A National Park away from Colorado’s flashy chondolas, six-packs and cabriolets lies one of the world’s oldest operating tramways that is also one of the coolest. A ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway takes you back to August 1955 when Robert Heron opened America’s first scenic tramway on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Heron Family still owns the operation which stands much the same as it did 61 years ago. The tram whisks eight tourists at a time up Prospect Mountain from Memorial Day through Labor Day for $12 apiece and shows no signs of modernizing any time soon. General Manager Steve Barker leads a team of dedicated mechanics, operators, attendants and support staff who return to the tram year after year.
The Estes Park Tramway ascends Prospect Mountain’s 1,060 feet in one free span, reaching 200 feet in the air at times. Two cherry red cars manufactured at a shipyard in 1955 were designed for 12 passengers but now hold up to eight modern Americans. A brisk trip at 1,400 feet per minute lasts two minutes and twenty seconds yielding a capacity of 280 passengers per hour in each direction. At the top, guests are treated to panoramic views of Estes Park Village, Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding mountain peaks.
Robert Heron got his start in 1937 with Kennicott Copper designing material tramways after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines. Stearns Roger Manufacturing later hired him to design portable tramways for use by the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. After testing at Fort Hale, Mr. Heron’s design debuted in Italy at the Battle of Riva Ridge carrying food, ammunition and water up and American casualties down a 1,500 foot mountainside. In 1945, Robert and his brother Webb founded Heron Engineering which built its first lift – a single chair – at Aspen Mountain. The Heron brothers went on to build the world’s first double, triple and quad chairs at Berthoud Pass and Boyne Mountain. Heron merged with Poma in 1970 and the rest is history. Robert Heron was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1985 and passed away in 1999 but his legacy lives on at Estes Park and the 33 other sites that still operate his lifts.
Estes Park was the first sightseeing-only tram in the nation and cost $200,000 to build. Heron later designed a similar tramway at Royal Gorge, CO and gondolas at Monarch Crest, CO and Sugar Bowl, CA. The Estes Park Tramway is surprisingly similar in design to modern jig-backs, utilizing two 1 3/8″track ropes that are tensioned with 25-ton counterweights underneath the valley station. One of the track ropes is still the original one from 1955! Rollers allow the tracks to slide over saddles which deflect the ropes down to the counterweight pits.
While the track rope setup is pretty standard, the haul rope situation is unique. Instead of a single rope spliced together with cabins clamped onto it, the system has two different ropes permanently socketed to the cabin carriages. The haul ropes form a single loop but are two different diameters! One that goes through the top bullwheel is 3/4″ while the lower rope that transits the counterweights is 5/8″. The haul rope loop is tensioned with a third counterweight that weighs 20,000 lbs.
A 54 horsepower electric motor is the prime mover and a gasoline Ford tractor engine forms the evacuation drive. For comparison, the Jackson Hole tram’s twin 1,000 HP electric motors can be driven by a 3,000 HP auxiliary gen-set. At Estes Park, operators actually drive each trip by releasing the service brake, accelerating and decelerating using a speed pod. A 1955 article in The Mines Magazine noted, “every mechanical aid to operation is provided in the form of dials and indicators, giving the operator line speed, car position, voltage and amperage demands of the drive motor. Signals warn of excessive speed or close proximity of the cabins to the terminals.” Nothing has changed since that article was written and there are still no touchscreens or computers here. For a rundown of equivalent systems and how far we’ve come in five decades, check my post from behind the scenes at America’s newest tram.
Much like lifts of today, a service brake acts on the drive shaft while an emergency brake is fitted to the 8-foot drive bullwheel which has a liner made of wood. A flyball governor in the motor room applies the brakes if overspeed is detected or if cars are coming in hot to the stations. Attendants in the cars have normal stop buttons and emergency track rope brake handles. The system is so fail-safe that even if the haul rope fails and attendants do nothing, springs in each carriage automatically lock the cars to the tracks. Newer tramways do away with track rope brakes and place all their eggs in the haul rope basket.
Communication was initially accomplished through landline telephone that went down the backside of the mountain and through the town to the other end of the tram. This is now accomplished wirelessly and is perhaps the biggest upgrade to the system in 60-plus years. Low voltage controls in the cabins use the wire ropes as conductors much like modern tramways without the use of dedicated communication lines.
The entire system was designed with a safety factor of eight times the anticipated loads and the tramway has no welds. As a conservative engineer, Bob Heron didn’t believe welds were reliable enough in 1955 and insisted on using bolts and rivets. 61 years later, Mr. Heron’s machine has carried more than three million passengers and will continue to do so for years to come. The Heron Family recently solicited bids for a replacement tram but amid the sticker-shock has decided to stick with the classic. As Webb Heron told the Denver Post after its construction in 1955, “we built the tramway to last…they say it would take an act of god to put it out.”