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