Rise of the lift: The story of California’s first chairlift

The Union Pacific Railroad Company engineer who invented the chairlift was inspired by the system that carried bananas on to boats.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

In 1939, California welcomed its first chairlift — the second in the country — and ushered in a new era in alpine skiing that would grow the sport by leaps and bounds. Its location? Sugar Bowl Resort near Donner Summit.

It all started one year earlier when Austrian Hannes Schroll, formerly the director of Badger Pass Ski Area School near Yosemite, purchased the land that would become Sugar Bowl for $6,750 and began developing a resort modeled after his hometown of Kitsbuhel, Austria with the help of investors like Walt Disney and ice skating champion George Stiles.

With an investment of $2,500 from the animation entrepreneur, Schroll renamed Hemlock Peak Mt. Disney, the very peak where the game-changing chairlift would soon be installed. The lift was 3,200 feet long with a 1,000 foot rise and 13 steel towers that could be adjusted according to snow depth.

“The first year that it was in operation, the lift cost 25 cents for a ride and $2 to ski,” says Jon Slaughter, executive director of marketing and sales at Sugar Bowl.

Skiers arrived at the train station where they were carted by horse-drawn sleighs to the resort. Eventually, the equines were replaced by tractors, and finally, in 1953, the West Coast’s first gondola — once again, the second in the country — was constructed at Sugar Bowl. The 30-minute ride to the base was cut down to just seven minutes.

Today, resort guests can still see one of the original chairlift towers as they swiftly make their way up the modern-day Disney lift — a marker of history and human ingenuity.

The invention of the chairlift made it possible for more people — and less athletic people — to enter into the sport of alpine skiing.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

Earn your turns

Backcountry skiers and boarders may still be trekking up slopes to earn their turns, but prior to the creation of the chairlift, it was often your only option.

As early as the 1850s, miners from the California Gold Rush crafted skis out of wood — sometimes as long as 15 feet — hiked up the mountains near Tahoe, and used a pole as a rudder to race each other down.

“The first uphill transportation for skiers began with railways in the Tahoe area once the railroad was complete across Donner Pass in 1867,” explains Seth Masai, president of the International Skiing Association.

The country’s first toboggan lift was installed in 1910 at the snow sports arena, Hilltop, in Truckee. A stationary steam engine hauled a cable up the toboggan slide to bring the sleds to the top, and skiers often jumped on for a ride as well.

In 1931, Canadian skier Alex Foster developed the rope tow, a continuously moving rope that skiers held on to to catch a ride up the hill, and by 1934, the concept made its way across the border from Quebec to Vermont. That same year in Switzerland, Ernst Constam created the single-passenger J-bar, which hooked behind the rider and pulled them up the hill with their skis still on the ground. The following year, Constam debuted the two-person T-bar, which quickly spread stateside.

All of these inventions paved the way for the chairlift, which would help popularize skiing like no invention before.

The original chairlift design carried one rider and did not slow down to load or unload the skier.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

Need a lift?

The drive to develop an easier uphill mode of transportation for skiers was spearheaded, interestingly enough, by the Union Pacific Railroad Company. The son of a railroad baron, Averell Harriman saw the success of European ski resorts and believed that a similar concept in the states would promote rail travel.

Though the first ski area in the U.S. opened in 1915 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, — with dozens more cropping up in the following years — Harriman’s vision was for an all-inclusive resort that combined lodging, upscale dining and other wintertime activities including ice skating. In 1936, Union Pacific opened Sun Valley Resort in Ketchum, Idaho complete with the first-ever overhead cable-tow chairlifts developed by Omaha-based engineer James Curran.

“The chairlift was a revolutionary development for skiing as a tourism phenomenon because it was much much easier for less athletic people to use the chairlift than to hang on to a rope tow or balance on a T-bar,” explains Masai. “It was not revolutionary technology because there had been overhead cable transports in the mining business and in the banana-handling business and even in uphill passenger transportation for centuries going back.”

Inspired by the conveyor belt system used to cart large bundles of bananas onto ships in Central America, Curran — who never skied a day in his life — drafted plans for the first iteration of the chairlift that would be used at Sun Valley.

“There was nothing new about the cable system or the motor or the drive system. The innovation was the chair itself,” notes Masai. The single chairs were fixed to an overhead cable so the chairs did not slow down to load or deposit riders, as was later achieved with the detachable chairs, and riders were given blankets to stay warm during the slow ride to the top.

The invention of steel edges and cable binding to hold down the heel helped popularize alpine skiing in the late 1920s, and companies specializing in warmer technical ski wear emerged in the 30s. Previously, you’d see men skiing in ties and women in skirts.

Expensive maintenance and the U.S.’s entry into World War II in 1945 hindered early adoption of the chairlift by other ski areas, but following the war, downhill skiing took off in America.

“Ski lift construction began in earnest in the late 40s, and by the mid-50s, there were probably two to three dozen lifts around the country. By 1962, there were hundreds and hundreds of lifts,” says Masai. “It was critical to the rapid growth of skiing after World War II. The skier population went from a few hundred thousand before the war to two to three million by 1960. None of that would have happened if people had been confined to rope tows and T-bars.”

The number of skiers visiting Sugar Bowl in the early days far exceeded expectations.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort

Powder days

On Jan. 4, 1940, soon after the completion of Sugar Bowl’s Disney lift, a blizzard hit the Tahoe region and skiing was underway at the new resort. Trainloads of skiers disembarked, took the sleigh to the resort and rode California’s first chairlift nearly to the top of the peak.

“We’ve heard fun anecdotes that on a powder day back then, if you wanted to get over to the actual Sugar Bowl it was a mad dash up the last 100 feet of the hill to get up into those fall lines where the modern chairlift takes you,” says Slaughter. “The whole resort concept was built around the lift and this snowbound lodge was kind of a Tyrolean experience that offered tremendous access. This was Hannes Schroll’s dream come to life.”

Today, skiers and boarders can hop on the four-person Disney Express and ride the high-speed lift to the top of Mt. Disney in roughly 3.5 minutes. Though the technology has certainly changed, the soul of the Sugar Bowl experience remains alongside the steel tower of the original lift.

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2021-22 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine.

Claire McArthur is a staff writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.

Installed in 1953, Sugar Bowl was also home to the West Coast’s first gondola and only the second of its kind in North America.
Provided/Sugar Bowl Resort
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