Cannon Mountain's aerial tramway turns 80

Special to the Sunday News
June 29. 2018 6:15PM
Marking the occasion: "Ketchup" and its partner, "Mustard," are sporting special logos marking the 80th anniversary of the opening of the first aerial passenger tram in North America. (JOHN KOZIOL/SUNDAY NEWS CORRESPONDENT)
Some facts about the tram
• Three first-generation cars still exist: one at the northbound Hooksett rest stop on I-93, one at Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln and one at the entrance to the New England Ski Museum, adjacent to the Valley Station.

• The state studied 21 potential tramway sites before selecting Cannon Mountain.

• Cannon boasted only two ski trails – Taft Slalom (built in 1933) and the Cannon Mountain Trail – when the tram opened in 1938. (There are now more than 90 trails on Cannon and Mittersill.)

• The two cars of Tram II, opened in 1980, have traveled a distance of about 540,000 miles — equivalent to more than 26 times around the earth.

• In order to build the original tram, work crews first had to haul materials up the steep route to build a work tram. From 1937 into 1938, construction crews poured 32 carloads of cement and assembled 232 tons of steel and four miles of cable by hand.

FRANCONIA -- As the tram car rises from the Valley Station, the world unfolds below.

The rocky knoll of Artist Bluff backdrops Echo Lake, with sparsely populated hills rolling away beyond. Mount Lafayette and Eagle Cliff dominate to the east, and endless peaks and valleys rise and fall in blue-tinged waves as far as any eye can see. Buildings look like tiny toys, vehicles traveling along I-93 like Matchbox cars. Under the tram's path, dense forests give way to winding ski trails, thick in summer with wildflowers and berry brambles - and the occasional grazing black bear.

The landscape has changed a bit over the last 80 years, but a ride up the tram remains a picturesque delight.

Scheduled to open in May of 1938, but delayed twice by bad weather, the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway opened amid much fanfare on June 28, 1938. The tram was both an engineering marvel and a thrilling new tourist attraction - and the first passenger aerial tramway in North America - and hundreds lined up that day to take a "sky ride" from the floor of Franconia Notch to the summit of Cannon Mountain. More than 100,000 rode the tram that first summer.

Eighty years later, they are still coming to enjoy one of Franconia Notch State Park's most popular attractions.

The brainchild of skiers, the tramway was sold to state legislators in the midst of the Great Depression on the premise that it would attract folks beyond the winter months, and it has lived up to that promise. From 1938 through 1980, the tram carried 6,581,338 passengers.

Bill Norton, Cannon Mountain manager from 1954 to 1980, posed with an old and a new car during construction of the new tram in 1980. (Courtesy)

In 1980, the original tramway was replaced by Tram II, with its bright red and yellow cars, affectionately nicknamed Ketchup and Mustard. The old cars, at first painted a dull green to blend in with the landscape and later painted red and white, could each carry 27 passengers. The newer cars have a capacity of 80.

Tram II has hauled some 7 million people - both skiers and sightseers - since opening May 24, 1980. In under eight minutes, the tram lifts passengers from a valley elevation of 1,900 feet above sea level to the Mountain Station, which sits at 4,080 feet elevation, just below Cannon's summit.

The tram runs a bit faster during ski season, making about 42 trips per day (it is, at heart, a ski lift). During the non-skiing months, it makes 32 trips per day, leaving every 15 minutes, and the cars are filled with people of all ages, from all over the world. On any given trip up or down, passengers are likely to hear at least two languages spoken.

In the 1930s, Cannon employed mountain guides, who would lead tram passengers on a tour of the Rim Trail at the top of the mountain. Now, visitors are invited to explore the Rim Trail on their own, or make the short climb to the observation tower at the summit, where views extend east to Maine, west to Vermont and New York, and north to Canada.

Last week, Cannon marked the tram's 80th anniversary. Seeing the tram cars go up and down the mountainside is standard fare now for anyone who spends time in Franconia Notch, but time has not erased the thrill of rising so quickly from valley to summit, nor the beauty of being on top of a mountain, the world stretched out below.

Human InterestHistoryTourismOutdoorsWhite MountainsFranconiaNewHampshire.comTransportationPhoto Feature

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