Mount Roberts Tramway Celebrates Twenty Years

Opened in 1996, The Mt. Roberts Tramway flies above downtown Juneau from the city’s waterfront.

Rising from the cruise docks on the edge of Alaska’s capital, the Mt. Roberts Tramway is the undisputed steepest lift in North America with an average slope angle of 39 degrees.  The now-famous tram carried its first passengers 1,800 feet above Juneau almost twenty years ago. It’s among the newest large aerial tramways in North America and one of two in the U.S. built by Poma. The summit terminal soars 165 feet above the forested slopes of Mt. Roberts, downtown Juneau and the massive cruise ships below.  On August 10th, the tram will celebrate twenty years of service and more than 3.5 million riders.

The top terminal is basically a tower, similar the Portland Aerial Tram but located in a more spectacular setting.

John Heiser proposed the lift in 1994, becoming President of the Mount Roberts Development Corporation before leaving to join Intrawest.  He financed the $16 million project with investments from Anchorage businessmen and Goldbelt (an Alaska Native Corporation) and leased right of way from the City of Juneau.  Goldbelt took 100-percent ownership of the tram in 1998.

The bottom terminal fits the definition of a tram dock!  The motor room is located above rather than below due to its unique location.

The site proved perfect for a tramway with easy access, extraordinary vistas and a short but steep profile.  Over its first full season in the summer 1997, the tram attracted 160,000 riders and more than $3 million in revenue.  At the time of the sale to Goldbelt, Mr. Heiser told the Juneau Empire of the tram, “It’s a good project, a good operation and it’s gone very well.  I think it’s something that will continue to do well.”  The tram now has a raptor center and an extensive trail network at its summit in addition to the original restaurant and gift shop.

With as many as 15,000 cruise passengers passing by on peak summer days, the Mt. Roberts Tram gets crowded.

Just how well the tram would do Mr. Heiser may not have known.  When I visited today, the tram opened with a Princess Cruises arrival into Juneau at 11:00 am.  Three more ships followed, dropping hoards of visitors on the doorstep of the tram dock.  Tomorrow’s schedule has six cruise ships and 17,329 passengers and crew docking in Juneau.  More than 3,000 of them will ride the tram, which is only open during cruise season from May through October.

The top dock looms over downtown Juneau and Gastineau Channel.

Poma of America built the Mt. Roberts Tramway in 1995-96 with 60-passenger cars fabricated in France by a company called Merit.  Many of the controls and sheaves look like those you would find on a Poma chairlift from the same era.  Fatzer supplied four 50 mm track ropes that are fixed to the terminals and a 35 mm haul rope that is tensioned hydraulically.  The entire summit terminal, restaurant and gift shop were constructed using helicopters as there is no road access.

Cabins named Eagle and Raven have four electronic doors on each corner rather than ones that open from the center.

The system spans 3,098 feet with 1,746 feet of vertical rise and no intermediate towers.  At its maximum rope speed of 10 m/s, the tram can move up to 1,050 passengers per hour.  A 600 horsepower DC electric motor manufactured by General Electric is the prime mover with two Cummins diesel engines serving as auxiliaries.  System speed varies between 5 and 10 m/s depending on volume and at the latter, a trip takes less than two minutes.  Just like most trams, the system can operate in direct mode – operated by tram control – or remote mode, operated by attendants in the cars.

A different setup than you’ll find on most tramways with a hydraulic carriage.

The ride is quick but the views are all time and technology super cool!

One word defines this tram: steep!

9 thoughts on “Mount Roberts Tramway Celebrates Twenty Years

  1. Kevin Tuttle August 13, 2017 / 8:51 pm

    I was one of the installers on the tram . Always have fun looking back . I have pictures of installation if you ever need any


    • Robert Rappoport December 12, 2020 / 9:27 am

      Kevin, did you work with Bob Holyfield during the construction of the tram? I was one of the helicopter pilots that worked with Bob and his two man crew throughout the tram’s construction.


  2. Jeff Lynne September 15, 2017 / 8:46 am

    Funnily enough, Les Okreglak, a former Yan Engineer, engineered the top terminal.


  3. Robert Rappoport April 25, 2020 / 4:59 pm

    I wish there was a history of the Tram’s construction available. The original crew consisted of only 3 individuals, Bob Holyfield from POMA was the lead. Unfortunately I can’t remember the other two fellows names. They were all very hearty and dedicated guys. Most days when the weather allowed the crew would take a helicopter from the “Rockdump” on the beach up to the upper tram site. After strapping in the helicopter, the flight was only a couple of minutes. I the weather was not adequate for flying, (as was quite common in Juneau), the crew would hike the trail to the upper site. The hike could take more than 90 minutes, often in the rain or snow. A hearty bunch indeed!
    (I was one of the helicopter pilots)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s