Aspen chairlift turns 60

Scott CondonVail, CO Colorado
Courtesy Aspen Historical SocietyWalter Paepcke and Aspen Mayor Gene Robinson listen to newly elected Gov. K. Lee Knous, right, issue a proclamation at the dedication of Lift 1 on Aspen Mountain on Jan. 11, 1947.

ASPEN – The ski resort celebrated its entry into the big leagues of the ski industry 60 years this week. On Jan. 11, 1947, the original Lift 1 on Aspen Mountain opened.Even then, Aspen knew how to throw a party. The newly elected governor of Colorado, K. Lee Knous, and other dignitaries made the trip to the mountains in a special train from Denver to bash a champagne bottle onto the single-seat chair.When that bottle broke, it marked the beginning of the end for Aspen’s “Quiet Year”s – the decades that the town scraped by after the silver crash of 1893. Only a few other ski areas in the United States had chairlifts. Sun Valley, Idaho, apparently installed the first in 1936, and Alta, Utah, opened with a lift on Jan. 15, 1939, according to according to says that the Gunnison Ski Club installed the state’s first ski lift in 1939. It was made out of old parts from a mining operation. Winter Park erected something called a J-bar in 1940.Oddly enough, Aspen’s chairlift wasn’t even the first in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Red Mountain Ski Area opened in Glenwood Springs in 1942 with wooden towers for its single-seat chair, according to the Colorado ski history Web site.Berthoud installed what it thought was the nation’s first double-seat chair in 1947 only to find that Hoodoo Ski Area in Oregon built a double the year before.Like always, Aspen found a unique claim to fame. The Aspen Skiing Corp. founders and townsfolk claimed they had “the longest ski tow in the world despite Sun Valley’s vociferous claims,” according to a Jan. 2, 1947, article in The Aspen Times.

Technically the chairlift was two lifts. Lift 1 started close to the present location of Lift 1A and climbed to where the top of Lift 6 is now located on Aspen Mountain. Passengers then climbed aboard Lift 2 and took it to the original Sundeck.Klaus Obermeyer was a ski instructor on Aspen Mountain that year but didn’t attend the ceremony for reasons he cannot recall. “Maybe I had a ski lesson and was trying to earn my $10 for the day,” he laughed.He recalls the original chair fondly. The ride from the base to top took half an hour – on a good day. Lift 1 “stopped frequently,” he said. There was a warming hut with a wood stove at the midway point. Skiers crowded into the hut to warm up before shivering their way to the top, Obermeyer said. The single chairs had a blanket attached for the riders’ lap.Lift 2 was more of a “homebuilt” contraption, he said. The wheels that the lift cables ran through were located right over the passengers and grease and oil would frequently drip on them. The Ski Corp. promised customers that it would dry-clean any ski clothes that were soiled.”They did a lot of dry-cleaning,” Obermeyer said.That wasn’t the only funds the early Ski Corp. founders dished out. Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, who led Aspen’s rebirth, and the early investors in the corporation, scraped together money for the chairlift and facilities at the mountaintop, according to “Re-creation Through Recreation: Aspen Skiing from 1870 to 1970,” a research piece by Anne Gilbert available through the Aspen Historical Society’s Web site.Friedl Pfeifer had the vision of Aspen Mountain’s potential as a ski resort. He realized the boat tow, which used to haul skiers up the mountain, wouldn’t cut it. A Times article referred to the chairlift as a $250,000 project.Red Rowland poured the concrete for the 49 tower foundations; Frank Willoughby widened roads with his bulldozer; and Percy Rideout led a group of volunteers who cut early trails, according to Gilbert’s paper. Frank and John Dolinsek, two Aspen boys just back from World War II, were hired for the construction crew. They still live near the base of the old lift.

The lift unofficially fired up on Dec. 14, 1946. Pfeifer and his 3-year-old daughter had the honor of the first ride. Aspen Times columnist Leonard Woods wrote that the lift symbolized that Aspen had found “a new, good, and profitable way of life. It means that we in Aspen are now carrying the ball.”While Pfeifer got the first ride up the lift, a different character took the most memorable rides. Obermeyer said that Bingo, ski instructor Fred Iselin’s lovable St. Bernard, occasionally rode up the lift. Bingo journeyed alone up the mountain nearly every day during the ski season for lunch at the Sundeck. They gave him a rest every now and then with a ride up the lift.The addition of the chairlift wasn’t enough by itself to assure Aspen’s success as a ski resort. It was still a tough mountain to ski, Obermeyer said. Skiers only had the option of Dipsy Doodle and Buckhorn, with a lot of traversing, to get back to Lift 2, he noted. Most of the skiing was down to the bottom of the mountain. The construction of chairlift No. 3 and additional trails made mountaintop skiing popular, Obermeyer said.Aspen Mountain now has 673 acres of terrain and eight chairlifts. It typically logs between 300,000 and 350,000 skier and snowboard rider visits per season.The “official” opening of the original chairlift drew about 2,000 revelers to events including a parade, fireworks and ski jumping demonstrations. Reports say the lift tickets that winter cost $2 for a single ride, $3.75 for a day, and $140 for a season.

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