<I>Excerpted from the The Story of Sugarloaf, available online.
The preceding two summers [1963 and 1964] of only minimal construction on the Mountain allowed us to catch our breath from the frenetic and exhausting expansion pace of the previous few years and prepare ourselves - physically, emotionally, and financially - for what was to become the defining event in Sugarloaf's transformation from Sugarloaf Mountain to SUGARLOAF/USA.
That event - the installation of what was to be referred to as "The Mighty Gondola" - was preceded by several years of planning under the guiding hand of George Cary, an engineer by training and profession.
We had surveyed and cut a lift line during the summer of 1964, even before a decision had been made as to exactly what type of lift or manufacturer would be selected. When I say we surveyed the lift line, I should say, more accurately, that I surveyed it. I've since been recognized as the fool who located the lower terminal in the middle of a brook. Here's what happened: Since my first summer at Sugarloaf, I had been the designated transit operator, lining up the T-bar towers every fall as they got moved around each year by the frost. It was important that they be aligned so that the cable would stay on the wheels as much as possible. Amos had bestowed this distinction upon me. He must have assumed that because I was the one guy on the summer crew who had gone to college, I must know something - overlooking the fact that I had majored in English and didn't even know which end of a transit I was supposed to look into!
Despite that paucity of competence, Amos gave me the job of laying out the new lift line. We determined the location for an upper terminal, and I sighted down to a spot in the vicinity of the Base Lodge. Swinging the transit up, I was looking directly at the remains of the fire tower on Avery Peak on Bigelow. What a fortuitous coincidence, I thought, since as I worked my way down the mountain, laying out the centerline, I could use the tower for alignment. I was so excited about this development that it never occurred to me to check to see exactly where that would place the lower terminal. Oh, well… It all worked out - except we had to move the brook (by bulldozing a new channel)!
A quick story about the cutting of the Gondola line: Among the crew we assembled was an experienced woodsman from Kingfield, one Leonard Cyr, who had been working all his life in the woods and had, in fact, been part of the crew that cut the Flagstaff Lake flowage. He arrived the first day on the job with his own ax, and I told him he didn't have to use it since we had plenty of them. His reply has stayed with me: "Thanks, but this is my favorite. I've had it about twenty-five years. Of course I've had a bunch of different handles, and I've replaced the head three or four times." Leonard stayed after that summer and became not only a valued member of our year-round staff, but also a special favorite of mine for his willingness to take on any job, at any time, in any weather.
George Cary and the directors had agreed on a couple of things about a prospective lift: It should be an aerial lift, and, as such, it should probably be enclosed. Riders would need protection from the elements, especially for that portion above the timberline. So a gondola-type lift made the most sense, and one with four-passenger cabins seemed like the best choice, as opposed to the two-passenger version in operation at Wildcat Mountain. This configuration would be more apt to attract summer traffic, they reasoned. Another argument in favor of the four-passenger version was the slightly higher number of passengers that could be loaded per hour and, even more important, the weight of the larger cabin would render it somewhat more impervious to swaying in the predictable northwest winds, especially above the timberline.
The final decision to commit to the purchase of a German Polig-Heckel-Bleichert (PHB) lift was solidified by a visit from King Cummings, George Cary, and me to a similar lift that had recently been installed at Park City, Utah. One of the convincing factors was that the Park City lift was in two sections. It had a mid-station through which cars could pass when the lift was operating to the summit, but which could also be used as the upper terminal when weather or skiing conditions mitigated against operating all the way to the top. Conversely, one could operate only the upper section, which would prove to be the case on Sugarloaf years later, during the lift's final seasons. George Cary knew that there'd be days, perhaps many of them, when we wouldn't be able (or even want) to put skiers on the summit, so this option sealed the deal.
The summer of 1965 may well go down in history as the most important since the summer of 1950, when the original trail was cut. A few guys from Maine would erect an 8,430-foot aerial lift, rising 2,350 feet up the steep north face of the state's second-highest mountain - a truly Herculean task.
Every tower was preassembled in the parking lot and flown onto its pre-poured foundation by a Sikorsky S-58 helicopter, operated by Keystone Helicopters from Pennsylvania. That particular aircraft was rated to lift 4,000 pounds to 4,000 feet - a task it was called upon to do often that summer.
Assembling and erecting the complex structure proved to be especially daunting for our English- and French-speaking crew, since the blueprints and manuals were all in German. We thought our translation problems would be solved upon the midsummer arrival of Wilfred Eschenauer, an engineer supplied by the factory. His command of German, it goes without saying, was perfect, but he neither understood nor spoke a single word of English (although a summer with us did teach him a unique version of that language).
So we were back at square one, until our salvation arrived. George Cary, who spent Monday through Friday at his real job as an engineer at Bath Iron Works, had an associate there who was fluent in both English and German. On Sunday nights George would deliver to him the working documents we'd be using two weeks hence, and when he returned to Sugarloaf on Friday night, with him were our marching orders for the next week, spelled out in perfect English.
It's difficult to capture, and to even remember clearly, the magnitude of that summer's project. The concrete for the upper terminal, and all of the lift towers above the mid-station, was mixed in a makeshift batching plant comprised of an old transit-mix truck that was dragged to the summit by Tiger White from Carthage and his D-8 Caterpillar.
And that's not all that was transported to the 4,190-foot elevation on the Mountain. Consider this: Up that rudimentary access road was hauled some 400 tons of pre-stressed concrete slabs for the terminal building's walls and floors; 7 tons of tinted, double-paned plate-glass windows; 23 tons of 3-inch-thick western cedar for the roof; and 60 tons of structural steel. All of this for the construction of a building to house not only the lift mechanisms, but also first-aid and restaurant facilities as well.
When operations began for the 1965 - 66 ski season on the weekend before Christmas, we were still pouring the concrete foundation for the upper terminal. Don Fowler, Sugarloaf regular, and a Bowdoin classmate of George Cary's son, George, remembers "volunteering" to man the kerosene-fired Salamander heaters on frigid December nights on the summit as we worked to prevent the concrete from freezing as it cured.
Late in January, fifty brightly painted four-passenger gondolas, each emblazoned with the ubiquitous triangular Sugarloaf logo, began rotating on the nearly 8,500-foot aerial lift. Although it was a couple of months late, to those of us who were involved in its construction, it was tear-jerkingly miraculous to see it operating at all. "The Year of the Mighty Gondola" had arrived…Excerpted from the Down East book
The Story of Sugarloaf, by John Christie. Order here .
Cover art by Johnna Haskell; to see more Sugarloaf photographs,
check out her website.