The legacy of a pioneering Colorado chairlift designer is up in the air

The historic Estes Park Aerial Tramway, designed by pioneering Colorado ski lift designer Robert Heron, may fall silent forever unless a buyer is found to take it over this year.

Heron owned the tramway, which has been hauling tourists 1,100 vertical feet up Prospect Mountain near the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park since 1956, until his death in 1999. His son, John, then managed the tram until his death last year. The Heron family says there is no one else in the family qualified to run it.

“Unless a new owner comes forward to take over the business and operations, the tramway will not be open for the 2023 season,” the family announced in a news release. “We would like to see the heritage of the tramway continue, and we are open to all interested parties and ideas.”

Robert Heron designed several lifts in the early years of the Colorado ski industry including Lift 1 at Aspen Mountain, which was built in 1946, and Colorado’s first double-chair, built at Berthoud Pass in 1946. A Heron double-chair installed at Aspen in 1954 was relocated at Ski Sunlight in 1972 and is still in operation, although it is slated for replacement.

According to an obituary on the website Ski Area Management, Heron helped design more than 120 chairlifts across the country.

He also served on the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board for 14 years, beginning in 1965, according to his Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame bio. Heron was inducted in 1985.

He designed the Estes Park tramway in 1955 and opened it in 1956.

“It was like a passion,” said grandson Greg Whistler. “He built Estes as more of a showcase, to show people that these things would actually work.

“I think the most significant thing about him was, he was very attentive that his lifts would never fail — double, triple redundancies, extra strength on the cable. Safety was No. 1 always,” he added.

Prior to his work in ski lifts, Heron designed portable trams used by the Army for hauling loads during World War II. They were used at Colorado’s Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division trained for mountain warfare in Europe, and in the assault on Italy’s Riva Ridge during the winter of 1945.

His son, John, a mining engineer with the expertise to run the Estes Park tram, died last May at age 76.

“He had a very knowledgeable working background with the lift,” Whistler said. “We’re not experienced with the lift, and we just felt like that would be a liability, not knowing what was going on. And, being absentee owners is a problem, too.”

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