By Bill Fetcher
The Sunrise Peak Aerial Tramway (or Railway, as it was also referred to), 1907 to 1914, was Colorado’s
first gondola and very likely the first in the U.S. though they appear to have been in use in Europe. By
“gondola” we mean a type of aerial lift with a number of open cars or enclosed cabins for two or more people
that circulate on an endless cable. The Sunrise Peak gondola was built for sightseers who would reach Silver
Plume via the Georgetown, Breckenridge and Leadville R.R., original builders of the Georgetown Loop. The
base terminal was a little ways west of the present Georgetown Loop station, about where I-70 passes
through Silver Plume today. The lift ascended to Sunrise Peak (Pendleton Mountain) to the southwest (your
left as you head toward the tunnel) reaching an elevation of 12,500 feet. Vertical rise was 3,300 feet. There
were 26 open cars, painted bright yellow, each holding four people. The lift was a bi-cable system; each car
had a carriage with two sheaves (grooved wheels) which rode along a stationary 1½ inch track-rope while a
moving haul-rope moved the cars along, driven by an electric motor at the top. Because it was also a fixed
grip, the lift had to stop for cars to load and unload. (This is also referred to as a pulse lift.) For those in the
cars on the line these interruptions offered many Kodak opportunities. Presumably the cars were spaced so
one would be in each terminal when stopped, for loading and unloading. Some early photos show metal roofs
over the cars, protection not so much from the elements but from the occasional blob of grease that would drip
from the carriage sheaves. During its seven years of operation the Sunrise Peak Aerial Tramway apparently
worked well and did well, carrying up to 500 fares a day on the 46 minute ride. Attesting to its safety,
publicity photos and postcards of the lift invariably depict as many as seven smiling ladies swinging in the
gondola cars. An excursion by train from Denver with a ride on the gondola cost all of $3.00 and you’d be
home by dinnertime.
Little remains today of Colorado’s first gondola. The Silver Plume museum (in the old schoolhouse) has a few
pieces and photos on display. A sharp eye can pick out a single remaining tower on the horizon of Sunrise
Peak, best seen from I-70 eastbound at the Georgetown Loop scenic turnout and at this same point in the
westbound lanes. The upper (drive) terminal is surprisingly intact after weathering nearly 100 years and while
no machinery is left, a few side panels from the gondola cars can be found. Why the Sunrise Peak Aerial
Tramway ceased operation I don’t know but I plan to speculate on this matter in a future article.
By Bill Fetcher
The Sunrise Peak Aerial Tramway, as noted in last month’s article, was an added attraction served by a
railroad. Around the turn of the century, railroads in Colorado (and elsewhere) did a landslide excursion
business. Often this was undertaken before a railroad had reached its ultimate destination, a mining town for
example, as a means of generating income until regular freight and passenger service could be established.
They had hundreds of thousands of obliging customers; city folk who wanted an escape from the turmoil of
town living as well as tourists from out-of-state who had come to see the Rocky Mountains. In most cases
these people didn’t want to exert themselves anymore than necessary; they worked long, hard hours as it was
to earn a few (though stronger than today’s) dollars. They wanted to relax. The added attractions such as
cable railways, restaurants and dance pavilions, amusement parks, resort hotels and hot springs spas were
happy to see to their needs.
This situation would change during the second decade of the century. In 1909 Henry Ford introduced his
Model T, an inexpensive car for the masses and America would enter the Auto Age. As more and more
people took to the roads the railroad excursion business would dry up and with them the various added
attractions. The First World War (1914-1918) would have lasting social and economic effects both here and
abroad. The U.S. entered the war in 1917; the next year the government nationalized the nation’s railroads.
This may have been a Very Good Idea as it permitted the efficient movement of men and materiel to the front.
Some lines, however, were so strained by this effort that when returned to private control in 1920 they were in
such bad repair that bankruptcy was the only recourse. Surviving railroads would phase out their passenger
service over the following years as uneconomical.
The Sunrise Peak Aerial Tramway was most likely a victim of these WWI years for the reasons stated above;
passenger train service to Silver Plume was reduced or discontinued. With few or no passengers the gondola
could no longer pay its way. There was competition as well from the nearby Argentine Central Railroad, which
ascended the same mountain through a series of switchbacks. Built as a mining railroad it offered passenger
excursions. Labor costs for the tramway should be taken into account; it required a crew of 18 to operate
safely. (Among the crew were spotters along the line who could shut the lift down in an emergency.) There is
another possible reason for its failure, though this is based on my own speculation. Driving west through Silver
Plume a glance out the car window up to the left reveals a very steep mountainside. A trip on the Sunrise
Peak Aerial Tramway must have been one scary ride.
Closeup of upper terminal
Looking down the tram line
towards I-70 and Silver
Upper terminal from the loading
Track rope saddle
A tower on the horizon
Overlooking the summit station with
The upper terminal's motor
room with work bench
A picture from a brochure
of the tram
The summit drive terminal
Looking down the tram
Another brochure of the tram
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