High up on the side of Mount Hood, Timberline Lodge has over the years become an Oregon icon. Its rustic, WPA-financed design and construction strike most visitors as a good fit for the state’s general reputation for woodsy civility.
But had it not been for a particularly persnickety U.S. Forest Service manager, Timberline might have looked a lot different.
How different? Think “Bauhaus school of architectural design.” With nine stories of concrete and glass, and a cable-car tramway.
The cable car wasn’t such a bad idea, although that sort of thing depends a lot on how it’s implemented. A cable tramway of sorts was actually installed at Mount Hood in 1950, but it was objectively awful and closed for good twelve years later (see sidebar).
But however fun it might be to ride a cable car up the side of Mount Hood, the idea of scabbing a Manhattan-style skyscraper onto the side of Oregon’s tallest mountain probably doesn’t strike anyone as a good idea.
The whole scheme had its roots in the early 1920s after the Good Roads movement started resulting in … well, good roads. Once the roads were no longer terrible, and getting stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere was no longer a real danger, people started venturing out in their Ford Model Ts, Nash Tourings, and Chevrolet Superiors to explore the state. And lots of them explored their way out to the mountain, driving on the freshly built Mount Hood Scenic Loop.
Once there, they started looking for a place to stay so that they wouldn’t have to drive all the way home in the dark.
And on that score, most of them were out of luck. There was a hotel on the mountain — the Cloud Cap Inn, built in 1889 as a sort of permanent base camp for mountain climbers — but at 3,500 square feet, and with just a few guest rooms, it was woefully inadequate to this new surge of demand.
Meanwhile, business people in Portland weren’t slow to see the commercial potential in having a mountain so close, now that anyone could just drive on out and visit it. By developing some destination features there, they could generate a bunch of money from tourism, not just for the owners of the development, but for everyone else along the way. So they started thinking about ways to make Mount Hood a more desirable place to spend vacation time … and, of course, money.
But to a group of locals who had the requisite magic combination of money, health and leisure, this was not a welcome development. These lucky souls preferred to keep the mountain just as it was — a quiet, magical place of solitude and wildness. They worried that it would be turned into a sort of alpine Coney Island, a wasteland clogged with hamburger stands and tacky roadside attractions, full of noisy children and irresponsible teenagers and other non-Walden-Pond-ish features.
Hah, the businessmen retorted. You just want to keep it as your own personal rich-person playground. (Which, let’s be honest here — was a fair comeback.)
This debate got more heated as the 1920s wore on. But it was all just so much talk until a businessman named L.L. Wyler — as part of a committee — came forward with an $800,000 plan to develop the mountain with a flashy, modern hotel and resort, with gas station and cable tram car.
The Mazama Club — the local mountaineers’ organization, which was open only to those who had been on Mount Hood’s summit — geared up for battle. But it was over before they knew it. To the surprise of most people on both sides, Forest Service District Forester W.B. Greeley turned the project down flat, calling it a “profit-making eyesore.”
Wyler’s outfit pressed on, making changes to the plan to try to win the Forest Service over. They refined the plan into that nine-story skyscraper mentioned above, still involving a tram, and went over Greeley’s head with it.
Perhaps they thought the glitz factor of such a modern design would win approval. This would be logical, since the administration of Calvin Coolidge (the President who famously said, “The business of America is business”) was in charge in D.C. at the time.
They thought wrong. Coolidge’s Forest Service planners turned the plan down flat. They thought it looked inappropriate for the scenery.
Much scrambling ensued as various parties tried to come up with something that would look more appropriate. At length they came up with a more rustic-looking lodge plan, which the Forest Service green-lighted. All was clear for the developers … well, sort of clear.
The problem was that by the time all this wrangling was done, it was 1929; the country was sliding into the Depression, and the Portland businessmen were suddenly unwilling or unable to take on the financial obligation. So, nothing happened.
But some important issues had been settled: Yes, development on the mountain could go forward. But it would have to respect the mountain.
There matters stood for about five years, as the country plunged into the Depression and started trying to claw its way back to normalcy. Part of that process, of course, was the Works Progress Administration, which was offering government grants for infrastructure projects.
Of course the proponents of Timberline Lodge were not slow in getting their application in. They formed the Mount Hood Development Association and drew up plans for a 300-bed hotel, costing $275,513 and following the general outlines of the plan that had been approved in 1929.
Their plan was approved (or re-approved) in 1935, and construction on Timberline Lodge got started the following year.
When the place was finished, the government invited the king of Norway to come demonstrate a wild new sport called “alpine skiing.” They needn’t have bothered. Plenty of Oregonians of Scandinavian and Swiss descent were able and eager to show the way.
Perhaps the most enduring symbol of Timberline is the 750-pound bronze weathervane, crafted in a sort of abstract primitive design suggesting a bird. Most people assume it’s a Native American design, and perhaps it is — but the workers who built it actually cribbed the design from a Camp Fire Girls handbook.
(Sources: Rose, Judith. Timberline Lodge: A Love Story, a book by Judith Rose published in 1986 by Graphic Arts Center Publishing; Hiking Oregon’s History, a book by William L. Sullivan published in 2006 by Navillus Press)
If the idea of cable car service to Timberline Lodge strikes you as a not particularly bad one, you’re not alone. Over the years since the Wyler group proposed the glass-and-steel mountaintop skyscraper, several proposals have been floated for cable-car service up the mountain.
So far, only one has been built, and it was an immediate and colossal failure: The Skiway Tram project.
The Skiway (originally “Skyway,” but that name turned out to already be trademarked) was the brainchild of Dr. J. Otto George, who came up with the idea just after the Second World War, as the popularity of skiing started to explode nationwide. With a group of other investors, he formed the Mount Hood Aerial Transportation Co. to implement his plan.
The idea would be, rather than properly engineering a six- or eight-passenger gondola in the usual way, to incorporate the latest skyline-logging technology to hoist an entire city bus into the air and haul it up the side of the mountain. Each bus — there were two of them — was modified somewhat crudely to transfer the power from the drive wheels up to a 1.5-inch overhead traction cable, which it would claw its way along up and down the mountain. The whole project would use off-the-shelf parts and equipment modified to work in this new context, so it would be relatively cheap from a research-and-development standpoint.
Most truly bad ideas are good ideas gone awry through some key detail being overlooked or superadded. Not this one. The Skiway was a bad idea through and through, from the very start. It was slow, loud, and expensive. Enormous amounts of force had to be applied to the traction cable just to move it up the side of the mountain, so the trolleys required two regular bus engines, one at each end, running flat out. The engines weren’t diesels, so they could have been louder; but nonetheless they were plenty noisy, too loud for passengers to carry on a conversation during the trip.
It was also terrifying. A city bus full of passengers weighs 15 to 20 tons, which is a lot of weight to have dangling from a cable in the air. The weight dragging down the cable would make it sag deeply as the bus moved from one piling to the next, so that the trip up the mountain became a roller-coaster-like cycle of the tram clawing its way up to one of the towers and then almost free-falling down the other side (nose down, of course) before starting the climb to the next. It was not for the faint of heart, nor for the afraid-of-heights.
“I’ve ridden the tramway,” board member George Rauch said, at one of the later company meetings, as the failure of the venture was becoming obvious. “I’ve listened to the shrieks and I’ve taken the jolts over those, what you call them — the saddles, and I’ve heard what people say.”
All these issues might have been OK, but at just about the same time the Skiway opened for passengers, improvements to the highway to Timberline eliminated one of its primary reasons for being. One could now drive to Timberline, or take a ground-based shuttle bus, and get there ten minutes quicker (and, in the case of the bus, for 25 cents less; the tram was 75 cents one-way, and the buses were 50).
When the Skiway flying-bus service opened in 1951, there was considerable nationwide fanfare, and lots of people lined up to ride it. But for most of them, once was enough. Activity quickly dropped off to the point where the sky-buses were idle for months on end. By 1956, the run was shut down, and the Mount Hood Aerial Transportation Co. board was faced with some hard decisions.
Should they pull the buses and replace them with smaller cars? What about investing in a ground-traction system, like ski lifts use, to reduce the weight and noise?
But all these options cost money, and the board had no stomach for risking further sums. A liquidation committee was formed, and by the early 1960s the sky-bus line was no more.
(Sources: “Most Extraordinary of Buses …,” an article by Lindsay Benjamin published on Jan. 7, 2020, on the Oregon Historical Society’s blog at ohs.org/blog; “Skiway Tram,” an un-by-lined article published on Jan. 5, 2020, at portlandhistory.net)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.