How Bananas Led to the World’s First Chairlift

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James Curran and the first Ski Lift in Sun Valley, ID, chairlift
The first Ski Lift in Sun Valley, ID

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 testing and showing off the prototype chairlift to J.P. Morgan
James Curran testing and showing off the prototype chairlift to J.P. Morgan

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 a system that could carry skiers uphill, he thought about replacing the banana hooks with chairs.

Banana Belt
Banana Belt

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. 


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9 thoughts on “How Bananas Led to the World’s First Chairlift

  1. Taken from the ” Chronology of Selected Ski Lifts , Notes for 2001 Exhibit, New England Ski Museum ” :
    In 1933 , Shawbridge rope tow opens on the “big hill” at Shawbridge, Québec in the Laurentides,
    by Alec Foster. “Not a funicular, but better, a 2,400-foot endless rope, passing through blocks at top and
    bottom of its span of two-thirds of the hill, and around a special hub on the rear axle of the Dodge…Five
    cents a trip or fifty cents a day and business was booming “(Canadian Ski Annual, 1933, p. 50).

  2. The picture of the man sitting on the chair lift, facing the camera, is most definitely not my father, James M. Curran. My sisters and I think it is the Austrian aristocrat who was the UP’s consultant on the project.
    The man driving the the modified test car is my dad in the Omaha UP yards. We have been told by Mary Grumunder, who did significant research into the development of the chair lift, has told us the the guinea pig on the chair was JP Morgan. As a member of the UP Board he was fascinated with the project and came to Omaha to check out its progress.
    PLEASE USE THIS INFORMATION TO CORRECT THE CAPTION ON THE FIRST PICTURE.

    1. Thank you so much for this information. We would have a lot less to do around here without the brilliant idea your father helped create.

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