by Frank V. Persall
Skiing has come a long way over the years and it has only been in the last 100 years that skiing fanatics have had the privilege of being hauled up the mountain and conveniently dropped at the top, ready to ski down. All of this is thanks to the ski chair lift; but who invented the first chair lift, and why?
It was 1936 that engineering expert James Curran first developed the blueprints for the first chairlift. Funnily enough, Curran worked for Union Pacific which is a railroad company but they had their reasons for wanting to create a ski lift.
But there is so much more to this story and in this guide, we are going to be looking at how and why the first chairlift was developed and why it was such a significant invention.
The ski lift was first invented in 1936 by a company called Union Pacific Railroad. Now, it may sound strange that a company like this would venture over into the world of extreme sports and seemingly create a product that had nothing to do with their original line of business. But there was a method in the madness.
You see, Union Pacific Railroad can be credited with having created the world’s first American ski resort that was designed on the inspiration of the ski resorts that one might find in Europe. But again, why on earth was a railroad company looking at opening a ski resort? Here’s where it gets really interesting.
At the time, the chair of Union Pacific, Averell Harriman, was looking for ways to boost passenger rail travel. Harriman believed that having a ski resort on American soil would surely achieve this, and so Sun Valley was born.
Sun Valley was located in Idaho and first opened its slopes to the public back in 1936. According to the daughter of the inventor of the world’s first chairlift, skiing would not have become as popular as it was if it hadn't been for her father’s creativity. She’d probably correct, in modern times, many people simply wouldn’t have the time, patience, or even fitness to hike to the top of the mountain every time they wanted to ski.
Before Sun Valley opened, there were areas that you could ski in the USA, but they were far from being resorts. A more apt description of these places would be that they were ski areas. The first such location opened back in 1915 and was located in Colorado. Several others soon followed and by the time Sun Valley made its grand entrance, there were around 20 ski areas. But none had the attraction that the latest offering had.
Sun Valley allowed visitors to spend time on the slopes as well as enjoy dining, entertainment, and accommodation. This was a huge draw for people from all over the country and as such, the railroad industry boomed with passengers hopping aboard from all over the United States just for the privilege of experiencing the Sun Valley ski resort.
While the Sun Valley resort was located in Idaho, the invention of the first ski lift happened in Omaha, Nebraska which is where inventor James Curran lived at the time. One of the main problems that skiers at the time were facing was getting up the mountain quickly but safely. While the sport was gaining popularity, it was still very much a niche sport and without a way of scaling the slopes, it may well have stayed that way.
But as we have learned, the creation of the first ski lifts by Union Pacific was far from merely being a convenience for skiers. The railroad industry took huge dividends from the opening of the world’s first ski resort so not only did Union Pacific benefit from this increase in profits but also from the profits gained from Sun Valley. It was a business deal in which the company couldn’t lose.
What was especially important in terms of profits for the company was that the Sun Valley resort tended to attract more high-end clientele back in its early days. These financially fortunate skiers would not only pay for the privilege of using the slopes but also spend their money in the various entertainment and dining venues. To gain more traction with high-end clientele, Harriman hosted many Hollywood stars completely free of charge, and this certainly did the trick.
While some of the first patrons of the Sun Valley ski resorts were those with a more significant income, it didn’t take long before the masses were attracted to what the resort had to offer. Alpine skiing was considered to be something of a niche sport before the turn of World War II.
While we may take for granted some of the technology available at ski resorts today, it wasn’t all that long ago that your physical prowess needed to be far superior and that was before you’d even thought about coming back down the mountain.
As more and more people realized that Sun Valley was a way to get involved in this almost exotic sport, at the time, more and more of them flocked to its slopes. As a result of this, the ski tourism industry in the US began to boom. Today, there are ski resorts all over the country but Sun Valley remains the place where it all began.
The Union Pacific engineering department was based in Omaha, Nebraska, and engineers including the famous Curran worked tirelessly to come up with a practical solution to the problems faced by modern skiers.
Today, a lot of people will take on the challenge of backcountry skiing which involves making your way up the mountain in a traditional manner. Back in the day, skiers would have had skins on the bottoms of their skis to make climbing easier and it was certainly a physically demanding affair.
Harriman had sent a telegram to his engineers ordering them to come up with an innovative way for skiers to access the slopes. He detailed that the invention needed to be able to transport two skiers two thousand feet up the mountain.
The telegram talked about how other systems such as rope tows and hoists had been used but this could be improved upon. He also wanted to be able to transport at least 100 people every hour so the guys at the engineering base certainly had their work cut out for them.
In short, it was essential for the team to come up with something that would make skiing more easy and accessible to people who otherwise would never have had the chance to take part.
For example, before this period, there were several ways of accessing the top of the mountain, none of which were particularly favorable. You could hike to the top, as we have mentioned, but this is physically exhausting. There were some small trains that took to the higher areas of peaks and in some situations, horse-drawn carriages were even used. But can you imagine having horses hauling people up the mountainside today? It simply would never be accepted, and rightly so!
But what is most surprising is that, while Harriman had requested such a piece of technology, James Curran wasn’t the most likely to deliver. You see, Curran had never hit the slopes in his life. Even after the invention of the ski lift, he never set foot on the mountain, so one would believe that he wouldn’t know where to begin. But being the savvy inventor he was, his logic and creativity took over.
That being said, upon his first contact with the bosses at Union Pacific, his plans were laughed out of the office. He needed to get Harriman to get a feel for his idea so he snuck the blueprints into his boss’s other paperwork. Not knowing that this was the idea James had originally proposed, he saw clearly that this might be a viable method of mountain transport.
Before the Union Pacific chairlifts that we are familiar with today, there were several other attempts at fashioning something along the same lines. While some of these things had a small impact, none were quite as successful and never really caught on.
In 1906, there was an invention created by a German farmer named Robert Winterhalder. This was, some might say, one of the most primitive forms of the chairlift, although it would not have been anywhere near as sophisticated as that made by Curran and his team.
In this instance, the cables were hydraulically powered and anyone wanting to make their way up the mountain would need to use hooked handles to attach themselves to the system. The skis would remain on the ground while the cables moved, allowing the skier to glide up the slopes. While this did gain some traction locally, it wasn’t an invention that saw success in other parts of the world.
Moving forward and back across the pond to the USA, we see another similar system in 1910. This was originally designed in California and was something of a success with skiers. Similar to the German design, this towed lift meant that the skis remained on the ground while the skier was pulled up the hill; the difference was that this one was steam-powered as opposed to using water power.
As late as 1931, a Canadian skier tried his hand at inventing a way to move up the mountain and gave us the rope tow. While back over in Europe, a T-bar version of the ski lift was being created. It was certainly a long road to the lift that we know and love today.
If you imagine that it wasn’t even a hundred years ago that people were still having to manually scale a snowy mountain to get to the top to enjoy the ski downhill, this is something of a dizzying thought. It was only in 1936 that the first American ski resort opened, Sun Valley, allowing US skiers the chance to experience fine dining, swimming, accommodation, and of course, a spot of skiing.
But the resort was opened by railroad giants Union Pacific and the chairman at the time insisted that his ski patrons would have easier access to the highest points of the mountain. Where other systems had previously been used, the engineers including the inventor, James Curran, developed what we know today as the ski lift. And thank goodness they did!
We love finding out about the history of skiing and while this story takes us back to just before World War II, there are skiing stories that go much further back and some that are much more recent. In any case, if you’d like to know more, check out our ski pages for some awe-inspiring information.
About Frank V. Persall
Frank is originally from the UK, but he has a passion for skiing that knows no bounds. He has made it his life's mission to visit the best ski resorts across the USA and the World. Frank loves spending time with his wife and three children on ski slopes, as they all share his love for the activity.