A Bus Ride Among The Clouds

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Unique ’50s Tram Loses Its Ticket To Ride

Local History: The Mount Hood Aerial Skiway
By Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer

For many of us the idea of a flying car is enchanting. The notion of a bus trekking through the clouds, however, takes the concept to a whole different level. While the Mount Hood Aerial Skiway didn’t actually fly (the tram was named “Skiway” instead of “Skyway” due to copyright issues), it did at times travel through the clouds, providing passengers with the sensation of being conveyed up the mountain in a flying bus. The venture didn’t last long, but for Oregon skiers in the 1950s this unique tram offered an unforgettable journey up Mount Hood.

On October 24, 1947, in the wake of World War II, two men, Dr. Otto J. George and A.L. Greenwalt created the Mount Hood Aerial Transportation Company. The founders envisioned a state-of-the-art aerial tramway that connected Government Camp to Timberline Lodge. In contrast to the lightweight chair lifts of today, the idea was to modify two city buses — each powered by two 185-horsepower gasoline engines — that, by transferring power from the drive wheels to the 1.5 inch diameter traction cable above, could claw their way up and down the mountain. The concept was based upon technology employed in the logging industry at the time. The interior of the buses were outfitted with streetcar-style seats that could be flipped about to enable passengers to always be facing forward. Each bus could hold a maximum of 36 people, and cost $40,000 to customize in this manner, as compared to a regular city bus which only cost $16,500.

As you can imagine, constructing a tram of this type was a costly and laborious process. After building the lower terminal building — which housed a restaurant and snack bar — near Government Camp, a path had to be cut all the way up to the west side of Timberline Lodge. For this daunting task the company hired Volley Reed, previously of the U.S. Forest Service, to direct two cutting crews which were to start at opposite ends of the route and meet in the middle. The process commenced in 1948, but shortly thereafter it was discovered that the two crews were not, in fact, cutting a straight line, and the strategy had to be altered. Once the cutting crews finished their task, 38 steel towers were erected to support the 3.2 miles of cable required to connect Timberline Lodge to the lower terminal building.

On January 2, 1951, the Skiway tram was finally ready to commence operation. Despite significant snowfall at the time, skiers made their way up to the mountain and the trams were full to capacity for their inaugural run. To much media fanfare, the buses completed their first run, scaling slowly but steadily on the uphill sections, and sliding rapidly on the downhill parts. Although the Skiway tram did indeed operate as designed, successfully transporting skiers up and down the mountain, the venture proved unprofitable due to a number of factors. Bill Keil, a Timberline Lodge Publicity Director during the 1950s recalled, “the tramway crippled its way through five years of marginal operation before suspending,” in 1956.

One of the problems was the poor mechanical design of the buses themselves. Not only were the buses slow and loud — so loud that passengers couldn’t easily converse while in transit — they were also terrifying. It required a stout heart to endure the precarious nature of the ride itself. When one considers that a city bus full to capacity weighs approximately 15-20 tons, the idea of it suspended high in the air on cables moving up and down the mountainside is a harrowing thought. The sheer weight dragging down on the cables would cause the buses to sag as they traveled from one support tower to the next. A member of the company’s board, George Rausch, expressed concern about the passenger experience on the tram. “I’ve ridden the tramway,” he stated. “I’ve listened to the shrieks, and taken the jolts over those, what you call them — the saddles, and I’ve heard what people say.”

In addition to the less than ideal engineering and physics of the trams, not to mention the frightful nature of the journey itself, the economics of the operation were dismal. Due to the enormous weight of the buses, it took 25 minutes for it to crawl its way up the mountain, resulting in a bus taking one hour to complete a roundtrip. As a full to capacity bus only held 36 people, the revenue generated per day could not keep pace with the expenses of the venture.

Despite the aforementioned problems, it’s possible that changes could have been implemented to salvage the company’s future. Unfortunately for the Skiway tram, at about the same time as the tram began operating, improvements were made to the highway leading up to Timberline, thus eliminating the very reason for the tram in the first place. In addition to direct access by road to Timberline Lodge, there were also shuttle buses that charged less money than the tram for transport between the two locations.

From 1956 through 1958 the board met numerous times in an attempt to save the company. Different proposals were considered, including replacing the buses with smaller, traditional gondola-style cars. In the end, the skiing conditions between Timberline Lodge and the lower terminal were deemed too poor to warrant investment in a traditional-style lift system. By the end of 1960, Mount Hood Aerial Transportation company had been liquidated.

On your next trip up the mountain, linger for a moment at the Thunderhead Lodge in Government Camp, the former lower terminal building of the Skiway tram. This lone building is all that remains of this ambitious, imaginative, but ultimately doomed venture. For Oregonian skiers in the 1950s, a bus ride through the clouds was a unique and unforgettable experience!