Cannon Mountain was the site of the first passenger tramway in North America. The fact that it was built at all is a tribute to the vision of a few men, and the foresight of the New Hampshire Legislature.
From its construction in 1938 to its 1980 retirement, 6,581,338 passengers made the thrilling 2.1 mile journey up Cannon Mountain. The dedication of Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway II on May 24, 1980 marked the end of a 42 year era, and the exciting beginning of a bright new future for Cannon Mountain.
Alexander Bright, a famous skier, conceived the idea of building a tramway in NH during his trip to Europe as a member of the US Olympic Ski Team in 1933. In Europe, Bright had seen passenger carrying tramways and recognized that building one in NH could foster the growth of skiing and summer tourism in the White Mountains.
Bright persuaded L.R. Batemen of the American Steel and Wire Company to conduct a preliminary survey to locate a suitable site for a tramway and to estimate construction costs. In November of 1933, the first physical survey of Franconia Notch was made by Batemen, E.J. Lloyd and Roland Peabody of Franconia, who was called in as an advisor because of his knowledge of the area and his enthusiasm for developing recreation in the White Mountains.
Bright’s idea appealed to increasing numbers of people and groups associate with winter sports, and Peabody, through his enthusiasm, aroused the support of the NH Legislature.
In the spring of 1934, after estimating construction costs, completing research on operating costs and potential income, and examining seven promising sites for a tramway, a committee appointed by Governor John G. Winant unanimously recommended Cannon Mountain.
Environmental concerns were a principal reason for selecting the Cannon site. At Cannon, it was possible to build a tramway with only minor cutting of forests and without marring the scenic beauty of Franconia Notch. In addition, the area was already a major route for tourists in the White Mountains.
Legislation was drafted and passed in 1935, but the project hit a snag when federal financing, a provision of the legislation, proved unavailable. But their faith in the project undaunted, Bright, Batemen and Peabody pushed on and kept the project alive. In June 1937, a bill was passed by the NH legislature and signed into law by Governor Francis P. Murphy authorizing a $250,000 bond issue to finance erection of the tramway. Later Roland E. Peabody was named Managing Director of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway.
In August, American Steel Wire Company was awarded the construction contract and the project rapidly took shape.
As the contractor began construction of the tramway, a 200 man CCC Camp began work on a parking area and developing the Coppermine, Tucker Brook, Kinsman and Cannon ski trails. Old logging roads on the mountain had been used for skiing since 1929 and the famous Richard Taft Race Course had been developed in 1931-1932.
To build the final passenger tramway it was first necessary to construct a freight tramway to carry materials. Carrying cement and materials by backpack, four dozen men completed the formidable task in December. Construction of the tramway continued through the winter, with almost all the work, pouring 32 carloads of cement, assembling 232 tons of steel and four miles of cable, done by hand. It was considered an outstanding engineering feat of the period. On June 28, 1938, after nine months of construction and one year after the passage of legislation, North America’s first aerial tramway was dedicated.
The opening attracted newspapermen, photographers, newsreel cameramen and syndicated writers from across the nation. Later Lowell Thomas made evening news broadcasts from both the valley and mountain stations.
The tramway quickly became a major tourist attraction, carrying 163,000 passengers in its first year.
As its proponents had predicted, the tramway proved not only a sound financial investment for the state, but also confirmed the viability of skiing as an industry in New Hampshire. Cannon Mountain, with the highest vertical drop of any ski mountain in the East, became the pinnacle of Eastern skiing. The success of the state’s venture attracted the interest and investment of the private sector and the ski industry in NH grew and prospered.
In early 1965, Commissioner George Gilman of the Department of Resources and Economic Development recognized the need to begin planning for the replacement of the original tramway. Although still in prime operating condition, thanks to a diligent maintenance program, the cost of custom-made replacement parts and the tramway’s limited passenger capacity made replacement desirable and economically practical.
The replacement project was authorized by the NH legislation in 1977 after a study by consulting engineer Robert Heron proved the project feasible.
In July 1978, a contract for the replacement project was awarded to Nuova Agudio. Preliminary construction begun in July 1978, with the lower terminal completed in April 1979. During the summer of 1979, helicopters were briefly used to airlift some major components. Unlike the original construction project in 1937, there was no need to erect a freight tramway since the existing tramway could be used as the work-horse for moving materials up the mountain. Even as construction proceeded heavy summer passenger traffic was maintained. Construction continued though the cold but nearly snowless winter of 1979-1980. In February 1980, the tramway successfully passed a series of stringent operational tests conducted by Nuova Agudio and was approved for passenger traffic by the State of NH.