Ski lift chairs prompt a double take, suspended from the ceiling at House of Air, a trampoline park in San Francisco. Kids gleefully fill half a dozen of the seats. Collectors’ items, Aspen’s recycled lift chairs swing from front porches or offer respite, placed in shady gardens.
Having spent countless hours seated in lift chairs, I ascribe to their comfort. The contours fit a seated body. The backward tilt urges one to linger, rather than exit onto the cold and slippery slopes. Foam seats keep your buns from freezing, wood slats on older seats drain the rain.
Environmentalists repurpose objects that may otherwise end up at the dump. Producing a chair consumes a lot of carbon-burning energy, and lift towers run on the carbon equivalent of many chairs. Reusing these objects, rather than manufacturing new ones may save energy.
The Bell Mountain lift has run for more than 60 years, a long life for anything comprised of multiple moving parts. Now that replacements have taken on the work of Aspen Mountain’s older lifts, it would be interesting to see what new purposes these objects might assume.
Repurposing 70 years ago focused on saving dollars, rather than carbon. Mining equipment gained new life in the ski industry. The need for capital plagued the Aspen Skiing Company, formed to build the first two lifts. The cost of steel complicated calculations, because the needs of World War II had cornered metal production. Later, fabricators slowly met pent-up demand for stoves and refrigerators forgone during the war.
The Skiing Company found a solution. The Park Tram, the last mining tram built in Aspen, had ceased operation and its cable lay on the ground. A quick examination found that it nearly matched the length of the proposed lift #2. That lift would connect Midway, the end of lift #1, to the top of the mountain.
My father, who led much of the construction of Aspen’s first lifts, moved the cable. The dangerous operation challenged his mining ingenuity for handling heavy objects. Moving the cable downhill to bypass obstacles along the way would have risked a run-away whipsaw. He used only a small bulldozer to pull the thousands of feet of cable to a spot at the top. There, a team coiled the cable and hauled it to the new location.
Repurposing came naturally to the crew of miners who built the lifts. With low prices for silver during the Great Depression, they had to recycle older equipment. They reused rail tracks from mine tunnels. Despite rust, the tracks did not wear out. Metal roofing kept snow off, no matter what it covered. Thick wood from mining tram towers worked fine for constructing buildings and timbering tunnels and shafts.
During the late 1930s, my uncle Elmer Johnson salvaged cables from the other two mine trams on Aspen Mountain. One tram had run from the bottom of Little Nell to Tourtelotte Park, farther than did the cable for the #2 lift.
Metal not in use at the remaining mines found new applications during 1942. Mayor Fred Willoughby, my grandfather, asked the community to round up metal for a desperate need, the war effort.
Who knows what purposes may be fulfilled during 2120 by the skiing infrastructure in play today?
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.