Saving Ski History: Kratka Ridge’s Single-Person Chairlift

Posted By: Zeke Piestrup on August 3, 2009 3:23 pm

The chairlift is an American invention.  Its story spans from the banana fields of Honduras, to the cornfields of Nebraska, up the mountains of Idaho, and onto the Pee Chee folders of our youth.

First, a quick detour 60 minutes northeast of the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles to the Angeles National Forest and the defunct ski area of Kratka Ridge.  There you’ll find a fading piece of the rarest form of ski history.  It’s a single-person chairlift from 1954.  Today there are only two single-person chairlifts operating in the U.S.  Kratka Ridge’s single is not one of them.  The lift, designed by Howard Worthing and welded together in his South LA metal shop, has seen better days.  In December of 2001 a fire destroyed the base station.  The haul rope has since been fixed to the first tower, tied off in knots with the chairs still suspended on high.  Even in its current dilapidated state, Kratka Ridge’s chairlift is a snapshot in time of a revolution in skiing’s history: the advent of the chairlift. 

Next page: The story of Kratka’s single begins in Sun Valley

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photo: Kratka Ridge’s single in its heydey (courtesy of Ingrid Wicken & The Callifornia Ski Library)

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In the early 1930s, Union Pacific Railroad’s Chairman W. Averell Harriman was looking for a way to sell more passenger tickets.  Harriman witnessed the overwhelming success of the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid and was convinced Americans would embrace a destination mountain ski resort, ala those in the Euro Alps.  In Ketchum, Idaho, Harriman found the perfect location.  Round-trip passenger tickets to his newly christened “Sun Valley” were written into the future-profits side of Union Pacific’s ledger.

Harriman soon had a directive for Union Pacific’s engineers: How to transport skiers easily and safely to the top of the mountain?

Next page: The invention of the “aerial ski tramway”, aka the chairlift

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U.S. Patent 2,152,235.  “The invention is an aerial ski tramway intended to convey skiers from the bottom of snowy hills to the top so that they can ski back down again.”

Stashed away in Union Pacific’s engineering department was a young structural engineer named Jim Curran.  Curran immediately thought of a transport system he had used in Honduras to move bananas onto boats.  By simply replacing the hooks used for bananas with chairs used for skiers, Harriman’s problem would be solved.  Of course, others saw it differently and intial focus was placed on adapting contemporary rope tows or cable cars.

But, you can’t keep a good idea down, and soon prototypes of Curran’s design were being developed in Omaha, Nebraska.  An early question was what would be the optimal speed for the chairlift, slow enough for skiers to safely seat themselves.  The engineers afixed a chair to the side of a truck, driving and scooping up a stunt-engineer on roller skates.

Next page: The world’s first chairlift at Sun Valley

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The first chairlift was constructed on Sun Valley’s Proctor Mountain.  Unveiled in 1936, Curran’s design was a single-person lift, running between 4-5 mph.  Today, Jim Curran’s invention inhabits every continent of the globe.  Its cultural significance sealed long ago by the Pee Chee folder.

Today, more folks in the U.S. ride chairlifts than that of the top domestic airline, Southwest Airlines.  Southwest carried 40.3 million customers from January through May of 2007.  That five-month period is roughly the same length of a good ski season.  And in that same season there were nearly 60 million skier/rider visits to America’s 481 ski areas.  You are now free to move about the mountain.

Next page: Jim Curran’s original design fights extinction

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photo: The Magic Mile at Timberline, Mt. Hood, Or.  The second single-person chairlift ever built made the Pee Chee folder. 

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“The single chair lift remains the last working link to a time when American downhill skiing was all sport and not money.” — Preservation Magazine

Sadly, Curran’s original design of a single-person chairlift is teetering on extinction.  Only two single-person chairlifts still operate in the U.S. — one at Mount Eyak in Alaska (pictured above) and the other at Mad River Glen in Vermont.   Both are the last living-relics of Jim Curran’s American invention still found in his home country.

Is it too late for Kratka Ridge’s single?

Next page: Mad River Glen’s path to saving ski history

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photo: Mt Eyak courtesy of Points North Heli Adventures, Alaska

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“A true one-of-a-kind historic structure that deserves our support.” — Preservation Trust of Vermont

Mad River Glen’s single-person chairlift, battered by wear and tear, was on the same path as Kratka Ridge’s.  In 2006 Mad River Glen’s 1700 shareholders partnered with two non-profits, the Stark Mountain Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.  The campaign, “Save the Single”, successfully raised $1.7 million to save a beautiful piece of ski history. In 2008, the new “Single” was unveiled (pictured above).  The lift was saved not simply because it was a chairlift, but because it was a single-person chairlift.

Next page: Kratka Ridge ‘s single dodges near-fatal blow

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In 2006, the Forest Service was set to revoke the permits of both Kratka Ridge and neighboring Mt. Waterman, tear down the chairlifts, and restore the pistes to their natural state.  But, up stepped two Southern Californian brothers, Rick and Brien Metcalf, purchasing Kratka and Waterman, saving both from certain destruction.  It was an investment fueled by sentiment and not the bottom line.  The two brothers grew up in nearby La Canada and skied Mt. Waterman and Kratka Ridge regularly in their youth.  It’s unlikely the Metcalfs will ever see a return on their investment.  However, for Southern Californians looking for the kind of pulse-raising, steep terrain found five hours north in the bigger mountains of the Sierras, the Metcalf investment already equals paydirt

Currently Kratka Ridge remains shuttered, as the new owners pull together their resources to get Mt. Waterman on its feet.  The Metcalfs have already done their part.  In saving Mt. Waterman and Kratka Ridge, the brothers also unknowingly saved, temporarily, the rarest piece of ski history, the single-person chairlift.

It’s simply not in the financial cards for the Metcalfs to fund the restoration of Kratka’s single-person chairlift.  In fact, as was the case at Mad River Glen, it’s cheaper to replace an antiquated chairlift then to restore it.  Something of this magnitude requires the involvement of the entire Southern California ski community. 

Next page: A call to action

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photo: Kratka Ridge, So-Cal style (courtesy of Ingrid Wicken & The Callifornia Ski Library)

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“You could go skiing in the morning, and the beach in the afternoon.  A teenage wonder.  Just a pretty fun way to grow up.” — Cynthia Newcomb Quinn

Skiing in So-Cal is solely unique and has an incredible, special history.  The earliest days were spurred on by the ski-jumping craze of the 1930s.  There was the pioneering group of So-Cal skiers (and luminaries) that made up the Mount San Gorgonio Ski Club.  California’s first chairlift was built in 1942 by Lynn Newcomb, Sr. at Mt. Waterman.  And today, world-class terrain parks are found at Bear Mountain Resorts in Big Bear.  All within a rock throw of a morning (or afternoon) surf session!

The amazing achievement at Mad River Glen is the exception, whereas the loss of the world’s first double-chair, constructed at Berthoud Pass in Colorado, is usually the rule.  Which story line Kratka Ridge’s single-person chairlift follows from here is now in the hands of all Southern Californians.

My dream looks like this:  A perfect, sunny So-Cal Sunday, ascending through the Angeles National Forest, seated on the rarest piece of ski history.  Exiting Kratka Ridge’s single at top of the mountain, I look out in the distance at the Pacific Ocean.  I then turn to a couple strangers marveling at the old lift and say, “You know there’s only three of these in operation in the entire U.S.?!”

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photo: Kratka Ridge’s single of today

Zeke Piestrup ( More Posts)

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