During the 1930s, skiing in the northwest grew rapidly. Seattle and Tacoma area enthusiasts traveled to Snoqualmie Pass, Paradise on Mount Rainier, and Mount Baker on weekends to ski. Travel to ski areas was challenging, and since there were no ski lifts, skiers had to put "skins" on their skis or "herringbone" up the hills before they could enjoy the thrilling but short run down. This made skiing a physically demanding sport. In 1937, Ski Lifts, Inc. was formed by James Parker and Chauncey Griggs to install and operate the Northwest's first rope tows at Snoqualmie Summit, Mount Rainier, and Mount Baker. The lifts carried skiers uphill, eliminating much of the physical aspect of the sport, making skiing easier and accessible to more people. Webb Moffett was hired to operate the rope tow at Snoqualmie Summit, and he later took over Ski Lifts, Inc., which he ultimately used to acquire and operate all four ski areas on Snoqualmie Pass. This People's History was written by John W. Lundin as part of a series on ski history for the opening of the Washington State Ski History Museum on Snoqualmie Pass in fall 2014. Information in the essay came from The Seattle Times Historical Archives; Ski Lifts, Inc. documents from the Moffett family; the Seattle Municipal Archives; At the Forest's Edge by David Hellyer; and other sources.
Demand Grows for Ski Tows
The first chair lift in the U.S. began operating in December 1936 when the Union Pacific Railroad opened its Sun Valley Resort near Ketchum, Idaho, transforming skiing in this country. The Seattle Times reported on November 18, 1936, that in addition to such attractions as "sun-bathing in roofless ice igloos" and "mid-winter swimming in outdoor swimming pools fed by natural hot springs," the UP's $1 million-plus resort featured "ski-tows to raise skiers 1,470 feet in elevation on a 6,500 foot-long hoist, the other which gives the skier 650 feet of elevation above the valley level." Sun Valley, where the chair lift was invented by UP engineers based on a system of loading bananas onto boats, became the country's first destination ski resort. Skiers could ride to the top of the mountain again and again, allowing them to make more runs than they ever dreamed possible.
The chair lifts at Sun Valley, and rope tows that had been installed at Woodstock, Vermont, and Williamstown, Massachusetts, attracted the attention of Northwest skiers. Discussions began about installing tows locally, with the strong support of Seattle newspapers.
At the 1937 Spring Carnival at Paradise on Mount Rainier, the Junior Chamber of Commerce promoted "a modern ski plan for Washington ski areas that could give Rainier, Mount Baker and Snoqualmie Pass and other centers the sort of skiing people want," according to The Seattle Times of February 28, 1937:
"These plans would upset the apple cart of the National Park and Forest officials who wanted their lands kept clear of encumbrances such as overhead trams and chair lifts, to maintain pristine beauty untouched by the hand of man. ... The necessity of funiculars in the development of great ski areas brooks no argument. Skiers are not made by climbing hills. Skiers develop proficiency by coming downhill. Skiers at Mount Rainier can get in around 4,000 feet of skiing a day. At Sun Valley, with its chairlifts, a skier can get in 37,000 feet a day."
Ski Lifts, Inc. Forms
In August 1937 James Parker and Chauncey Griggs formed Ski Lifts, Inc. to build and operate ski lifts in the Northwest, combining their financial resources and PR talents. Griggs came from a wealthy family whose fortune was made in real estate and timber. Others were involved with the company, including David Hellyer, who recounted the origin of the idea of installing rope tows in the Northwest in his book At the Forest's Edge.
"During the winter of 1936, Chauncey Griggs had spent many weekends at Paradise, and there he met Jim Parker, who had just come to Tacoma from Williamstown, Massachusetts, and was enjoying the deep snow of the Pacific Northwest for the first time. After repeated half-hour climbs to the top of Alta Vista above Paradise Valley, followed by minute-and-a-half downhill runs, Jim turned to Chauncey one day and said, 'We ought to build a ski tow here. We'd make a fortune.' Chauncey asked him if he knew how to make one and he said, sure, he had built one of the first on the East Coast at Williamstown the previous winter. And so, from that conversation, Ski Lifts, Incorporated, had its beginnings ... After he and Chauncey arranged for some financial backing, Ski Lifts, Incorporated was officially founded in the fall of 1937."
Hellyer described the difficulty of building, operating and maintaining rope tows, which required constant attention from the person in charge, jobs which brought him into the company:
"But who, I wondered audibly, was going to spend time at the two sites in the off-seasons, live in a tent or shack with a work crew while designing and constructing the buildings, setting poles, figuring out the tightening devices for the ropes, supervising the machining of the sheaves, devising safety gates, and making it all come together? And when this was done, who was to stand in the cold and collect the dimes? Or climb frozen poles with the weight of a wet rope on one shoulder replacing it in the pulleys when it jumped out in response to the bouncing and tugging of some high spirited customer? And worst of all, who was to weave a long splice in a broken tow rope while the lift stood idle and the dimes remained in pockets? Of course, none of us anticipated all these routine operating problems, but the construction requirements did seem to call for an additional partner, and I offered myself for the job, and became the third member of the company.
"The principles of a rope tow are fairly simple, but in practice, when one is dealing with snow depths that fluctuate from a few inches to twelve or more feet, not counting drifts of twenty feet or more, and when the length of the tow is so great that the stretch and contraction of the rope may be more than thirty feet, ingenuity is called for, and I spent much time trying to solve these problems."
In the summer of 1937, Ski Lifts, Inc. sought permission from government authorities to install rope tows at the Snoqualmie Municipal Ski Park, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier.
On June 5, 1937, James Parker wrote a letter to the Seattle Parks Board, found in the Seattle Municipal Archives, proposing to construct and operate a ski tow at the city's Municipal Ski Park, which the city had opened at Snoqualmie Summit in 1934. Parker said a tow would lead "this area to its greatest possibilities as a popular ski center" and added:
"As ski coach at Williams College, ski school director in Woodstock, Vermont, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, assistant to Otto Lang, ski trail technician, and ski tow builder, I have had the opportunity to study every phase of recreational skiing, both in this country and in Switzerland. I have constructed one tow at Woodstock, Vermont, which has been operating without fault or replacement of any part, for two winters, and one tow in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which has operated equally well."
Parker provided arguments in support of ski tows based on the practical experience eastern ski areas.
"SAFETY: In a congested area a ski tow eliminated the most frequent of accidents: collision between person ascending and person descending, by concentrating uphill traffic along the tow line and leaving the slope free for downhill skiers. There is no record of injury sustained on any ski tow in the east.
"PROFICIENCY: The eastern skier has developed faster with the introduction of the ski tow. Such stars as Bob Livermore, Alec Bright, Ted Hunter, and Dick Durrance owe a great deal to the ski tow for developing their downhill technique. The western skier has no hope of competing with the eastern product unless he is given the opportunity of more downhill practice.
"ENJOYMENT: Five times as much downhill skiing is possible with a ski tow. The skier arrives at the top fresh for the down run.
"INCREASED CAPACITY: In a limited area a tow makes it possible for many more skiers to use a hill satisfactorily.
"THE NOVICE: It is necessary to develop suitable trails for the novice.
"ADVANCEMENT OF SKIING: The added enjoyment of skiing with a tow will bring more people from the cities into the out-of-doors during the winter months. A ski tow at Snoqualmie would make it the most popular ski center in this area."
The Seattle Times actively promoted ski lifts and their installation at local ski areas, as seen by this article published on August 3, 1937.
"Mount Rainier needs a funicular -- or overhead tram. It needs several, but one would do ... The hitch with installing overhead trams at Rainier comes from the perhaps justified, but certainly difficult (to the ski public) feeling within the National Park Service that they would tend to destroy the natural beauty of the park ...
"Private individuals have been talking with Ben Evans, supervisor of Seattle parks and a staunch friend of the municipal ski area at Summit, Snoqualmie Pass, about installing and operating a tram on the order of the Sun Valley, Idaho, chair lifts; a business to be conducted commercially, and this winter. First thought would be that it would put too many skiers on an already congested ski hill; the municipal area has never been nearly large enough to handle the crowds. But it might be that the ski tow, if it were universally accepted, and used, would thin out the downhill running crowd and make skiing safer. It's still worth considering."
In August 1937, Seattle's Board of Park Commissioners granted permission to Ski Lifts, Inc. to construct and operate a ski lift at the Seattle Ski Park, according to The Seattle Times of August 27:
"Designed to save skiers the long, weary uphill trek before the exhilarating downhill trip may be accomplished, the lift will go in operation on or about December 1. ... Seattle ski experts felt that with the added inducement of the lift at Snoqualmie, hundreds of additional lovers of the sport would flock to the area and that the Forest Service would be asked for further space to handle winter sports."
On October 7, The Seattle Times opined that having rope tows at Snoqualmie Summit, Paradise at Mount Rainier, and at Mount Baker, meant "the Northwest will have made the first step toward catching up with Europe in the matter of ski equipment." The tows were described as "endless ropes" powered by gasoline motors that skiers could catch hold of and be pulled along. The tow at Snoqualmie Summit was 1,000 feet long and would lift skiers up 450 feet, which was seen as the solution to the area's "weekly traffic jam," as it would keep the skiers heading up-hill on one side and those skiing downhill on the other. The tow at Mount Baker, located south of the slalom course there, was longer. Ski Lifts, Inc. also planned to install a rope tow at Blewett Pass, serving the Top of the Hill Lodge.
Webb Moffett became the first employee of Ski Lifts, Inc., hired to operate the rope tow at Snoqualmie Summit beginning January 1, 1938. Moffett described his involvement with the company in an article published in Puget Soundings magazine four decades later:
"Although all were having fun in those days (because we didn't know any better), the world was awaiting an easier way to get more out of skiing. ... [A] sophisticated young man by the name of Jim Parker came out from the east. His involvement there with the rope tow enabled him to enlist the support (and the finances) of Chauncey Griggs of Tacoma. They started a company known as Ski Lifts, Inc., for the purpose of installing rope tows in the Northwest. At the same time, I had my interest piqued by an article in the Sunday supplement of The New York Times about the first mechanical device to haul skiers up a hill by an endless rope. This device, located at Woodstock, Vermont, intrigued me. I had been doing a little skiing myself -- you did a little skiing in those days because you spent most of your time climbing the mountain -- and suddenly I knew that a rope tow was the answer ...
"Those were the depression years and, since I was out of a job, I had the opportunity to secure a location. I found that the Tacoma people had preceded me. On the theory that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I talked myself into a job with Ski Lifts, Inc., and Jim Parker and I set out to install rope tows at Rainier, Mt. Baker, and Snoqualmie. At the same time, Don Adams and Bruce Kehr were busy setting up a rope tow at Stevens Pass."
On April 27, 1938, Parker sent the Seattle Parks Board a summary of the first year's operations of the rope tow at the Municipal Ski Park.
"We are very pleased with the favorable reaction that had been evidenced by the skiers at this playground and are satisfied that the use of the ski tow has contributed greatly to the increased pleasure of skiing as well as to the further development of the sport. Although the ski lift was a new idea in this vicinity this year, it did not take skiers long to appreciate its benefits. When we first started operation in January the lift was patronized by only about 15 percent of the skiers on the hill. The acceptance of the lift increased throughout the season until at the close of the season approximately 75 percent of the skiers were accustomed to taking advantage of the lift.
"We started operating the tow on January 1st and continued each Saturday and Sunday until the closing date April 17th. During this time almost 3,000 people took rides. Some of these customers would average between 50 and 70 rides per day so that approximately 100,000 rides were given in all."
By 1938, skiing had become Seattle's favorite winter-time sport, featuring areas on two mountain ranges, with the manufacture and selling of ski equipment becoming a $3 million industry, according to The Seattle Times of July 24, 1938:
"Within a comfortable four hours distance a half-dozen of the outstanding ski terrains in the entire nation, Seattle has become the hub of intense activity through the winter months. Every week-end finds 20,000 or more skiers turning to the glistening snowfields of the Cascades, Olympics, to Mountain Rainier and Mount Baker."
Lifts in the Parks
The Seattle Times reported on November 16, 1938, that Ski Lifts, Inc. had developed a portable ski tow with 1,200 of rope powered by a 12-horsepower engine weighing 200 pounds that could be placed on skis or a toboggan and hauled anywhere. One had been installed at Tipsoo Lake on Mount Rainier for racers, who would not be charged for its use as they trained to reach international caliber, which required 25-40,000 feet of downhill skiing a day. Company officials planned to meet with the Superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park to discuss the use of tows because, according to the paper, the Park Service said "it can't allow an elegant landscape to be cluttered up with long stretches of vibrating rope, tugging skiers up to where they may ski down." The arrival of ski lifts the previous season created a demand for lifts everywhere. A free rope tow was installed by the Spokane Ski Club at Mount Spokane, and the Mountaineers installed a rope tow with 900 feet of pull and 330 feet of lift at its Meany Ski Hut at Martin near Stampede Pass.
The company's balance sheet dated June 30, 1939, showed it had total assets of $7,443.68, including lifts at Mount Baker, Paradise, and Snoqualmie, a portable lift, Blewett Pass property, and a truck. Net profit for the season was $1,509.07.
In spring of 1940, the Seattle Parks Department got out of the ski business after Seattle residents concluded that Snoqualmie Pass was too far away for a city park. Ski Lifts, Inc. and Webb Moffett continued to operate the ski area at the Summit.
In 1941, the company proposed to install a Constam lift at Paradise on Mount Rainier. Constam lifts were patented J-bar tows designed by Ernest Constam, a Swiss engineer, "where the skiers are towed by means of a J stick connected to an overhead cable." This proposal created conflicts with the park. In July 1941, the Rainier National Park Company informed Ski Lifts, Inc. that it would not extend the company's contract to run ski lifts in the park when it expired in July 1942, and would not allow the company to construct a Constam lift there, in spite of the fact that the proposal had been approved in Washington, D.C., by Park Service officials. The Seattle Times of August 24, 1941, blamed the Rainier National Park Company for the failure to get the J-bar lift project implemented:
"'Aw nuts!' may be the skier's appraisal of ski-lift developments at Paradise Valley, Mount Rainier, when the snow starts flying come November. Paul H. Sceva, Rainier National Park Company manager, hasn't admitted it, but there are rumors the 'plan of the moment' is for installation of two 'nutcracker' ski tows from Alta Vista to the base of Panorama. The term 'nutcracker' as applies to this form of tow -- a grand letdown after the build-up last winter when Washington approved installation of a mile-long, Constam lift at Paradise -- is derived from a nutcracker device which clamps onto the tow line and (with a belt gadget attached) relieves the skier of holding on. ... 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."
Disputes and Disagreements
By 1939, disagreements emerged between James Parker and others in Ski Lifts, Inc. and he moved back to the east coast. Chauncey Griggs became president and ran the company. For several years, different factions in the company tried to buy each other out. Further conflicts caused Griggs, Hellyer, and others to leave the company in 1941, and Carl Heussy, a Seattle attorney, took control as president.
In September 1941, Ski Lifts, Inc. was in dispute with the governing authorities at Mount Baker as well as at Mount Rainier. The head of the Mount Baker Development Company recommended to the Mount Baker Forest Service that the company's use permit be canceled, since "both he and the Forest Service were completely disgusted with the operation at Baker in the past."
In October 1941, Ski Lifts, Inc. ran its first ad in The Seattle Times, saying 11 tows were available to skiers. "You'll ride NEW lifts on the practice hill at Paradise, up Alta Visa and on the Seven Hills at Mount Rainier, improved ski tows at Naches, at Snoqualmie, and Edith Creek Basin." The November 12, 1941, Times described the rates the company would charge to ride its rope tows in 1942: At Mount Rainier, a ride on the "big tow" would cost 10 cents, or one could ride all four tows in Paradise valley all day for $1.50. For five cents, skiers could ride the new Edith Creek tow, 700 feet long and extending down the back side of Alta Vista to Edith Creek basin, and the two beginner tows on the practice hill. At Mount Baker, there would be an all-day charge of $1.50, the Bagley tow would cost 10 cents per ride, and the new Seven Hills tow would cost five cents a ride. The tow charges at Snoqualmie Pass would be in the neighborhood of $1 for all day and five cents a ride.
Moffett in Charge
In May 1942, Webb Moffett and a partner purchased Chauncey Grigg's shares of stock in Ski Lifts, Inc. for $3,500, and assumed control of the company. Moffett described how the Summit Ski area survived during WW II in spite of the gas rationing imposed by the federal government, in an article in his 1978 Puget Soundings article:
"With the outbreak of war in 1941, the future appeared rather dismal. Rainier was set aside for the training of mountain troops, Mt. Baker was closed for the duration, and the most critical problem for everyone was gas rationing. The Tacoma people decided to bow out and sold the operations at Rainier, Mt. Baker, and Snoqualmie for $3,500. Even the Milwaukee Bowl, which had been very popular by virtue of the ski trains, had to close down for lack of rolling stock. Curiously, it was gas rationing that saved Snoqualmie. People still wanted to ski and they could pool their five gallons of gas a week, jam-pack their cars, and drive the shorter distance to Snoqualmie. Business quadrupled the first year, and Snoqualmie grew with more and more rope tows."
After World War II, skiing expanded everywhere. Ski Lifts, Inc. improved the Snoqualmie Summit Ski Area and installed lights for night skiing. Webb's son Dave said the lights were initially put in so employees could ski after work, not for the general public. In the fall of 1945, the Mountaineers installed a new high-powered rope tow at its Meany Ski Hut at Martin. The University of Washington Husky Winter Sports Club was re-instituted, and the school bought the Northern Pacific Ski Hut at Martin. The lodge was remodeled, a rope tow was installed, and the area was the center for UW winter sports until the lodge burned in 1949.
In the summer of 1946, Ski Lifts, Inc. made significant improvements to the Snoqualmie Summit Ski Area ("Seattle's famed near-home ski area"), costing $18,000, which tripled the skiable area, according to The Seattle Times of October 23, 1946: "Logging teams have slashed trees, bulldozers have scraped and graded, and workers have completed a drainage system for three separate ski areas." Three lifts were added, for a total of eight rope tows that could carry 6,500 skiers an hour. Two tows were constructed in the Beaver Lake area, "for the terrain there is steep enough to attract any experienced skiman." The Government Hill lift was lengthened and improved -- "the long lines waiting for rides, so characteristic of the Snoqualmie Pass ski scene last winter, won't be repeated," said the Times. A beginner tow was built on the left side of the "big" Government Hill. A 3,000-foot advanced tow ran from the base of Government Hill to the Beaver Lake trail. Another beginner tow was located in a newly cleared area west of that advanced tow and a second advanced tow would operate beside the Beaver Lake Class B jump for veteran skiers. A 30-foot-wide road was bulldozed from the top of Government Hill to Beaver Lake, and "Sno Cat" service would be provided to skiers who wanted to test the "more rugged Beaver Lake country," according to the paper. A 120-foot building was moved adjacent to the Forest Service warming hut, which had cafeteria service, a ski-rental shop and a warming room.
In the winter of 1947, Ski Lifts, Inc. ran ads in The Seattle Times promoting night skiing at the Summit:
"Night Skiing, Tomorrow Night and every Wednesday and Saturday nights, 7:30 till 11 p.m. by floodlight. For a new thrill come to Snoqualmie Pass Winter Sports Area tomorrow night. Only 1-hour drive from Seattle. Also dinners and refreshments at the Warming Hut. Tows also operating every day except Monday and Tuesday."
Ads were also run in the spring:
"Spring Skiing at its best at Snoqualmie Summit. Tows open every day of spring vacation (on other weeks every day except Monday and Tuesday). Take advantage of our private instruction."
On September 11, 1947, Webb Moffett purchased all other outstanding shares of Ski Lifts for $15,000, and became sole owner of the company.
That fall the company installed two rope tows at the Blewett Pass Summit of the existing highway (which was subsequently relocated in the 1950s), as described by The Seattle Times on November 9, 1947.
"There'll be a new ski area available this winter for Washington State skiers who like the sunshine and dry, powder snow on the eastern slopes of the mountains. For Ski Lifts, Inc. has installed two rope tows at the summit of Blewett Pass in the heart of the dry-snow belt in the Wenatchee Mountains, 120 miles east of Seattle via the Snoqualmie Pass Highway. The runs available range from beginners' slopes to steep hillsides which will please experts who can speed downhill at 45, 50, or 55 miles per hour. Blewett Pass will be kept open throughout the winter, since the main trucking route from the surrounding country follows the Snoqualmie-Blewett highways.
"There's a small inn called Top of the Hill Lodge where skiers will find food and shelter. Overnight accommodations, however, are limited in the area. The ski area is at the 4,100 foot mark at the pass. Webb Moffett, who heads Ski Lifts, Inc., plans to start operating the tow December 15, possibly sooner if the weather man cooperates. Blewett is expected to attract scores of East Side skiers who ordinarily ski at Stevens Pass. For the Eastern Washington residents are just as enthusiastic about the snowflying sport as West Side skiers, and they're looking for more areas to accommodate the thousands of runners."
In 1953, Ski Lifts, Inc. installed a Poma lift at Snoqualmie Summit. In 1955, the company purchased 40 acres from the Northern Pacific railroad; installed the first double chair lift at Snoqualmie Pass, called the Thunderbird; and built the Thunderbird Lodge at the top of the mountain.
In 1980, Ski Lifts, Inc. purchased Ski Acres, a ski area opened east of the Summit in 1948, and operated it in conjunction with the Summit ski area. In 1983, the nearby Alpental ski area was sold to Ski Lifts, Inc. In 1992, the Hyak ski area located east of Ski Acres was sold out of bankruptcy court to Ski Lifts, Inc., which then owned all four Snoqualmie Pass ski areas. Several transfers of ownership followed, but the four areas remained under common management.