1939 Sun Valley Single Chairlift

Steve Hannagan was the impetus behind the invention of the modern ski chair lift. After mulling over the rigors of reaching the top of a ski slope, Hannagan suggested to Averell Harriman that Sun Valley needed a “mechanical device” to take people up the mountain. Hannagan believed that the crowd coming to Sun Valley wanted the joy of skiing and not the wear and tear of climbing to the top of a ski slope or being drug up the mountain on a tow line. Both forms of travel Hannagan saw as an undignified form of travel.

Harriman immediately assigned Jim Curran, a bridge engineer for Union Pacific to design a ski chair. Curran turned to his experience with unloading boats from Honduran as the model for the ski chair and lift.[1] His ski chair apparatus was based on this simple model. The following picture depicts a test run of the chair at Union Pacific’s Omaha Operations Center.

Image result for Sun Valley Lodge 1936 construction photos

Testing the Mechanics of the Ski Chair[2]

After Omaha tested the ski chair for reliability, Curran took his team to Sun Valley to oversee its the location of the lift, construction of the tramway and installation of the ski chairs. An early press release by Hannagan even gave the chair its original name: “chair-type lifts”, which was eventually shortened to chair lift.[3]

1939 Sun Valley Single Chairlift

Original Ski Chair[4]

Initially, skiers sat perpendicular to the direction of travel. As the following picture shows, skiers waiting for a ride sat on a snow bank. Waiting on a cold snow bank did not seem to meet Hannagan’s goal of a comfortable ride to the top. Sun Valley crews had to maintain a snow free channel and constant removal of new snow so that skiers could board the chair and be lifted above the snow.

the first chair lift built in sun valley idaho - Google Search

Tramway for the Ski Chairs[5]


Steve Hannagan on the Ski Lift[6]


Worlds First Ski Lift - Proctor Mountain Sun Valley Idaho

Abandoned Ski Lift at Sun Valley[7]

The simple idea that Steve had about a ski lift has subsequently become the standard for the ski industry. Not a bad result for a press agent with no engineering skills.

End Notes

  1. Monkey, Moon (May 8, 2013); “Bananas and the World’s First Chair Lift” (retrieved January 24, 2014); Snow Brains.
  2. Photograph of Test of Ski Chair Using a Truck; Union Pacific Railroad Invention Still Takes Skiers to the Top: (Retrieved January 24, 2014); UP Building America; http://www.uprr.com/newsinfo/releases/heritage_and_steam/2010/1129_sunvalley-chairlift.shtml p 1
  3. Taylor, Dorice (1980); Sun Valley; Ex Libris Sun Valley; p 36.
  4. Photograph of an Original Ski Chair (Retrieved January 24, 2014) http://www.vintagesnow.net/Original-Sun-Valley-Single-Chairlift-p/chairlift1.htm
  5. Photograph of the catenary system (Retrieved August 23, 2017); https://www.pinterest.com/pin/86694361555047308.
  6. Photograph of Steve Hannagan on the ski lift (Retrieved August 21, 2017); http://www.svguide.com/w11/w11pics/svhannagan-lift.jpg.
  7. Photograph of an abandoned ski lift at Sun Valley (Retrieved August 25, 2017); https://photorator.com/photo/28588/worlds-first-ski-lift-proctor-mountain-sun-valley-idaho-.