The World’s First Chairlift (Almost)

The Ruud Mountain chairlift in Sun Valley is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite the dominance of European companies in today’s tramway business, the ubiquitous chairlift was actually invented in Nebraska by the most American of corporations.  Union Pacific Railroad built the world’s first chairlift at its new Sun Valley Resort in 1936 based on a design by their lead bridge engineer.  The two original single chairs were fabricated in the rail yards of Omaha and installed on Dollar and Proctor Mountains in time for the 1936-37 ski season.  Dollar’s original lifts are long gone, replaced by ones from Hall and Lift Engineering (and eventually Doppelmayr detachable quads in 2007.)

Wooden towers on Ruud Mountain.
Wooden towers on Ruud Mountain.

Just down the road from Dollar you can go back in time to Ruud Mountain, where the world’s third chairlift still stands among 10-bedroom mansions and two holes of the Sun Valley Golf Course.  The Sun Valley Company has preserved Ruud Mountain pretty much as it was during World War II with its chairlift and ski jump.  The top-drive, bottom-tension lift shows just how little the fixed-grip chairlift has changed since it was invented.

The bullwheels had rubber liners but the sheaves did not.
The bullwheels have rubber liners but the sheaves don’t.
The top drive terminal which is getting a new lift shack thanks to the Sun Valley Company.
The top drive terminal is getting a new lift shack thanks to the Sun Valley Company.

When I visited this week, a crew from Sun Valley Resort was actually building a new lift shack at the top terminal to replace the original which fell down after nearly eighty Idaho winters. Apparently Carol Holding, wife of late Sun Valley owner Earl Holding, wants to preserve the chairlift in as close to its original state as possible.  I find it amazing that the lift is still under tension with very few chairs stolen from it (the local nonprofit ski area Rotarun is currently selling the chairs from Sun Valley’s Quarter Dollar lift for $1000 each and they are way less historically significant.)

Can’t get a reset!
The bottom shack has an awesome wood stove inside.

The Ruud Mountain lift isn’t the only one of this generation you can still find standing. Two even run for the public at ski areas in Alaska and Michigan.  One of Baldy’s original single chairs lives on at Mt. Eyak and another from Dollar is the Hemlock lift at Boyne Mountain (although it now has Riblet double chairs.)  If you’d like to check out Sun Valley’s preserved single chair, just follow Fairway Road from the Sun Valley Resort.  You can also access the top terminal from the trailhead at Trail Creek Cabin.

Original single chairs are (mostly) still on the line.
Original single chairs are (mostly) still on the line.

5 thoughts on “The World’s First Chairlift (Almost)

  1. mountaineer June 22, 2016 / 8:46 am

    The chair at Boyne Mountain has been rebuilt by Riblet (towers, chairs, sheaves,…) and only the two terminals are left from the original Dollar Mountain chair.


  2. Charlie February 16, 2018 / 12:48 pm

    Could they run the lift with nobody on it?


    • Thomas Quick November 11, 2018 / 8:20 pm


      The great ski filmmaker Warren Miller rode the tow in the late 1940’s. He commented that it was easy to bounce and get thrown off you didn’t get on very carefully.


  3. Thomas Quick November 11, 2018 / 8:15 pm

    The lower foundation of the first chairlift at Proctor Mountain can still be seen. It’s in a field about a mile up on the south branch of the Proctor Mountain trail. Like Ruud, the bullwheel tower ran in a track, tensioned by a counterweight in the stationary tower behind it. This tow was relocated to Baldy ca 1950.


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