Cranky and slow…

Yes, that describes me these days, but I’m referring to something else. Read on…

I stumbled across a recent story about how the Union Pacific Railroad was instrumental in the development of the world’s first ski chairlift.

The chairlift was developed for use at the Sun Valley, ID, ski area which had been acquired by the Union Pacific as a destination resort along its vast east-west railroad system. The chairman of the UP at the time, Averill Harriman, thought the destination could lure more visitors by offering a safer, faster way to get skiers up the slopes. Up to that time, awkward tow ropes were the only uphill transportation at ski areas. He asked the railroad’s mechanical engineers to develop something new.

The first ski lift at Sun Valley, ID

What was interesting to me was that the actual development of the lift was done in Omaha, NE — not a place that you would expect to be the center of emerging ski technology. It was first tested in Omaha using the bed of a pickup truck to simulate the movement that a skier could expect when loading onto the chair. Even Harriman agreed to try out the design and found it acceptable.

The story made me think about the first chairlift installed in New Mexico, at Santa Fe Ski Basin in 1949 by Ernie Blake, the New Mexico skiing pioneer from Germany who later developed Taos Ski Valley.

The lift, affectionately referred to as the “Old Red Chair,” was quite a contraption and I’m glad to say I rode it many times before it was eventually retired and then dismantled sometime in the late 1960s.

Santa Fe’s Old Red Chair, with original lodge in background

Since no company was fabricating chair lifts in large quantities at the time the Santa Fe Ski Basin was being developed, Blake concluded he would have to make his own lift.

Blake discovered that there was an abandoned cable ore carrier from a mine in Silverton, CO. He was able to acquire it, along with pilot’s seats from mothballed World War II vintage B-24 bombers. The seats were welded together in pairs, then attached to one of two cables used in the ore carrier. One cable was used to support the chairs and the other was used to move the contraption as it hauled skiers up a 2,600 foot route to the top of the mountain. The cables were apparently manufactured in 1888 by a famous steel maker in Sheffield, England. When it was determined they could be repurposed for use on the Santa Fe ski lift, the rust that accumulated on them over the years was removed and they were tested for strength and safety.

Because the lift was not originally designed to haul people, it had its share of idiosyncrasies.

To begin with, it was very slow and clunky. Many times the hauling cable would slide off its tracks, requiring those on the lift to be lowered down by ropes. The width of the cable tracks was very narrow, requiring some corrugated tin guards to be placed next to each lift tower so riders would not catch the tips of their skis in the open framework.

As a skier in my college days, I remember rides up the chairlift. You’d always expect multiple stops and starts as it moved you slowly up the mountain. I can remember the clunky noises it would make as it passed over the support towers. I remember how close you’d come to the towers on the way up and how you’d always try to get the outside seat of the two chairs so you’d avoid any accidental contact with structures. And you always breathed a sigh of relief when you had made it successfully to the top of the mountain.

The original lodge at Santa Fe, now midway up the mountain, still has a set of the original red bomber seat chairs. They’re great to sit in while sipping a beer after your last run down the mountain. But because there is no padding (there was never any to begin with), your butt can get kind of cold while you’re taking in the scenery.

You can find a story about the Old Red Chair and other early chairlifts in New Mexico on the Ski New Mexico website. I’ve posted a link below.

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