With winter in full swing, thousands of skiers will travel to Mt. Hood for some fun in the snow. While most winter sports enthusiasts now drive and take lifts to their destinations, following World War II, there was another way to travel from Government Camp to Timberline Lodge — the Mt. Hood Skiway aerial tram. Part ski lift, part flying bus, the tram’s creators had high hopes for the vehicle’s success. While processing* a collection recently, I discovered that the OHS Research Library holds a number of Skiway materials, including photographs and corporate records, that help illustrate the tram’s short-lived, yet innovative operations.
On the morning of October 24, 1947, the newly formed Mt. Hood Aerial Transportation Company held its first meeting at the American Bank Building in Portland. At that time, there were only two stockholders, Dr. J. Otto George and A.L. Greenwalt, who each held 250 shares. George established the company with a vision to build a state-of-the-art aerial tramway to connect Government Camp with Timberline Lodge. The “Skiway” made its first preview run in January 1951, after a time-consuming and costly construction process, to become the longest of its type in the world. That year, in an August Popular Science article, Richard Neuberger described the Skiway as the “most extraordinary of busses,” scraping clouds to deposit passengers at Timberline Lodge. Despite that notoriety and high expectations, by 1956 the tram ceased operations due to dwindling revenues.
Unlike other shorter, lighter lifts, the Mt. Hood Skiway (“Skyway” presented copyright issues), perhaps unwisely, operated with two modified city buses. Outfitted in Portland by Willamette-Pointer, the buses each used two 185-horsepower gasoline engines to haul the bus up a stationary 1.5-inch diameter cable — a technology also used in timber operations to haul logs out of the woods. The Oregon Journal photograph collections held at the OHS Research Library includes great images of the more than twenty-five miles of cable being hauled up the mountain and being installed along the 3.2-mile line from the lower terminal building to Timberline Lodge.
Equipped with streetcar-style seats that flipped to allow passengers to always face forward, each bus had a capacity of 36 riders. The customized busses cost $40,000 each — compared to the $16,500 cost for a similar passenger bus — and guzzled seven gallons of fuel per round trip. When finally hung on the cables, the buses’ incredible weight resulted in a 25-minutes-long, slow trip up the mountain. Each bus therefore, could make one round-trip per hour, moving only 72 people per cabin — proving to not be a very profitable business model.
Also cutting into profitability was creating the complicated route for the line that began at a lower terminal building — that held a restaurant and snack bar — below Government Camp and cut a clear path to the west side of Timberline Lodge. The company hired Forest Service veteran Volley Reed in 1948 to head up two cutting crews that worked from either end of the route with the idea that they’d eventually meet in the middle — Reed later altered the plan when it was discovered that the crews were not, in fact, cutting a straight line. When the crews finished two years later, work began on installing 38 steel towers to hold the miles of cable necessary to run the tram.
Despite significant snowfall on January 2, 1951, the Skiway tram was packed for its first run with representatives from numerous local news outlets. The bus was laboriously pulled up to one side of a tower, to coast quickly down to a low point, before climbing the next. Newsreel footage from the era even captured the Skiway in motion. According to Bill Keil, a Timberline Lodge publicity manager during the 1950s, “the tramway crippled its way through five years of marginal operations before suspending” in 1956.
Corporate records in the Mt. Hood Aerial Transportation Co. collection (OHS Research Library Coll 146) shed some light on how the company tried to salvage the failing venture. From 1956 through 1958, shareholders met numerous times to discuss its future. At a meeting held on August 9, 1957, they discussed a redesign using a moveable cable system with 30 to 40 cars, rather than two buses. At this same meeting, however, shareholders expressed their trepidation for new expenditures. The skiing between Timberline Lodge and the lower terminal was deemed too poor to warrant a standard ski-lift system, and most of their ridership had occurred during the summer months.
According to long-time board member George Rauch, there was also another problem, which was “a fine highway that competes bitterly with us.” At that same August 9 meeting, he noted some of the other issues he saw with the Skiway:
Despite these discussions, further attempts were made to save the Skiway tram throughout the remainder of 1958 and into the next year. By June of 1959, despite repeated efforts to carry out experiments for a redesign, a Liquidating Committee was formed. Over a year later, the lower terminal building was sold in 1960 to stockholder William Simon, for $25,000. In December of 1960, Zidell Machinery & Supply Company bought the two buses, a jeep, an engine, and other tram parts for $10,080.
Today, the route of the Skiway tram can still be clearly seen, cutting its way uphill between Government Camp and Timberline Lodge. The original lower terminal building is now Thunderhead Lodge, on Government Camp Loop. Skiers still use portions of the route to travel downhill from Timberline Lodge, using the Glade Trail and Skiway Trail.
*This project has generously been supported by the Jackson Foundation and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. The grants will be used to process and digitize photographs from Org. Lot 1284, the Al Monner Photographs, encompassing the work of the Oregon Journal photojournalist from 1936 to 1959. Several of the Skiway photographs featured in this article were created by Al Monner and rediscovered as part of this project.
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