Squaw Valley Aerial Tram turns 50 | SierraSun.com

Squaw Valley Aerial Tram turns 50

Hannah Jones

Squaw Valley this week celebrated the 50-year anniversary of its Aerial Tram, the largest tram in the world at the time it was completed on Dec. 18, 1968.

According to Hans Burkhart, who served as the mountain's manager for decades and oversaw the construction of the tram, there was a lot that went into the construction that most people don't know about.

In April of 1965, Burkhart went to Alex Cushing, the founder of the resort, to tell him he was leaving to build a tram in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"But Alex looked at me and he said, 'If you want to go and build a tram we'll build one right here,'" Burkhart recalled. "I thought it was some kind of a joke to keep me there."

“Alex says ‘I want to have a tram going right up over that cliff.’ I asked, ‘How are we going to do that?’ Alex says, ‘I don’t know you figure it out.’”

— Hans Burkhart, on the origins of Squaw Valley’s tram

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"We were standing out there on the street and Alex says 'I want to have a tram going right up over that cliff,'" said Burkhart. "I asked 'How are we going to do that?' Alex says, 'I don't know you figure it out.'"

What followed was a trip to Europe to other resorts to learn more about what it would take to construct the tram. After the two met with various manufacturers, they struck a deal with Garaventa, based in Austria. The company designed, fabricated and preassembled 900 tons of tramway equipment, which was then transported by barge down the Rhine River in Europe, loaded onto three ships to San Francisco, and trucked to Squaw Valley.

Making 'The Monster'

Over the summer of 1968 the construction crew installed two 140-foot and two 40-foot tall towers into steep rugged terrain to complete the tram nicknamed "The Monster" by the crew. The lower terminal alone consisted of 5,000 yards of cement and 500 tons of steel.

Construction started in May of 1968 and was completed by that winter with crew members working 10 hour days, six days a week, according to a 1968 Sierra Sun article. Once operational, the tram cars could fit 121 passengers and transported 1,060 skiers up the mountain every hour. Squaw Valley then had the largest capacity tram that rose over 2,000 feet during a brief five-minute ride. Prior to the Aerial Tram, originally called the Cable Car, the largest tram in the U.S. was the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

"We got a lot of good press because we now had the largest tram in the world and that's what Alex wanted," said Burkhart.

The next winter Burkhart said the tram was to credit for "saving the season." That winter the mountain received 30 feet of snow, preventing most of the lifts from turning as they were built to operate in up to 15 feet of snow. With the lifts shut down the tram was still able to transport skiers up the mountain.

The tram has been operating since suffering one major malfunction in 1978, when a car became dislodged from one of two cables sending the car and its 44 passengers plummeting to the ground. While the second cable kept the car from hitting the bottom, the loose cable was freed from its moorings and went crashing towards the ground slicing into the car and killing three passengers instantly. Though the mountain was hit with a strong blizzard that day, it still remains unclear what caused the accident.

Since then, the Aerial Tram has been upgraded with state-of-the-art cabins and electrical systems and is serviced routinely.

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or hjones@sierrasun.com.