The above dedication sits on the first page of a new book celebrating eighty years of commercial success called Poma: 80 Years of Ropeways from Mountains to Cities. The 190-page work, written by Béatrice Méténier and Christian Bouvier, looks back at the firm’s more than 8,000 ropeway installations from the mountains of France to Colorado, South America and beyond.
A skier at heart, Jean Pomagalski installed his first surface lift in 1934 at Alpe d’Huez. He constructed it mostly out of wood and with a used Ford motor. After building three additional tows, Mr. Pomagalski had himself a company and filed a patent in 1936 for a “carrying device hauled by a rope moving at a constant speed.” After a break for Wold War II, Pomagalski S.A. grew to 15 employees by 1953. Even so, Mr. Pomagalski still found himself simultaneously a salesman, surveyor, designer and builder of lifts that were sent off as kits for installation by customers. The company’s first chairlift, a single-seater, debuted in 1955 near Chamonix.
By 1958, Pomagalski was selling 120 lifts a year, many of them to customers in the United States and Canada. Mr. Pomagalski decided to drop the latter part of his name from the company’s in 1965 to better appeal to English-speaking clients. Poma delivered its first gondola systems simultaneously in 1966 at Queenstown, New Zealand and Val d’Isère, France. A small new company called Sigma Plastiques provided the egg-shaped cabins. Poma trusted Sigma again the next year for the world’s first gondola with automatic doors and the rest is history.
From the beginning, Poma excelled at reaching global markets from its base in France. 82 percent of its lifts were exported by 1960 and Poma found itself the top provider of surface and chair lifts in Europe, Canada, the U.S., North Africa and the Middle East. Poma was the first of the lift companies to prioritize aesthetics in lift design to the point of hiring an outside industrial designer. A man named Alphonse Lisa not only created the iconic Poma arrow logo in 1967 that still lives today, but also created the “water drop” chair and Delta station designed to match the logo. Even the Alpha terminal unveiled in 1982 took queues from the logo.
Jean Pomagalski died on July 8, 1969 as his legacy was only just beginning. Gaston Cathiard became President and modernized Poma with its first computers for design and production management. Poma introduted the Delta drive terminal with hydraulic tensioning and triple chairs in 1973. The world’s first six-passenger gondola debuted the same year with the first powered primary rails. Sigma Composite became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Poma in 1979 and became its exclusive designer and manufacturer of gondola cabins. Poma had built aerial tramways before but in 1982 debuted its first big one, the 150-passenger Cime Caron which was capable of moving even faster than most of today’s trams – 11 m/s. Gaston Cathiard died in 1983 but left Poma in the hands of his son, Jean-Pierre, who would lead the company for twenty years.
Without bases outside France, Poma found itself losing market share and suffering from fluctuations in the French currency. The company decided to open satellite facilities around the world and in 1981 settled on Grand Junction, Colorado to serve North America. Poma sent a design engineer, technical manager and salesperson from France and hired Americans to do the rest. The strategy worked. Poma of America sold more than four times as many lifts in 1982 compared with 1981 to resorts like Crested Butte, Killington and Sugarbush.
For three years in a row, Poma broke its own records for the highest capacity gondolas in the world, including the Super Gondola in 1985 at Squaw Valley and Aspen’s Silver Queen Gondola in 1986. A brochure noted at the time, “Aspen’s 6-passenger gondola is sized for the grandeur of the American open space. Showcasing Poma’s expertise in Colorado, this 2.5 mile ropeway runs on a line with 40 towers and 167 next-generation cabins equipped with built-in shock absorbers.” Poma of America realized Mississippi Area River Transit in 1984 for the City of New Orleans, building it over just four months. Installation of MART’s 350-foot tall, 245-ton towers required the largest cranes ever assembled on U.S. soil. Although MART was dismantled after the World’s Fair, it became a model for spectacular Poma gondolas built over water in Russia, South Korea and Vietnam in later years.
The book also traces Poma’s technical evolution from a builder of surface lifts and fixed-grip chairlifts to large detachable chairs and gondolas. Poma developed its first detachable grip, the S-grip in 1966 for chairlifts and gondolas with ropes up to 40 mm. As far as I can tell, the only lifts in North America that ever got the S-grips were MART and Gondola One at Big Sky. A simpler T-grip came out in 1981 (coming to North America in 1985) that was more capable on steeper profiles and on ropes up to 50 mm. The Omega grip debuted in 1995 and required less maintenance with fewer parts and no welds. Concurrently with the grips, terminals evolved – from the Delta to Alpha, Omega, Satellit, Unifix and Multix. After decades of working with composites, Sigma took its gondola cabins to the next level in 2003, introducing the Diamond range of aluminum cabins to compete with the CWA Omega. More than 13,000 Sigma Diamond cabins now operate throughout the world.
The European Union adopted a free trade policy in March 2000 following the introduction of the Euro in 1999, paving the way for consolidation of Europe’s ropeway industry. Jean-Pierre Cathiard announced on May 31, 2000 that the majority of Poma’s shares would be sold to Michael Seeber of Italy. Mr. Seeber had owned Leitner Ropeways since 1993. Poma and Leitner would unite on research and development but continue to operate as distinct companies. They jointly developed the next-generation LPA (Leitner Poma Automatic) grip and modular Multix terminal that debuted in 2005. Bigger and stronger with two parallel springs, the LPA Multigrip can be used on ropes up to 60 mm!
When the Seeber Group bought Poma in 2000, Leitner had only been selling lifts in the United States for three years with a modest 19 installations. Because of that limited presence, Leitner and Poma merged operations in North America, forming Leitner-Poma of America, Inc. headquartered in Grand Junction. The company moved into a brand new facility with 18 acres in 2008 on an appropriately named street – Seeber Drive.
The book’s forward was written by Jean Souchal, Chairman of Poma’s Board of Directors. In it, he wrote, “Our trail can be found all over the world, where we have imagined and built over 8,000 installations in 80 years. Every day – from Courchevel to New York City, through Rio di Janeiro, Algiers and Shenzhen, we are turned toward the future by bearing witness to the amazing human and technical story that began in 1936.”