Ski Lifts, Inc. and the First Northwest Rope Tows

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a multi-part series. Look for the next installment in next week’s edition of the Nisqually Valley News. 

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.

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