Aerial Tram on Mount Rainier: Twenty Years of Debate

  • By John W. Lundin
  • Posted 5/04/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20554

Beginning in the 1930s, Northwest skiers attempted to get a permanent ski lift built on Mount Rainier to make it the center of Washington skiing, efforts that were resisted by the National Park Service (NPS). In 1953, Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) resurrected the drive to obtain better year-round facilities in Mount Rainier National Park, including winter overnight accommodations and an aerial tram from Paradise Lodge to Camp Muir at the 10,000-foot level. He argued that Mount Rainier offered the most spectacular scenery in the country and "the greatest ski runs this side of the Atlantic" (Freeman). Despite the governor's intervention, no tram or permanent ski lift was built in the park. This People's History is by John W. Lundin, a Seattle attorney and author who helped start the Washington State Ski and Snowboard Museum that opened in fall 2015. A number of Lundin's essays have been published on HistoryLink, and his book Early Skiing on Snoqualmie Pass was published in 2017.

Winter Sports in the Park

Mount Rainier National Park was created by Congress in 1899. In 1916, the Rainier National Park Company (RNPC), a private firm established by Seattle and Tacoma businessmen, received a "preferential concession" lease to build and operate commercial facilities in the Park, a move designed to prevent "rampant private commercialization and unregulated development within the park" (Blecha). The company built and operated Paradise Inn, which opened in 1917. The Mountaineers club held winter outings at Paradise as early as the 1910s, and summer ski-jumping tournaments were held there from 1917 to 1924. In 1921, a cogwheel tram from Paradise to the 14,411-foot summit of the mountain was proposed, but not built, although a Seattle engineer would resurrect the idea in 1945.

In 1924-1925, the road extending from the Nisqually Entrance to Paradise was kept open as far as Longmire for the first time. The next year, the Rainier National Park Company rented toboggans, snowshoes, and skis to winter visitors. In 1928, the company built Paradise Lodge with the hope of developing a large winter business, keeping the lodge open in the winter to meet growing demand for overnight facilities. The RNPC considered building an aerial tramway from the Nisqually River Road bridge to Paradise at the same time, but could not afford the expense. As skiing expanded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Paradise became a popular winter-sports area and the primary destination for Tacoma skiers. Until World War II, it would be one of the state's main centers of skiing. In 1933, a slalom-racing series began at Paradise, introducing this new sport to the public. Some of the best local skiers came out of that series, including Gretchen Kunigk Fraser, Don Fraser, Don Amick, and others, who became members of the U.S. Olympic ski teams. Beginning in the winter of 1933-1934, housekeeping cabins and rooms at Paradise Lodge were leased for the winter season at nominal rates of $30 to $60.

By 1934, "the park superintendent reported that 'winter sports was by far the most important park activity'" ("Linda Helleson ..."). That year saw Mount Rainier host the first Silver Skis Race, which soon became a Northwest institution. Racers hiked for three hours up the mountain using sealskins on their skis, from Paradise Lodge at 5,500 feet elevation to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. The race from Camp Muir descended 3.16 miles to Edith Basin in Paradise Valley, "dropping at the rate of 1,424 feet every 5,280-foot mile. One foot in five" -- the steep pitch at the start meant that before racers traveled 300 yards they would reach maximum speed, "something slightly better than sixty miles an hour" ("Ski Racers Memorizing ..."). The race became an annual event that drew the best skiers in the country to the Northwest.

The National Downhill and Slalom Championships and Olympic team tryouts for the 1936 Winter Olympics were held at Paradise in 1935, attracting 7,500 spectators and bringing Washington skiing into the national spotlight. The National Ski Year Book for 1936 discussed the event, as quoted in The Seattle Times of December 8, 1935:

"The widespread general public interest in the National Downhill and Slalom Ski Championships was most surprising. In the East, only those 'in the know' would have been talking freely and venturing opinions. In Seattle, however, the championships seemed as general a subject of public conversation as baseball games are in Boston" ("Year Book Gives ...").

Proposals to build a tram and a new hotel near the site of the event were never realized. Five Northwest skiers were sent to Europe on the U.S. Ski Team for the Olympic Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where Alpine ski events appeared for the first time: Don Fraser, Darroch Crookes, Grace Carter, and sisters Ellis-Ayre Smith and Ethlynne "Skit" Smith of Tacoma.

Paradise Inn was substantially upgraded and improved for the winter of 1936. A new kitchen wing was constructed and steam heat was installed in the lobby, dining room, and fountain room; halls were enclosed, a false ceiling was installed in the lobby, and windows in the dining room and lobby were shuttered to conserve heat; the first floor recreation room was converted to a ski room with storage lockers and a ski-waxing room; and an emergency auxiliary power plant was installed in case winter storms damaged the power lines to the inn.

Debate Over Skiing in National Parks

The Seattle Junior Chamber of Commerce began holding Spring Ski Carnivals at Paradise Valley in 1932, and in 1937 started lobbying for the installation of permanent ski lifts there. That year, a one-lane road was kept open from Narada Falls, just beyond Longmire, to Paradise, and a company shuttle bus took visitors from the falls to Paradise. In the winter of 1937, noted Austrian ski instructor Otto Lang started the first Hannes Schneider Ski School in the country on Mount Rainier, bringing the latest ski techniques from Europe to the Northwest. There were no ski lifts so skiers had to hike up the hills before they could ski down.

Mount Rainier National Park officials had long debated whether skiing was an appropriate activity in a national park. In 1937, Ski Lifts, Inc. was formed by local businessmen Jim Parker and Chauncy Griggs to install rope tows at Northwest ski areas. The company obtained a permit to install two rope tows in Paradise Valley, which pulled skiers 1,000 horizontal feet and 300 vertical feet up from the Guide House to the saddle on Alta Vista. The tows could carry 250 skiers an hour and cost 10 cents a ride or $1 all day. All evidence of the lifts had to be removed in the spring. Rental rooms were available by the day or for the season and floodlights were provided for night skiing.

The inaugural opening of the rope tows resulted in a record crowd of 2,328 skiers at Paradise on December 5, 1937, "the greatest early season skiing crowd that ever jammed a highway, packed a ski slope, or did a sitzmark" ("Record Ski Crowd ..."). A growing interest in getting a permanent ski lift installed in Mount Rainier National Park was resisted by park service officials, according to an administrative history of the park:

"The skiers' growing emphasis on speed, technique, athletic competition, and urban amenities led some park officials to view them as an unwelcome user group ... [The park's] landscape architect ... argued that the growing popularity of the park as a downhill ski area was insidious, because skiers, as a group, were pushing for developments that would be injurious to the national park's broader purpose of providing for the public's enjoyment of nature" ("Theodore Catton ...").

The Park Service denied an increasing number of requested permits for ski carnivals at Paradise.

In the early 1940s, park officials adopted a more favorable attitude toward commercial development and winter sports. In 1940, private vehicles were allowed to travel to Paradise in the winter, and in 1941, the Ski Lodge, a large dormitory, was completed. Also in1940, Ski Lifts, Inc. proposed to install a Constam J-bar lift at Paradise on Mount Rainier. This was a patented ski lift designed by Ernest Constam, a Swiss engineer. In December 1940, the National Park Service authorized Ski Lifts, Inc. to install a demountable T-bar lift at Paradise. However, the Rainier National Park Company was unwilling to make major improvements on Mount Rainier. Its manager, Paul Sceva, said "the Company will not spend another dollar in winter operations" ("Linda Helleson ..."). In July 1941, Sceva notified Ski Lifts, Inc. that he would not extend the company's contract to run ski lifts in the park when it expired in July 1942, and he did not want to enter a contract for the company to construct a J-bar lift there. Sceva also resigned as a director of Ski Lifts, Inc. In August 1941, a Seattle Times writer criticized the failure to achieve installation of "a mile-long, Constam lift at Paradise," asserting:

"Northwest skiers might have had such a lift, despite the defense program's demand for construction materials, if Sceva and the Park Company had fallen in with the idea immediately and not dilly-dallied around scouting for more of a financial sure thing. It's now too late, most parties agree" ("The Timer ...").

Position Hardens

After World War II, the National Park Service hardened its position regarding winter activities in national parks. In October 1945, the NPS announced that neither Paradise on Mount Rainier nor any other national park could be used for Pacific Northwest Ski Association sanctioned meets, the Silver Skis race, or any other ski competition. No overnight accommodations would be allowed, so skiers would have to stay outside the park. No permanent ski tows could be erected, but portable tows could operate so long as they were removed in the spring. No winter ski carnivals or any other events that would attract large crowds of people would be allowed. In the fall of 1945, the Pacific Northwest Ski Association asked the Department of the Interior to reopen national parks to competitive skiing. The Seattle Times quoted a spokesman for ski clubs protesting the NPS decision:

"We feel the government is depriving 100,000 Western Washington skiers of the finest ski terrain in the world for no apparent reason ... We'll fight to the last ditch to get Paradise open" ("Competitive Skiing Banned ...").

The National Ski Association joined with other organizations to protest the policy. There was some good news for skiers. Washington Governor Monrad Wallgren (1891-1961) announced that the road to Paradise would remain open during the winter, as the State Highway Department would cooperate with the National Park Service: "Skiing ... is one of our established winter sport attractions, and we want to see it continued at Paradise" ("Paradise Road ...").

In March 1946, the road above Longmire was reopened and the 600-foot rope tow was put back in operation for spring skiing. In the winter of 1947, the Rainier National Park Company operated Paradise Lodge on weekends and holidays, with a road open to Paradise Valley and two rope tows, and lost $19,000. The National Park Service policy was slightly modified in March 1946, to allow competitive events in parks. The Junior Chamber of Commerce revived its Spring Ski Carnival at Paradise in April 1947, to include "four-way competition for star runners, comedy and obstacles races and the traditional selection of a ski queen" ("Spring Ski Carnival ..."). In the winters of 1948 and 1949, the RNPC offered no overnight accommodations, only cafeteria service, and still lost money. Overnight accommodations were available at Longmire.

Washington members of the 1948 U.S. Olympic Ski Team for the games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, lobbied for a tram to be built on Mount Rainier like those in Switzerland. Don Amick from Seattle pointed to the funicular at Davos, which in 20 minutes took skiers to the top of the mountain, where there was a wide choice of downhill runs: "People interested in Mount Rainier should see Davos to realize that a funicular doesn't have to mar the landscape ... A sports railway to Muir would be a gold mine for skiers, but also in summer for hikers and sight-seers. But Mount Rainier only has rope tows" ("Seattle Skiers ...). Dr. Eugene Smith, Olympic team physician from Seattle, said a funicular would develop the sport and bring in flocks of tourists: "The Department of Interior ... should loosen up and help put over the idea. Our district needs high-altitude skiing and the only way it's possible is to build a funicular," and Gretchen Fraser agreed, saying, "Oh, Lordy, don't get me started on that subject. I'd be talking all day" ("Seattle Skiers ...).

At the end of 1949, the Rainier National Park Company's concessions contract was extended with the stipulation that it did not have to provide winter services at Paradise or Longmire. These meant Paradise would be closed for the season and cease to be a winter resort, despite its significance in the early history of skiing in the Northwest. Spared the considerable expense of the snow removal necessary to keep the road to Paradise open through the winter, the National Park Service permitted some winter development at the Cayuse Pass-Tipsoo Lake area on the east side of the mountain. "In 1949, the NPS developed limited facilities at Tipsoo Lake, a temporary warming hut, first aid station, portable toilets and ranger's office" ("Theodore Catton ..."). A turnaround and parking area for 350 to 400 cars at Cayuse Pass was cleared. "The NPS made hasty arrangements with the Naches Company to operate rope tows and provide limited food service at Tipsoo Lake" ("Theodore Catton ...").

Four rope tows in a series, 3,000 feet long, taking skiers up 1,000 vertical feet, were installed by the Naches Company, headed by Don Adams (who opened the Stevens Pass Ski Area in 1938) and Webb Moffett (then owner of Ski Lifts, Inc. and the operator of Snoqualmie Summit Ski area). Naches Pass, just outside the park boundary, was also used for skiing. However, the areas provided day skiing only, did not offer the skiing or facilities that had been available at Paradise, and "did not prove popular with skiers" ("Theodore Catton ..."). By the 1954-1955 season, the road above Narada Falls to Paradise was again kept open through the winter.

Langlie Gets Involved

In 1953, after years of frustration on the part of skiers and skiing organizations who "vainly tried to change the park officials' minds" (Freeman), Governor Arthur B. Langlie got involved. Langlie's efforts, as described by Roger Freeman, an assistant to the governor, in a 1957 article in the American Ski Annual, began on October 16, 1953, with the submittal of a formal request to the Secretary of the Interior proposing a three-point development program on Mount Rainier that would include an aerial tramway along with overnight lodging and a road open all year. Private operators would pay the costs of the development plan, which would make Mount Rainier a winter sports center with a deluxe lodge and a swimming pool. The proposal was based on the belief that "development of Mount Rainier National Park hinges upon approval of a permanent facility for passenger transportation to at least the 10,000 foot level" (Freeman). The Interior Secretary reportedly replied favorably and asked the Park Service for a report.

Governor Langlie called a meeting of 50 organizations and business groups interested in development at Mount Rainier, who "enthusiastically endorsed the Governor's action" (Freeman). In early 1954, Langlie appointed a nine-member Mount Rainier National Park Development Study Committee to follow up. According to Freeman, from the beginning:

"[T]he crux and sine qua non of all plans for development was up-hill transportation. An aerial tramway would open up a most dramatic ride above the glaciers to the eternal snowfields at Camp Muir and to the start of several ideal ski runs. It would attract sightseers and skiers from afar and form the basis for other developments."

Many local civic organizations supported the development proposal, including the Automobile Club of Washington, the Pacific Northwest Ski Association, the Association of Washington Cities, various chambers of commerce, the Puget Sound Mayor's Conference, and other groups. "We are interested in the complete development of our mountain. It is part of our community. The present development of resources is not adequate and does not do justice to the grandeur of the mountain" ("Tempers Grow Hot ...").

In August 1954, the National Parks Director met with interested groups, and told them he had recommended against the proposed development in a report to the Secretary of the Interior. Langlie's study committee believed the director's position was motivated by opposition to the development of national parks in the West on the part of easterners who never visited them. Committee members argued that the Act of Congress establishing Mount Rainier National Park "specifically granted the right to any railway or tramway company to construct and operate railway or tramway lines into the park" and that the 1931 repeal of the grant for railroad lines made this provision "specifically applicable to aerial tramways" (Freeman). Development supporters argued that the law allowed the Interior Secretary to authorize land in the park to be used "for the establishment and operation thereon of a tramway or cable line, or lines, for the accommodation or convenience of visitors and others ... This clearly expresses the intent of Congress. It is still the law of the land"Freeman).

In December 1954, the Interior Secretary told Governor Langlie that the National Park Service believed the construction of a tramway or other form of permanent mechanical transportation on Mount Rainier is "not necessary for the full enjoyment of the great scenic resources in Mount Rainier National Park" (Freeman). No further consideration of proposals to construct a tramway would be included in plans for the park.

Freeman asserted that this decision was met with "deep resentment and disappointment" in in the state, at least on the part of business groups. The governor's committee drafted a legislative measure arguing that NPS policy was contrary of Congressional intent, that recreational use of parks was being denied to hundreds of thousands of state residents, and that the local tourist industry was being harmed. President and Congress were asked to take action to ensure "adequate of use of Mount Rainier National Park" by providing facilities for the use of both summer and winter visitors, which would be financed by private providers "at no public expense" (Freeman). The Washington State Legislature passed the measure with overwhelming support.

A Turning Point

However, these efforts did not change the position of the National Park Service. No permanent lift was ever built, and Mount Rainier ceased to be one of the centers of skiing in the Northwest. Park historian Theodore Catton wrote, "the Park Service actually had time on its side in this case. With the growth of other ski areas in the region, pressure for this type of use in Mt Rainier National Park would ease" ("Theodore Catton ..."). By the 1970s, Linda Helleson, a park ranger at Paradise, observed that even "as winter sports grow, each year Paradise becomes less and less of a ski area" ("Linda Helleson ...").

Although the Mount Rainier tramway proposal was supported by business groups, it was opposed by conservation and outdoor groups led by The Mountaineers. A 1966 article in The Mountaineer, the group's annual publication, as summarized on the Alpenglow Gallery website, noted that "this was a turning point in Northwest conservation, forcing a closer unity and cohesiveness among conservation groups. An indirect result of the hearings was to indicate the need for expanded ski facilities in the region" ("Mountaineer Annual ...").


Sources:

Roger A. Freeman, "Mount Rainier Continues Winter Hibernation as Skiers' Efforts Blocked," American Ski Annual and Skiing Journal, 1957; Fred H. McNeil, "Skiing Activities in the Pacific Northwest," American Ski Annual and Skiing Journal, January 1950; "Theodore Catton -- Wonderland: An Administrative History of Mt Rainier National Park," Alpenglow Gallery website accessed April 16, 2018 (http://www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/notes/book/catton-1996.html#catton-1996); "Linda Helleson -- The History of Skiing in Mt Rainier National Park," Alpenglow Gallery website accessed April 16, 2018 (http://www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/notes/ms/helleson-1972.html#helleson-1972-c1930); "Ruth Kirk -- Sunrise to Paradise," Alpenglow Gallery website accessed April 16, 2018 (http://www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/notes/book/kirk-1999.html#kirk-1999); "Mountaineer Annual, 1960-69," Alpenglow Gallery website accessed April 16, 2018 (http://www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/notes/period/mtneer-a/mtneer-a-1960-69.html#mtneer-a-1966-p53); "Mt Rainier National Park," Alpenglow Gallery website accessed April 16, 2018 (http://www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/subjects/R-info.html#mt-rainier-park); "American Ski Annual and Skiing Journal, 1957," Alpenglow Gallery website accessed April 16, 2018 (http://www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/notes/period/asa/asa-1957.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier opens on July 1, 1917" (by Peter Blecha), "Early Skiing in the Washington Cascades, Part I: 1914-1937" (by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin), and "Ski Lifts, Inc. and the First Northwest Rope Tows," (by John W. Lundin), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 30, 2018); "Yearbook Gives Northwest Huge Boost in Skiing," The Seattle Times, December 8, 1935, p. 23; "Check it Over!," Ibid., December 8, 1935, p. 23; "Paradise Valley to Install Ski Lift this Winter, Rope Tow Going on Alta Vista; Work to Start," Ibid., October 25, 1937, p. 13; "Record Ski Crowd Packs Paradise, Northwest Gets U.S. Recognition, Meets Awarded," Ibid., December 6, 1937, p. 14; "Ski Racers Memorizing Muir Run for Tomorrow: 47 Men Taking Long Climb to Start of Trail," Ibid., March 26, 1938, p. 10; "The Timer Has the Last Word," Ibid., August 24, 1941, p. 7; "Competitive Skiing Banned at Paradise Valley, Interior Department Order Prevents Snow Contests," Ibid., October 21, 1945, p. 28; "Paradise Road to Stay Open," Ibid., October 24, 1945, p. 18; "Granstrom to Serve 4th Term as P.N.S.A. Head," Ibid., November 5, 1945, p. 19; "New Skiing Area Planned in Cascades", Ibid., November 3, 1946, p. 38; "Spring Ski Carnival to Be Revived," Ibid., November 24, 1946, p. 39; "Seattle Skiers in Europe Ask Mt. Rainier Funicular," Ibid., January 3, 1948, p. 6; "Ski Area Previewed," Tacoma News Tribune, September 29, 1949, p. 4; "Tempers Grow Hot at Rainier Hearing -- Official Hears Other Side of Park Proposal," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 20, 1954.


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