from northern winds. The mountains surrounded a small basin, with the hills and slopes largely free of timber. Snowfall and sunshine were abundant. And natural hot springs would provide outdoor swimming year round.

Construction began on the lodge, and other facilities, in April 1936.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,200 miles away in Omaha, at Union Pacific Railroad’s headquarters, members of the engineering department were designing various ways to transport skiers up the slopes. Several mechanical engineers considered adapting rope tows, J-bars and cable cars. One young engineer had a different idea.

Jim Curran had worked for an iron works company in Omaha as a structural engineer prior to joining the railroad. His concept was to adapt a system used to load bunches of bananas onto boats into a “transport” system to move people up slopes. Curran’s design called for replacing the hooks for the bananas with chairs for skiers to sit on, while wearing skis! The chairs would be suspended from a single cable running above the chair. His co-workers thought the idea was too dangerous.

Charlie Proctor, a consultant brought in by Union Pacific to help with the design of the resort, was a famous skier from Dartmouth College. He saw Curran’s plans and the rest is history.

Soon, prototypes of the chair lift were being built and tested at the locomotive and railcar repair shop complex in downtown Omaha.

After the chair design was established, the next step was to determine the speed the chairs would travel.

A lift chair was attached to the side of a truck for the test. Because it was summer in relatively flat Omaha, engineers wore roller skates to simulate skis running over snow. It was determined that between four to five miles per hour would be a comfortable speed to pick up and drop off a skier.

When Union Pacific Railroad opened Sun Valley Resort in December 1936, the world’s first two chair lifts were put into operation. As with anything new, skiers had to get used to these new contraptions. Although Union Pacific sold Sun Valley on November 15, 1964, the adapted banana-loading system changed the sport of snow skiing forever.