Willoughby: Early lift builders
Legends & Legacies
Riffling through old files I found the brochure of Heron Engineering Co., one of the first organizations to build ski lifts. Heron took part in building Aspen’s first two lifts during the 1940s, plus two more a decade later.
Robert “Bob” Heron largely comprised Heron Engineering, based in Denver. When Aspen Skiing Co. built the first two lifts in 1946, they tapped Heron for engineering services, including on-site engineering. The American Steel and Wire Co. designed and fabricated the lift towers and cable. Aspen’s No. 1 lift was 7,900 feet.
Heron had previously engineered tows for the Army during World War II, and a freight tramway for Raton, New Mexico. During 1947, the year after Aspen’s two single chairlifts — the longest of the time — began to carry skiers toward the skies, Heron built the first double chairlift in Arapaho Basin.
In 1949, he built early lifts for Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl ski areas in California. The Squaw Valley lift topped off at 7,740 feet, the only lift of the time to approach the length of Aspen’s No. 1. During the 1950s, Heron built trams and gondolas for his two California clients.
As Aspen residents had done, volunteers in Glenwood tried to capitalize on the new sport by jerry-rigging a tow during 1939. Built by the Lion’s Club, the tow climbed the valley ridge at the west end of town. The contraption fell into disuse and disrepair. During 1952, Heron built a 4,536-foot long single chair lift to replace the original. It led to a 1,480-foot vertical drop. Despite the lift, snow conditions there could not support a viable resort.
Heron also built the last two lattice type lifts for Aspen Mountain. Number 3, built during 1954, spanned 4,800 feet. The Bell Mountain lift of 1957, at 6,425 feet, compared favorably in length with most of Heron’s lifts.
Just months after it opened, the Bell Mountain lift dropped two chairs. Ski lifts were not much different than mine trams. Rather than hoisting ore buckets, ski lifts moved chairs. Heron designed chairs, with the most important engineering challenge called “chair hangers and sleeve banding tools.” In short, these tools connect chairs to moving cable. They must roll over the tower’s pulleys without derailing, go around the top and bottom bull wheels, and remain flexible while skiers load and unload.
Due to a design flaw, the chairs fell off. The lift shut down for a few weeks to allow repair of the hangers.
The Ski Corp. turned to tubular steel towers, and no longer contracted with Heron.
Nevertheless, Heron continued to build throughout the 1960s, including lifts at Alta, Stratton Mountain, Breckenridge, Heavenly Valley, Boyne Mountain, Whitefish and Mount Shasta — 120 in all. He even created a tramway for the Grand Canyon. Eventually, the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame inducted him.
We take gondolas and chairlifts for granted. By the time Heron built lifts, tramways for mining and material transport had forged a long history and resolved engineering challenges. Despite this progress, I think of early mining days in Mammoth Lakes, California. There, two separate attempts to build trams resulted in the entire collapse of the towers when the tram was run.
No ski resort would have survived such calamity. Thanks to Bob Heron’s generally safe lifts, none ever had to try.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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