Union Pacific Invention Still Takes Skiers to the Top

2006 Marks the 70th Anniversary of the First Chair Lift Operation

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    Union Pacific Railroad mechanical engineering employees determine a comfortable speed at which the world's first ski chair lift should operate during a test at the railroad's Omaha, Nebraska railcar and locomotive repair shop complex in the summer of 1936.

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    It's the summer of 1936, in Omaha, Nebraska, as 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. The world's first two first snow ski chair lifts were debuted by Union Pacific Railroad at the opening of its Sun Valley, Idaho ski resort in December 1936.

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    Part of a 1940 advertisement for Union Pacific Railroad's Sun Valley, Idaho ski resort said it all. The resort opened in December 1936 and was quickly expanded to become the premier ski resort in the country.

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    Sun Valley Poster

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

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    All photos courtesy of the Union Pacific Museum Collection

Omaha, Neb., February 27, 2006 – The 2006 ski season marks the 70th anniversary of the world’s first chair lift operation at Sun Valley, Idaho.

Where was the chair lift invented? Omaha, Nebraska. And the company that invented the chair lift? Union Pacific Railroad.

Why would a railroad invent a chair lift? To provide a service, a "transportation" service, for its customers. Union Pacific passenger trains brought skiers from across the country to Sun Valley and a new, convenient way for them to get to the top of the slopes was the next logical step in the design of a premier ski resort.

During the 1930s, Union Pacific Railroad Chairman W. A. Harriman saw Americans beginning to embrace winter sports. Harriman’s railroad operated through some of the most scenic and mountainous territory in the western United States. His vision – develop a world-class winter sports facility served by Union Pacific.

Harriman enlisted Austrian sportsman Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find such a location. In the winter of 1935, Count Schaffgotsch found the area that would become Sun Valley in south central Idaho, about 100 miles northeast of Boise.

"Among the many attractive spots I have visited, this [location] combines more delightful features than any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria, for a winter sports resort, " Schoffgotsch wrote to Harriman.

The original 4,300 acres, adjacent to the Sawtooth Mountain National Forest, was the perfect spot. The Sawtooth Mountains, running east and west, protected the future resort area from northern winds. The mountains surrounded a small basin, with the hills and slopes largely free of timber. Snowfall and sunshine were abundant. And natural hot springs would provide outdoor swimming year round.

Construction began on the Lodge, and other facilities, in April 1936.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,200 miles away in Omaha, at Union Pacific Railroad’s headquarters, members of the engineering department were designing various ways to "transport" skiers up the slopes. Several mechanical engineers looked to adapt rope tows, J-bars and cable cars. One young engineer had a different idea.

Jim Curran had worked for an iron works company in Omaha as a structural engineer prior to joining the railroad. His concept was to adapt a system used to load bunches of bananas onto boats into a "transport" system to move people up slopes. Curran’s design called for replacing the hooks for the bananas with chairs for skiers to sit on, while wearing skis! The chairs would be suspended from a single cable running above the chair. His co-workers thought the idea was too dangerous.

Charlie Proctor, a consultant brought in by Union Pacific to help with the design of the resort, was a famous skier from Dartmouth College. He saw Curran’s plans and the rest is history.

Soon, prototypes of the chair lift were being built and tested at the locomotive and railcar repair shop complex in downtown Omaha.

Once the chair design was established, the next step was to determine the speed the chairs would travel.

A lift chair was attached to the side of a truck for the test. Because it was summer in relatively flat Omaha, engineers wore roller skates to simulate skis running over snow. It was determined that between four to five miles per hour would be a comfortable speed to pick up and drop off a skier.

When Union Pacific Railroad opened Sun Valley Resort in December 1936, the world’s first two chair lifts were put into operation. As with anything new, skiers had to get used to these new contraptions. But once they did, the adapted banana-loading system changed the sport of snow skiing forever.

Union Pacific sold Sun Valley on November 15, 1964.

Jobs at Union Pacific

Currently, Union Pacific has job openings at many locations throughout its 23-state operating system. Opportunities are available in train service, skilled disciplines (e.g., diesel mechanics and electricians) and management. Interested applicants are encouraged to visit www.up.com and click on "Jobs at UP."

About Union Pacific

Union Pacific Corporation owns one of America’s leading transportation companies. Its principal operating company, Union Pacific Railroad, is the largest railroad in North America, covering 23 states across the western two-thirds of the United States. A strong focus on quality and a strategically advantageous route structure enable the company to serve customers in critical and fast growing markets. It is a leading carrier of low-sulfur coal used in electrical power generation and has broad coverage of the large chemical-producing areas along the Gulf Coast. With competitive long-haul routes between all major West Coast ports and eastern gateways, and as the only railroad to serve all six major gateways to Mexico, Union Pacific has the premier rail franchise in North America.

For more information contact Mark Davis, (402) 544-5459.

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