Do you think the Boy Scouts realize they’re riding the tram with its creator, Francis Crocker?
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
“We leave Riverside for my new job at Palm Springs, where I will be the local agent for the Power Company in its smallest station with the least revenue and for the least number of meters. Our ’29 Ford Coupe is packed with all our worldly goods, and away we go.”
Such was Francis Crocker’s recounting of Aug. 1, 1932. Three decades later, in a 1963 newspaper article documenting the opening of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, he recalled another sweltering summer day in the 1930s, when Carl Barkow, founder and publisher of Banning Record and The Desert Sun, drove him to a Kiwanis Club meeting in Banning.
“As we passed the north face of San Jacinto, I mopped my forehead and said to Carl, ‘Boy, how nice [would it] be to get up there on the mountain where it’s cool?’ ”
Crocker knew about cog and funicular railways, used in the mining and lumber industries in his native state of Colorado. A couple of days later, he drove to a Los Angeles library to research mountain railways.
“In a 1906 issue of Popular Mechanics, I read about an aerial tramway [that] had been built in Silver Plume, Colorado, with cable suspended from wooden towers,” he reported. In another magazine, he read about a tramway in Chamonix, France. “I began to think in terms of an aerial tram instead of a track railway, not knowing that at the time nobody had ever built a tramway 2½ miles long and more than a mile high.”
Crocker continued his education by visiting European operations. He took his son Douglas on a research trip to Switzerland.
“My father went with my grandfather and carried his notebooks,” says Joshua Crocker, a Palm Springs police officer. “I get questioned regularly [about being related to Francis Crocker], and I am very proud. It is amazing how his education, coupled with creativity, created such a tool for people.”
A tramway up the steep mountainside struck some people as a pie-in-the-sky pursuit. Detractors included conservationists. But when The Desert Sun pressed Francis on this point, he simply said, “You’ll have to dig that up someplace else.”
The tram made its first ascent in 1963 and was later designated an engineering landmark.
Joshua’s mother, Mary Ellen Crealock, speaks highly of her father-in-law’s integrity, borne out by his absence at the tramway’s opening, which was pushed back to accommodate Gov. Edmund Brown’s availability.
“Merchants had ordered memorabilia [that included the grand opening date],” Crealock remembers. “He felt [the delay] was a disservice to merchants. He was more interested in the community than having his picture in the paper. He was not about getting all the praise.”
In At Sunrise: The Official History of the Palm Springs Public Library, Henry Weiss wrote that the board named a John Porter Clark–designed library branch in honor of Crocker (for his 31 years as a trustee) despite Crocker’s “strong objection.”
“My grandfather was very much about supporting local businesses,” Joshua says. “He was about doing his part to improve things; and if it wasn’t good for everybody, it wasn’t good.”
The deeply civic-minded Crocker served on numerous boards and commissions and was a Lions Club and Elks Lodge member. Crealock coincidentally worked at Bank of America when Crocker chaired the bank’s board; she met Douglas at a friend’s party. They were still newlyweds when Douglas worked as one of the attraction’s first tram car operators. (He subsequently worked for 30 years at Palm Springs Wastewater Treatment, until his death in 2005.)
Douglas and Mary Ellen’s oldest son, Mark, works at Desert Water Agency (Francis was DWA’s first general manager). And Mark’s son, Michael, works for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians as a Tahquitz Canyon ranger. Francis’ other descendants include three more great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild.
Crocker and his wife, Rosalie, were born in 1900 and are buried with modest headstones in Palm Springs’ small and historic Welwood Murray Cemetery. (He died in 1992 and she in 1988.)
Crealock possesses journals kept by Rosalie that include her memory of meeting Francis at a bridge party in Riverside. “I knew immediately I had found the one,” she wrote. They had four dates that week before he returned home to Denver. They wed the following year, on Oct. 17, 1931.
According to Crealock, Rosalie had multiple miscarriages before bearing a son, whom they named Jeremy. They subsequently adopted five children: David, sisters Isabel and Mary, and siblings Douglas and Alice. Jeremy disappeared in 1996 and is presumed dead. Alice, the only surviving child, lives in Texas and recalls her father as being “very smart” and the tramway as “our lives.”
As for Crealock, she mostly recalls her father-in-law putting nothing above the children.
“He loved to hold the grandkids and play games with them,” she says, noting that he especially enjoyed “helping the boys put things together.”
From the Bottom Up
As if engineering an aerial tramway in the mid-20th century wasn’t enough of a feat, construction required thousands of helicopter flights, initially for surveying and staking station and tower sites and then for transporting crews, equipment, and materials — reportedly more than 11 million pounds and 23,000 flights in a canyon.
“There’s no room for error when you’re up there with a sling load of steel and concrete, with terrific wind turbulence swaying the 700 pounds, trying to sit down on a mountainside platform,” Don Landells, who oversaw the task, remarked in a September 1963 newspaper article. He noted the constant operation of helicopters, explaining that when one of six pilots completed a six-hour shift, another pilot moved in for an average of 16 round trips between the base and upper construction sites. Below that scene, crews contended with grading among rocks and boulders for a road to reach the lower station. After 26 months of labor, the tramway was completed.
A modernization in 1998 included new cables, a new drive system, and new tram cars (larger, round ones with a floor that rotates during the journey).
In 2019, the tramway began a second major project: redesigning
the mountain station. “We wanted
to maintain the character that [E. Stewart Williams] had originally designed but bring it up to modern times,” architect Chris Mills says.
“We wanted to give the lodge aesthetic a fresh look without sacrificing the period of time in which it was conceived,” adds interior designer Jeffrey Jurasky.
“An important part of it is the infrastructure. Electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and HVAC [systems] were very dated,” Mills notes. “When the initial building was done, the volume [of visitation] was not anticipated.”
Renovation crews faced a challenge different from the 1960s construction teams: minimizing interferences with the tramway’s day-to-day operations.
“We had to split the project into five phases,” project manager Michael Fontana explains. For example, he says, “The electrical system runs throughout the building, but we couldn’t replace it all at once.
“When the [tram] cars were not running, we worked sometimes until
2 a.m., going up at 6 a.m. and coming down at 2:30 a.m. [the following day]. We brought everything up — and you better have all your tools, because you are not going back to the truck to get your wrench. You are not going to Home Depot.”
“It was a difficult job to mix concrete,” Mills says. “You [had] to take up the sand, cement, water, and mixer. The process required a lot of coordination and patience.”
“We were doing everything with a teacup and spoon,” Fontana adds.
As the engineer who started it all, Francis Crocker would surely understand the painstaking approach.