The world’s first chairlift was built in Sun Valley, Idaho in the fall of 1936. The first two lifts were located on Sun Valley’s Dollar and Proctor mountains. The design of this new machine was patterned after conveyor belts which were used to load bananas on cargo ships in Central America.
James Curran designed the first plans for the ski lift. He was a bridge engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Curran’s previous work making conveyor systems that ran at a continuous flow and loaded bananas on ships in Honduras inspired his design for a machine that could carry humans uphill and drop them off on top of a mountain. When the president of Union Pacific, Averell Harriman, asked Curran and his team to come up with a system that could carry skiers uphill, he thought about replacing the banana hooks with chairs.
The Union Pacific was instrumental in the early growth of skiing as a recreational sport in America. The popularity of the third Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, NY in 1932 helped spur Union Pacific and Harriman to develop a winter destination resort at Sun Valley in an effort to get people to ride the train and take up skiing.
James Curran was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 2001.