It would be impossible to assert how many skiing hills there are in the world, let alone the United States. Safe to say, the number varies, but it’s huge, as in somewhere in the thousands.
Serving most of those slopes is the trusty chairlift, a wire-suspended chair system that ferrys skiers and snowboarders to hilltops in untold numbers.
Some lifts are the fancier version, the gondolier, which is an enclosed, more comfortable but more complicated system, but the basic idea is the same.
For a minute, though, the skiing world almost rode the Skimobile to the top. On December 27, 1939, the first skimobile opened in North Conway, New Hampshire.
The Skimobile turned out to be the greatest idea that didn’t work out in the end but had a good run for a few years.
In North Conway, Cranmore Resort still operates, begun by Carroll Reed and Dow Gibson in 1937.
Reed had been injured while skiing in 1934. As he healed from his injury, and after reading an article about ski schools in Europe, he hatched an idea to bring that sort of thing to the United States.
After healing, he started the Eastern Slope Ski School by hiring a famous instructor from Austria. They started in Jackson, New Hampshire, where they trained some 6,000 lessons on proper skiing techniques.
In the end, Reed had a handful of young ski instructors, certified in Austria, who needed something to do. Partnering with an investor, a man named Dow Gibson whose own daughter had trained at Reed’s school, Reed and Gibson set out to open a hill in North Conway.
There was only one hurdle once they had all the money together. They needed a way to ferry skiers to the top of the slopes.
The chairlift was already in operation as a nascent technology. Another option was the timeless tow rope, a rope on a loop that would continuously pull riders to the top of the hill.
They only had to hold on. It was a messy unsophisticated system.
Gibson considered installing a chairlift at the Cranmore, but hired a local engineer named George Morton instead. Morton had experience with developing one of the early chairlifts. He took what he’d learned, and fashioned a new type of system, more of a funicular than a lift.
His system consisted of 60 cars on a track, attached to a cable, which could ascend the hill when the machinery pulled the cable. He called his new invention the Skimobile.
For the 1939 season, the track made it halfway up the hill. For the next season, they added a second line so skiers could switch tracks mid-hill to ride all the way up. The Skimobile was the lap of luxury skiing.
The Skimobile was so popular, The Homestead Resort in Virginia also added one, but in time the skimobiles became problematic. Where the chairs gripped the cable, those cables showed damage.
The cars would slip, sliding backward while traveling up the lift. It was dangerous for the passengers, and not the reputation one wants for an otherwise thrilling ride.
On top of that, the maintenance of the skimobile was more costly than the other system like chairlifts. Those systems lifted the riders over the snow, whereas the Skimobile had to push snow out of the way to rise up the hill.
Morton and Gibson made adjustments to their system, improving the clamps, adding snow plow cars to clear the track, but they still slipped and struggled.
Despite the challenges, the Skimobile remained in operation for decades until they tore it down in the 1980s.
It doesn’t take a stroke of genius to know how this story ends. The Chairlift won out, but the Skimobile had its day in the snow.