Gondolas over Park City? It’s an older idea than you may think.
As Park City’s workers toil, 50-foot-tall towers guide valuable cargo through the sky and cut down on traffic.
The idea to move materials around Park City’s steep terrain isn’t a crackpot, futuristic vision — the scene just described took place as early as 1901.
Aerial transportation has long been employed by local business to increase efficiency, and an idea recently broached at City Hall to transport people around Park City with a gondola system to cut down on vehicle traffic is only the latest iteration of an age-old concept that was the ancestor of the chairlifts that are critical to the local economy in the present day, according to local historian Steve Leatham. Leatham, a Heber resident who was born in the Miners Hospital and worked on gondolas at Park City Resort in the 1960s, first began researching the subject while he was a geography student at the University of Utah, and has given talks on the tramways as recently as September.
Park City’s three aerial tramways of the mining era operated from 1901 to 1952, and their remains are visible today as lines of derelict towers that rise above the ski slopes. They were a cheaper alternative to a railway, and their purpose was to ferry valuable ore in large buckets down the mountain to terminals in present-day Prospector, Old Town and Empire Canyon, Leatham said. Other essential supplies traveled up the mountain. It was an infrastructure that was common to mining towns of the western United States.
There were three tramways, the most well known of which was operated by the Silver King Coalition from 1901 to 1952, cost $40,000 (more than $1 million in today’s currency) to build in 1900 and ran 7,000 feet long. The Silver King Coalition tramway’s steel towers can still be viewed today on the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort, including at the Town Lift.
The other two were the Silver King Consolidated and the Park Utah Consolidated. These ancestors to the modern chairlift weren’t built with the safety of human cargo in mind, so only in a few instances were the buckets used to carry individuals.
“The tramways were dangerous, to say the least, for people to be riding in,” Leatham said.
In one case, during a terrible blizzard in 1916, one Norman O’Brien was caught in a cave-in at the Silver King Consolidated mine, resulting in a compound fracture of his leg. According to the Park City Museum, the conditions outside were so bad that the mine’s superintendent, in desperation, sent a Park City doctor up the line to treat the injured miner and bring him back down, buffeted by high winds the whole time.
The tramways could run into issues that affected those down below, as well. A failure of the Silver King Coalition tramway caused all of its buckets, which could carry up to 1,200 pounds of material, to fall to the ground, Leatham said. One of them landed directly on a coal shed.
Descendants of ore buckets
Though Park City has undergone a total transformation since its founding, from working-class miners’ homes to multimillion-dollar ski chalets, it has always relied on one sector of the economy that, from the 20th century on, has been assisted by aerial transit.
One key difference, though, was the speed at which projects were approved by local authorities. According to Leatham, large projects such as the mining tramways often sailed through City Hall because “whatever’s good for the mines” got approved and were viewed as essential parts of civic life in the area on par with roads and utilities.
“It wasn’t a long, drawn-out process,” Leatham said. “I don’t think that would happen now.”
That aspect stands in stark contrast to the Park City of 2019, where the machinery of government is sometimes dominated by years-long negotiations and debates over projects that will affect the tourism sector, such as the Treasure Hill purchase.
“I don’t think there’d be the problems like with the ore buckets or things like that creating a hazard as they go overhead, but the aesthetics and things like that are important now,” Leatham said. “The routes of those things and where they actually cross town or what, would be a consideration.”
Leatham said that modern considerations for individual property rights are also much stronger than in the past, when there was more of an emphasis on collective utility.
Is gondola transit feasible?
Today, many aerial transit systems including chairlifts, ropeways and gondolas are manufactured by Doppelmayr Garaventa, an international conglomerate with an office based in Salt Lake City. Leatham has traced the ancestry of those systems back to the manufacturers of those early, ore-carrying tramways.
Aerial transit is already in use in many parts of the world, such as an extensive gondola transit system that crisscrosses the hilly terrain of Medellin, Colombia, and a gondola that connects two parts of the city of Telluride, Colorado. Doppelmayr Garaventa announced in September that it had won the contract to supply Mexico City with a transit line as well.
So, what’re the odds that this could actually work in Park City?
Leatham thinks they’re quite good, though it wouldn’t be a silver bullet to the automobile traffic issues that dominate conversations in lift lines.
“Transport and moving of people (with aerial transit) is a great idea, but you still have some of those same problems in parking and transportations at the hubs, the places where those things would start,” he said. “I think it could work.”
And they’d also be a lot safer than the rickety buckets of yesteryear.
“These things are so advanced now and so technologically improved that … as far as safety and what they did and what they can do now, it’s night and day to that.”
More information on the historical tramway system can be found at the Park City Museum or by contacting its research library.
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