Surprising Railroad Inventions: The Ski Lift

How the Railroad Revolutionized Skiing


In 1936, the railroad invented the very first chairlift -- here's how.

If you’re a skier, you might want to thank Union Pacific. Why? Because in 1936, the railroad invented the very first chairlift, bringing ease and comfort to your time on the slopes. Here’s how a transportation company took the leap from transporting people across the country to moving them up mountains.

Creating a Winter Sports Resort


A 1940 railroad map shows the location of Union Pacific Railroad's Sun Valley resort, just north of Ketchum, in south central Idaho.

In the early 1930s, more and more Americans were embracing winter sports, and Union Pacific Railroad Chairman W. A. Harriman took notice. He knew well that Union Pacific operated through some of the most scenic and mountainous territory in the western United States, which led him to an innovative thought: why not take advantage of the geography and develop a world-class winter sports facility served by UP, of course?

Harriman enlisted Austrian sportsman Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find the location. In the winter of 1935, Count Schaffgotsch found an ideal spot about 100 miles northeast of Boise in central Idaho, which would later be known as Sun Valley. 

Nestled in the Sawtooth Mountains, the site was protected from northern winds and featured slopes drenched in sun and snow. And to top it all off, natural hot springs provided year-round outdoor swimming. Construction of the resort began in April 1936.

Transportation to — and up — the Slopes


A lift chair was attached to the side of a truck to test the ski lift prototype.

Today, Union Pacific only ships freight (just about everything with the exception of people, pets and other living things). But back in the day, the company provided premiere passenger rail service. Naturally, Union Pacific passenger trains brought skiers from across the country to Sun Valley. The next logical step? Find a better way to transport them to the top of the slopes.

Nearly 1,200 miles away at Union Pacific’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, members of the company’s engineering department took up the task of designing ways to transport skiers up the slopes. Several mechanical engineers looked to adapt rope tows, J-bars and cable cars. One young engineer, Jim Curran, had a different idea.

Prior to joining the railroad, Curran had worked as a structural engineer for an iron works company. The inspiration for his idea, which would later be known as the chairlift, came from a system originally used to load bunches of bananas onto boats. Curran’s design replaced the hooks on which bananas hung with chairs on which people could sit while being transported up the mountain, even while wearing skis. The chairs would be suspended from a single cable running above the chair.

Curran’s co-workers thought the idea was too dangerous. But Curran pushed forward, and the railroad built and tested prototypes at the locomotive and rail car repair shop complex in downtown Omaha. Once the design was perfected, the team had to answer an important question: how fast could passengers travel on the lift?

A lift chair was attached to the side of a truck for the test. But it was summer, so how would engineers simulate skis running over snow? The answer: roller skates. Following testing, engineers determined that a speed of between four to five miles per hour would be a comfortable speed to pick up and drop off a skier.

Debuting a New Resort — and a New Invention


The world's first snow ski chair lift is ready for a round of testing to determine a comfortable speed for snow skiers to get on and off the lift.

In December of 1936, Union Pacific opened Sun Valley Resort. With the opening, the railroad also put the world’s very first chair lifts into operation. The lifts took a little getting used to, but soon skiers adapted and the lifts changed the sport of snow skiing forever.

Union Pacific sold Sun Valley on November 15, 1964. But the invention the resort spawned lives on.

Want to learn more about railroad history? Check out these photos and historical accounts. Or, get in touch!

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