High and Mighty

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway brings the mountain to the people

Janice Kleinschmidt. History 0 Comments

They wear hiking boots, sandals, and heels. They carry backpacks, skis, and cameras. They speak different languages and range in age from toddlers to seniors. But gathered in a rotating tramcar, they do the same thing: gaze out the window and snap pictures of craggy rocks and far-reaching vistas as they ascend through five life zones — from desert to alpine — in Chino Canyon. And when the car swings after passing one of five towers, they join in a collective squeal, followed by collective laughing.

This scene has taken place daily since Sept. 14, 1963, when Palm Springs Aerial Tramway began carrying people up the steep escarpment of the San Jacinto Mountains that mark the west edge of the Coachella Valley.

Kitty Kieley Hayes vividly recalls her grandfather’s reaction on the tramway’s opening day.

“I never saw him so excited in his whole life,” says the longtime Palm Springs resident and granddaughter of The Desert Inn owner O. Earl Coffman. “He said, ‘This is going to be one of the best days in Palm Springs’ history.’”

Kieley Hayes also remembers her first tramway ride — on Sept. 15, 1963 — with her parents and siblings: “It was absolutely awe inspiring,” she says. “I could not believe how far we could see. It made the desert seem even more spectacular looking.”

When they came down, they went to see her grandfather.

“He was so happy that all of us were thrilled with it,” Kieley Hayes recalls. “He said that the looks on everybody’s faces made all the years of his work worthwhile and that he knew this would be a gift for generations to come. He was just beaming from ear to ear, and his cheeks were bright red.”

While several Palm Springs pioneers helped bring the tramway to fruition, Coffman and Francis Crocker were its most vital and vigorous proponents.

Credit goes to Crocker, an engineer and manager for California Electric Power Co., for coming up with the idea in the 1930s. But it was Coffman who had influential connections, having worked on Wall Street and then gaining a distinguished clientele at The Desert Inn. He was more than an enthusiastic supporter of Crocker’s vision.

“He devoted his life to the tram. It was what he breathed night and day,” Kieley Hayes says. “He thought it would be a blessing for people to see the beauty of the desert and the wonder of the mountains just a short time later. Grandfather convinced a lot of the business people in Palm Springs, including Philip Boyd [a banker, developer and Palm Springs’ first mayor], that this would be a really good idea. The community helped elect Boyd to the California Assembly so he could begin to push legislation to make the tram possible.”

Coffman also contacted his good friend Henry Lockwood, a Los Angeles lawyer, whom Kieley Hayes says, “did all the legal work necessary, and he worked pro bono for 25 years. Grandfather did the same. He never got a penny for it.”

In 1956, Coffman packed up his family and moved to Switzerland for two and a half years “so he could deal with the companies that had built tramways and might be interested in designing, engineering, and building this tramway,” Kieley Hayes says. “In those two and a half years, he rode every tramway he could. At some, the altitude was too high for him, because he had high blood pressure. But he made his wife ride them.”

“Without him, [Palm Springs Aerial Tramway] never could have happened — and without [El Mirador Hotel attorney] Warren Pinney. It wasn’t a one-person deal,” says Linda Vivian, who served as director of sales and marketing for the tramway from 1975 to 1997.

“Grandfather had a model of the mountain, 4 feet by 2 feet, of that part of the mountain with the tram going up, in the lobby of The Desert Inn so he could show it to guests,” Kieley Hayes says. “He stopped riding horses and put all his efforts into the tram.” Coffman died in 1967; his granddaughter still gets teary-eyed talking about him.

“Francis Crocker is called the Father of the Tram,” she says. “But it never would have been built without Earl Coffman. Maybe he should be called the Godfather of the Tram.”


Contributing to the Cause

Steve Nichols, a developer and member of the Palm Springs Historical Society board, also has ties to the founding of the tramway. His parents, Culver and Sallie Stevens Nichols, donated property for the Valley Station and the first tower; and his father had served on a committee to investigate the feasibility of the tramway.

“My folks provided some of the road access to that portion of the land that they owned, but other parts required access through some Indian-owned sections,” he says. “Eventually, the San Jacinto Winter Park Authority put it all together.”

Nichols’ grandfather purchased land from Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1920s. “He had ranched for a number of years in Colorado, so he was used to rugged land,” Nichols says, “and I think he saw the value that sometimes would be lost on people.” The Nichols family still owns land near the Palm Springs Visitors Center at the bottom of the tramway road, and Steve Nichols has a lifetime tram card.

“Over the years, I have had other dealings with the tram, making sure the road up was in good shape and trying to keep trespassers to a minimum,” he says. “Part of the reason I was graced with a lifetime card was in recognition of the work I’ve done because of owning the land below. My father didn’t have an official pass. Every time he went up, they just ushered him on. He died 12 years ago, but he enjoyed going up as often as he could.” The tramway posthumously named a conference room at the Mountain Station in his honor.

“I remember my father went to Switzerland in 1958,” Nichols says. “I remember going with him. He was meeting with folks in Bern at the Von Roll Co. that was going to be building the tramway. I think my folks and others were kind of excited by the idea of that dramatic mountain face. They had been to Europe and seen tramways in the Alps and thought, ‘Wow, this would be a great thing for Palm Springs.’

“My father had a meeting with a guy named Zuberbuhler, who was the head of Von Roll and a very affable guy. After meeting with him, we went and rode a couple of tramways. My father was interested in riding a couple he hadn’t seen before to get a better idea of what the possibilities were. He then wrote up some notes that he sent back to the folks in Palm Springs.

“At first, they figured that they would have to build it in two stages and people would have to switch to another tramcar,” “The idea was that they couldn’t string a cable long enough to span the entire distance between the two stations. But at some point, the technology improved and it was determined by the engineers that they could do it in one stage.” The final report on construction of the tramway by Williams, Clark and Frey (a joint venture of three Palm Springs architectural firms) calls the cost of a two-stage tramway “prohibitive.”

Jim Landells — who closed the doors on Landells Aviation on Nov. 30, 2011, and began a recording and video studio in the hangar — also has a lifetime card. It was his father, Don Landells, who led the team of helicopters that carried men, equipment, and materials up Chino Canyon for construction of the towers and for whom a 9,356-foot peak southwest of Long Valley is named.

“He was working in Santa Monica for United Helicopters, which won the contract for the tram job. He came out to do that job and loved the desert, so he opened his own business,” Landells says. “Don believed that when the tram was finished building, they would need a helicopter to support it, but the tram was so reliable that he had to go look for other work.”

According to a May 1966 issue of Palm Springs Life and interview with Don Landells, six pilots flew three helicopters in six-hour shifts for a two-year period, logging 7,000 flying hours.

“I brought one flyer from Australia and personally trained two other pilots for this kind of work,” Landells said in the interview. “Thirty-five construction workers lived in prefabricated houses at the site. We took them up by helicopter on Monday mornings and returned them to the valley on Friday evenings.”

A report by Williams, Clark and Frey states, “The first sizeable airlift was a 50-man camp [that] moved into Long Valley behind the site of Mountain Station. A small meadow at the campsite, surrounded by large trees, served as a heliport. A wheeled tractor with end loader, backhoe, and similar attachments, and a small crawler tractor with end loader and dozer blade were among the early items to be airlifted to Long Valley. The tractors were disassembled into components of suitable weight for the helicopter airlift.”

Platforms measuring 20 feet by 20 feet with 6-foot-wide safety net extensions were constructed on tower sites, because there was no other place for the helicopters to land in the canyon. The work was dangerous, and Landells says there were injuries and close calls.

Kieley Hayes, who was in high school at the time, remembers the excitement of the activity in Chino Canyon. “Between classes, we would go out to watch for helicopters,” she says.

Landells put together a book of photographs taken during the construction, We Can Do It, which is for sale at the tramway gift shop.

“My father was an avid photographer,” he says. “I found negatives about 10 years ago in a box, all in wax paper and organized.”

Palm Springs engineer John Sanborn’s father was a surveyor who was asked to conduct a topographic survey of the location for a Mountain Station to be designed by architect E. Stewart Williams.

“I went along as his helper,” Sanborn says. “We packed in from Idyllwild and were in there for about five days. Stu Williams went along and did some sketching while we did the mapping. The objective was to prepare a map so he could prepare a model of the upper station.”


Ballyhoo and Boulders

The Palm Springs Tramway has stirred the imagination of the people of a nation. And it has come to be looked upon as a stimulant for the tourist industry of the southwest and one of the finest attractions for all of California. … First of all, it is practical from an engineering standpoint. Secondly, it is a sound type of investment. Thirdly, its location adjacent to a populous area predicts a tremendous patronage, further assuring the investment. Fourthly, it opens a state park area to all the people for the enjoyment it is supposed to give. Fifthly, it will open an area for healthful athletic recreation both summer and winter. Sixthly, it will attract visitors to a state that depends to a great extent on its tourist industry. Seventhly, it will provide a substantial payroll during construction and after.

 — George Wheeler, publisher, Palm Springs Villager, February 1950


As Palm Springs’ movers and shakers beat the drum for the tramway, they swept up local and regional media with their enthusiasm and the romance of their vision. Print publications referred to “a gigantic, dream-style, first-of-its kind project” and “a moving monument to the ingenuity of man.” George Wheeler, publisher of Palm Springs Villager, seemed particularly enamored of the venture, calling the anticipated tram ride the “thrill of thrills,” and stating that the tramway would have the capacity to handle 1,680,000 people annually.

It was easy to be caught up in hype. After all, a New York firm of traffic engineers (Coverdale and Colpitts) prepared a detailed study predicting more than $2 million a year in gross revenue from passenger fares, parking fees and concessions. Ridership was estimated to reach 280,000 in the winter months alone.

In reality, it took the tramway a full year to achieve a ridership of 200,000. For the past 20 years, annual ridership has ranged from 331,125 (1999-2000) to 470,872 (2011-2012). (The tramway operates on a July-June fiscal year.)

Before ticket-takers could begin the turnstile process, however, tramway supporters had to overcome a few hurdles. In 1941 and 1943, the California State Legislature passed bills to establish the Mount San Jacinto Winter Park Authority. Governors Culbert Olson and Earl Warren, respectively, vetoed each bill. Warren, who subsequently served as Supreme Court chief justice, finally signed a bill in 1945, paving the way for the issuance of bonds to finance construction.

“It was [Gov.] Pat Brown who was so instrumental in helping establish the Mount San Jacinto Winter Park Authority and helping push the legislation through the legislating body,” Kieley Hayes says. “He was a great proponent of the tramway. My grandfather was a Republican, but he greatly admired Pat Brown.”

Nevertheless, it was not until 1954 that Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay approved an exchange of land “giving the green light to the tramway,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “[P]lans for the tramway were stalled by the fact that it would traverse federal lands which are part of the primitive area of San Bernardino National Forest.” Under the agreement, the authority would give 640 acres near the headwaters of Snow Creek to the federal government in exchange for 326 acres at the 2,700-foot level for tower construction.

With a projected cost of $4.8 million, $8.15 million in bonds were offered for sale at 5.5 percent interest — excess monies proposed to cover the expense of issuing the bonds, architectural and engineering fees, capitalized interest, and a reserve for contingencies. The bonds were put up for sale on July 7, 1961. The following day, construction began on the access road to the Valley Station.

Even with work underway, the passage of time took its toll on public patience, as acknowledged by George Ringwald in his January 1962 article for Palm Springs Life:

“Palm Springs residents have been hearing about the Mount San Jacinto Tramway for something like 20 years now, but, perhaps because it has been so long in approaching reality, it remains a kind of chimera that nobody can really accept. And tramways, or cableways, are generally associated with alpine countries, not a sand-bound desert. There have been statements that the tramway will carry 70,000 passengers a month during the peak winter season (January to April), but they seem to have hardly raised an eyebrow among the city’s present 13,000 permanent residents.”

Ringwald further noted that the roadway to the Valley Station was costing half a million dollars and taking five months to build. “Some boulders in the way are the size of a small house,” he wrote. “As the contractor remarked, ‘When we get through, we’re going to have to throw some of our bulldozers away.’”

Finally, on June 26, 1963, the resident engineer (T.T. Mackenzie) and general foreman of the project (Bill Jones) took the first trial run of the completed tramway.


The Big Payoff

“One thing people don’t realize is that we were eight to nine payments behind on interest payments on the [construction] bonds,” Milt Jones says. “We finally got enough business; and as we increased the tram fare through the years, we were able to pay the bonds off with newer money. Instead of getting $4.95 a ride, we were getting $18 a ride, so we were finally able to pay off the bonds, 100 cents on the dollar.”

Linda Vivian recalls “a truly, honest-to-god, bond-burning party” in May 1996. “Bank of America sent me the paid bonds,” she says. “We lit a fire in the fireplace [at the Mountain Station] for the symbolic burning of bonds by the board.”


An Earthmoving Experience

“We have had every plague except locusts,” says Linda Vivian, director of sales and marketing for the tramway from 1975 to 1997. Even people on the desert floor have seen flames on the mountainside. But people who have been on the mountain also have run for shelter when thunderstorms suddenly struck. Vivian recalls a storm in July 1985 when it rained an inch in 20 minutes shortly after a fire.

“There was nothing to hold anything back,” she says. “It came washing boulders and trees down the mountain. Sludge almost took out the bridge at the Valley Station. … I thought it was an earthquake. The Valley Station was evacuated, and the tramway was closed for five or six days.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that “nearly 150 stranded tramway riders had to be rescued by helicopter when a sudden storm over the San Jacinto Mountains knocked out power and covered parking lots with massive amounts of mud and debris. … The road and three parking lots below were inundated.”

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