Sugar Bowl Gondola (aka The Magic Carpet)

Built during the summer of 1953, The Magic Carpet was the West Coast's first gondola and conveniently improved the travel from the train to the resort for skiers. Formally going over land with a snow weasel, the guests welcomed the shortened trip from 30 to 7 minutes.

From Sugar Bowl's very first season, visitors and stockholders debated the need for better access into the resort, Jerome Hill was convinced that there had to be an easier way to get skiers, guests and supplies to the lodge other than over land behind a snow weasel. Jerome wanted something that was uniquely Sugar Bowl, reflecting its persona. "We were having lunch in our Hillsburough home when Wellington asked Jerome how he might solve this problem," recalls Harriet Henderson. "Jerome suggested he might build a gondola that could transport people in and out year-round."

Sugar Bowl offered the land and, with his own money, Hill financed the West Coast's first ski gondola. Built during the summer of 1953, the "Magic Carpet" was welcomed by everyone. Not only did it reduce travel time into the homes and ski area, its aerial access also preserved Sugar Bowl's old-world charm far from roadways, traffic and congestion.

Hill selected Bob Heron of Denver-based Heron Engineering to design and construct the lift. Heron was no stranger to the Sierra Nevada, having installed the world's longest double chairlift at Squaw Valley in 1949. The company had also replaced Sugar Bowl's Disney chair in 1952 with a double lift carrying 600 skiers per hour.

Estimated to cost $250,000 the Magic Carpet was the first aerial tramway on the West Coast and only the second of its kind to be used at a ski resort in North America. However, the Heron team faced many challenges. Because of the Korean War, many materials, especially steel, were unavailable for recreational purposes.

"We couldn't use new steel," explains Chuck Dwyer, who worked for Heron Engineering. "We found and bought old materials used for coal mining in Wheelway, Kentucky. We transported the towers and terminal to Denver and re-fabricated the steel."

The motor room components and wire rope were recycled from mining trams, as were the lines sheaves - purchased at the bargain price of $27 for three sheaves. The lift had a capacity of 280 people per hour. Twelve gondola cars, designed to hold six passengers each, were fabricated out of aluminum by a truck component from Denver. Workers, led by construction supervisor Richard Walker, Jr., struggled over the summer to erect four steel support towers and guide wires for the two-cable system designed by engineer Sam Jones.

"Threading cables through the power lines, trees and around the railroad was as dangerous as anything we ever encountered," recalls Dwyer who went on to a twenty-one-year career as chief tramway engineer for the U.S.Forest Service. "Those main transmission lines carried 150,000 volts. There was very little clearance to work with."

At the Highway 40 terminal of the Magic Carpet, a parking lot had to be constructed that required an expensive retaining wall which would drop off steeply to the Southern Pacific snow sheds. The higher level of the roadway forced the gondola into a service angle as it approached the loading platforms. This resulted in the uncomfortable shaking and bumping. Although completely safe, the metallic sounds gave passengers some nerve-shattering moments.

"Bob Heron was highly conservative engineer," recalls Chuck Dwyer. "He wouldn't let us weld like everyone else. He made us bolt or rivet the structures. When subjected to vibration and cold, welds were questionable back then." Several automated safety devices were installed, including electric relay stops in case of any mechanical failure.

The completion of the Magic Carpet was marked with keen anticipation. In October 1953, Sugar Bowl held its annual preseason party at the Marin Yacht Club. To the sounds of Cathy von Warton on accordion and pianist Don Keller, more than 125 skiers sipped Picon Punch and listened to Sugar Bowl Ski Club president Hank Jacobsen trumpet the lift's progress.

The Magic Carpet opened Christmas week to much fanfare. In attendance were Hannes Schroll, Jerome Hill, stockholders and members of the press. It whisked skiers over the deep snow pack to arrive at the resort in a matter of minutes. The gondola immediately propelled Sugar Bowl into the upper tier of American Ski Resorts. The novelty of its seven-minute ride, versus the thirty-minute tractor-drawn sled ride of previous years, instantly lured crowds of skiers.

Jerome Hill operated the Magic Carpet independent from the resort until his death in the mid 1970's. His will left the gondola to the Alpine Winter Foundation which later sold it to Sugar Bowl. Since its start in 1961, the foundation has funded projects in the Truckee-Donner Summit area including the local hospital and schools, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and search and rescue groups.

Today the gondola is still in operation. It was rebuilt in 1983 by CTEC with the addition of fifty new cabins. Today it moves along at 800 feet per minute with a capacity of one thousand riders per hour.

Location

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Nearby
Latitude: 39.3134157 Longitude: -120.3386378 Elevation: 7045 ft
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sugar bowl

Time Period Represented

1939 - present

Hours Open

24 hours during the winter season

Visitor Fees

none

Seasons Open

Winter

Comments

Shortly after I got out of the army in 1954, I was looking for a job. Hannes Schroll who shared an office with my father, Elliott Ayres of Palo Alto, asked if I would like to work at Sugar Bowl. I took the job on the Magic Carpet a couple days after head ski instructor Bill Klein suffered a terrible accident, but he survived. I skied a lot and three years later ended up working for Bill as an instructor. My favorite student was Wanda Hendrix. I would love to go back some day. It’s been about 45 years since I was last there.

Arthur Ayres, 1/20/2012

I see that Bob Heron and Chuck Dwyer are mentioned in this article, but it was my father Dee Mowrer, who worked for Heron Engineering, that actually built the Magic Carpet. He's the engineer who built all of the Heron lifts in California.

Linda Mowrer Wilson, 12/31/2014

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