T-Bar Twaddle Part 1
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By Bill Fetcher

A Swiss invention by Ernest G. Constam about 1935, the T-bar surface lift would
hold sway as the prime mover on medium to large ski slopes for about thirty years
while the chairlift was enduring its growing pains. Skiers would be towed uphill in
pairs by a wooden, inverted T caught behind the legs. The stem of the T was
attached to a length of thin, aircraft cable that reeled in and out of a mechanism
attached to the main cable (haul-rope). Said mechanism was one of two types; a
counterweight and pulleys, used successfully at Winter Park for many years, and
more commonly a spring-box whereby a large clock-spring turned a spool which
reeled in the tow-cable and T-bar when released by the skiers upon unloading. The
action is much like pulling down are releasing a window shade; the whole purpose of
which is to prevent skiers from catching free rides from points of their choosing
along the line. (A third type is the hydraulic, telescoping tow-bar.) The skiing public
initially liked T-bars as they offered higher capacity over the prevailing single
chairlifts and besides, having both feet gliding over terra firma was thought
preferable to being hoisted aloft in a bouncing single chair. T-bars would spread
across the New England ski areas, reaching Colorado by the pre-WWII years.

Colorado, with its noteworthy mountains would likewise have some noteworthy T-
bar lifts. In 1942 a 5,500 ft. (over a mile long) T-bar lift was installed on Cooper
Hill (Ski Cooper) near Leadville, training ground for the Army’s 10th Mountain
Division. It was replaced in 1973 by a Hall double chairlift. In 1948 Steamboat
Springs opened a T-bar/ single chairlift on Emerald Mountain in a vain attempt to
compete with Winter Park and upstart Aspen. It passed over the top of Howelsen
Hill and with a length of 8,850 feet, would be billed as “the World’s Longest Single-
Span Ski Lift” and will be the subject of a future article.

Winter Park, from 1940 to the mid-‘70s would be synonymous with T-bars.
Memorable among them was two Swiss high-speed T-bars, installed in the late
‘50s, the “Meteor” and the “Comet.”  They were too fast for European safety codes
and couldn’t be sold to Switzerland’s home market. “Fast” meant a cable speed of
800 feet-per-minute, just shy of a modern high-speed quad chairlift’s 1000 fpm.  

T-bars are still in use in Europe and a few small New England areas along with their
single passenger cousin, the J-bar. Their initial advantage of high capacity was
overtaken by various shortcomings. Like all surface lifts, one had to be able to ski,
at least a little, in order to ride the thing. The tow-tracks would require packing and
other time-consuming maintenance.  They were slow, slower than the chairlifts that
would replace them. And finally, they were dangerous; offering all the safety of being
dragged uphill by a grapple hook. Skiers would fall, become entangled with the T-
bar and be dragged. If they got free they would have to scramble out of the tow-
track or risk a collision with following skiers. A T-bar that failed to retract when
released could snag on other skiers, lift towers or other obstructions on the downhill
trip. In short there was ample opportunity for serious injury, an increasing concern
as the country entered the litigious age of the 1960s. The threat of expensive
lawsuits would prompt area operators to look for safer lifts, namely chairlifts. Prior
to that time lift accidents were accepted as among the risks accompanying the

In 1958, at age 11 I suffered a concussion when struck behind the right ear by a 30
pound T-bar spring-box that had broken from the cable of Howelsen Hill’s lift. As
to whether I’ve not been “quite right” since, or whether this blow to the head would
have made no difference, I’ll let you decide. And in answer to your question, no we
didn’t sue.
Pictured below is one of Colorado's few
T-bar lifts still operating at the
Breckenridge Ski Area.  This T-bar was
installed during the early 1980's by