The US National team just completed the Olympic Curling Trials in Omaha. A sport born in Scotland for play on the winter ice. Omaha has helped popularize other winter sports, even those performed on a mountain. Never heard of the mountains in Omaha? Maybe it is because John Denver never sang about it. Omaha really doesn't have any mountains...nor any hills to speak of, what Omaha has always possessed is a engineering spirit and a willingness to solve problems. The Union Pacific built Sun Valley, Idaho and set out to make it a place of enjoyment and relaxation...their efforts continue to please the skiiers to this day.
“He loved the warm sun of summer and the high mountain meadows, the trails through the timber and the sudden clear blue of the lakes. He loved the hills in the winter when the snow comes. Best of all he loved the fall … the fall with the tawny and grey, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, he loved to ride and he loved to fish.”
Who could be more deeply poetic in simple sentences than Ernest Hemingway? His words an ode to his final home. It was not in Omaha, NE, but instead in Ketcham, ID. Hemingway was lured here by Union Pacific President Averell Harriman. Harriman invested Union Pacific funds in the creation of a new resort in Idaho called Sun Valley. Harriman became interested in the concept of a winter resort after watching the success of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
Harriman was a lifelong skier and toured European mountain ranges in his youth. After taking over the Union Pacific railroad, he sought to create destinations that people throughout the country would want to visit for their entertainment. Harriman enlisted Austrian sportsman Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find such a location. In the winter of 1935, Count Schaffgotsch found the area that would become Sun Valley in south central Idaho, about 100 miles northeast of Boise.
"Among the many attractive spots I have visited, this [location] combines more delightful features than any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria, for a winter sports resort, " Schoffgotsch wrote to Harriman.
After finding the location, Harriman hired a publicist to develop the resort and start marketing it to the public. The publicist dubbed the resort, “Sun Valley.” For his part, Harriman invited Hollywood celebrities from Errol Flynn to Marilyn Monroe to visit the resort. Their presence brought paparazzi and good press relations which brought in the people.
Winter sports in the late 1930’s were just beginning to find a consistent following in the United States. Getting up and down the mountain proved difficult and this limited the “fun,” part of skiing for many people. At the time, if you skied down the mountain, you were limited ad to how you got back up the mountain. You could use a rope-towing method or you might try “skinning,” up the mountain. Skinning is when a type of covering is placed on the bottom of the ski to help the skier go uphill on skis or to reach more inaccessible areas. The sheath-like covering is traditionally made from seal skin using the natural abilities of seals to move on icy or slick surfaces. When moving forward, the hair lays flat and smooth allowing the skier to glide over the snow. When the skier slides backwards, the hairs stand up and stop the backward slide. Harriman knew that there was a better way and back at the Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha, he set his engineers to work on devising a new system.
The new plan for human transport came from loading produce, specifically bananas. A young structural engineer named Jim Curran had seen large volumes of bananas being loaded with a conveyor that used hooks. He wanted to adapt this idea to human transport by changing the hooks to chairs and like the hooks, be suspended by a wire or cable above the chairs. Basically a skier would sit down on the moving chair with skis carrying them back to the top of the mountain. While there was some debate regarding the safety of such a contraption, the engineers chose to follow the path and began in earnest to construct the device.
Paxton Vierling Steel in Omaha began constructing the chairs for the lift. Once completed, the engineers emptied one of the railcar repair shops in downtown Omaha to begin testing. Once the mechanics of the system were perfected, speed of the system was the final consideration. But how to test a system meant to work in icy and snow conditions in Omaha, Nebraska in the middle of Summer?
There aren’t any mountains in Omaha and there are very few hills that would simulate a place to ski, so the engineers improvised. First, they mounted the new chair to the side of a truck. Then they had to consider how fast it should travel for a person wearing skis on a slippery surface. Using roller skates, the men maneuvered into position as the truck rolled behind them to pick them up on the chair. After several trials with the makeshift apparatus, it was decided that the engineers thought 4-5 miles per hour was the most effective speed for the lift.
The new system was immediately installed at Sun Valley. It proved to offer greater comfort and better capacity than the rope tows and toboggan systems of the past. As skiers became used to the new system, it became a big hit and in 1939, the system was patented by the Union Pacific as the Aerial Ski Tramway. The system has undergone several changes over the years but exists as nearly the same invention enjoyed all over the world today for skiing and other recreational activities.
Sun Valley became to the resort to bolster the Union Pacific’s passenger service. Sun Valley became Ernest Hemingway’s final home when he moved there in 1939 at the urging of Averell Harriman. It would be here in 1939 that Hemingway would complete what many call his greatest work, For Whom the Bell Tolls, his epic novel about his exploits during the Spanish Civil War.
Hemingway became a part-time resident in Idaho from 1939 for the next 20 years. While Hemingway was always a wanderlust when writing, he did return to Sun Valley for extended periods. It was here in 1961, after suffering from two major accidents during an African safari and continuing to feel the effects of a lifetime of drinking, that Ernest Hemingway cleaned and loaded his favorite shotgun and took his own life.
Sun Valley was an inspiration out of Omaha. It became a winter resort to promote the Union Pacific and attracted luminaries of all types from around the globe. The modern chairlift invented to efficiently move people back to the top of the mountain was invented for Sun Valley in the dark, greasy roundhouse in downtown Omaha, has moved developing skiers up the side of Round Mountain for decades. It has helped create skiing champions like Picabo Street, and Snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington. It was also inspiration to arguably the greatest writer in American history who finished his greatest work in Suite 206 of the Sun Valley Lodge. It was also where, after growing tired of the difficulties and pain of life, came to end it in the splendor and beauty of Idaho. The inspiration of Omaha the catalyst for it all.
Scott Peck is an author and a college professor. He has provided historical and cultural tours in Omaha for the past 11 years