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Copyright © 2005 
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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free twice yearly to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper will receive the Sun Valley Guide with their subscription.

Photo courtesy The Community Library, Regional History Dept.
Photo courtesy The Community Library, Regional History Dept. 

Carry me home...

Sun Valley's early chairlifts
keep on chugging

By Greg Moore

Among Sun Valley’s accomplishments as the nation’s first major ski resort, one of the most far-reaching is the invention of the chairlift. Other types of lifts already existed—primarily rope tows in the East and aerial trams in Europe—but there were no chairlifts until Sun Valley decided a first-class resort needed a first-class route to the top.

The first two chairlifts in the world, both singles, were built in 1936 on Dollar and Proctor mountains. The third, also a single, went up a year later on nearby Ruud Mountain.

In 1939, a series of three single chairs was built to carry skiers to the top of Bald Mountain.

Amazingly, 66 years later, one of those lifts is still in operation, though not at Sun Valley. The original Christmas Ridge chairlift now gives skiers a dramatic view of the Gulf of Alaska as it carries them 900 vertical feet to the summit of Mt. Eyak.

It was removed from Bald Mountain to make way for a double in 1969. In 1974 the city of Cordova, Alaska, which owns the Mt. Eyak ski area, bought it for $20,000.

Mike O’Leary, president of the Sheridan Ski Club, which operates the mountain, said the lift was used in its original configuration until 1988, when a new electric hydraulic motor was installed. O’Leary said the lift’s chairs were replaced last summer with new single chairs, and the area is selling some of the 88 originals. Anyone who would like to own a piece of Sun Valley history can contact him at Mt. Eyak, Box 2446, Cordova, AK 99574.

O’Leary said the lift is still in excellent shape, and the club has no intention of retiring it. The Mt. Eyak lift is one of only two single chairlifts still operating in the United States; the other is at Mad River Glen, Vt.

And what of the Christmas Ridge lift’s predecessors?

As lift technology improved, the original Dollar lift was replaced—just a few years after it was installed—by a more advanced single chair. In 1949, when that lift was replaced by a double chair, it was sold to Boyne Mountain, Mich., for $5,000.

The original Christmas Ridge single chairlift (above)  was erected on Bald Mountain in 1939. In 1979 it was bought by an Alaskan ski resort and transported to Mt. Eyak, where it now provides skiers wih a panoramic view of the Gulf of Alaska.

Area General Manager Ed Grice said the chair was converted to a double in the 1950s. Called the Hemlock Chair, its original wooden towers and electric motor were also replaced. However, Grice said, the upper and lower terminals and bullwheels are still in place.

Grice said the 1,800-foot-long lift runs daily in winter and part time in the summer.

“Of all the lifts we have here, it requires the least amount of attention,” he said. “It just keeps running and running and running.”

So, as you glide up Bald Mountain in the spacious chairlifts of the 21st century, spare a thought for these elderly relics whiling away their retirement on a mountainside, far, far away from home. They were, in no small part, responsible for what Sun Valley—and downhill skiing—is today. •