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Mysterious black towers bear testament to abandoned tramway that once held life and death in the balance

23 Mar

Both Alan Larsen and Gray Meyer woke up that day in 1962 anticipating a routine tram ride to the air traffic control transmitters atop Coon Peak.   And about 250 yards from the summit, both heard the same horrifying bang.

The difference was that Alan Larsen saw the thick rail cable whipping toward them before it slammed the aluminum tram car.  Gray Meyer didn’t.  And before either of them could begin to process what was happening, their carriage fell from the sky.

This 1950's era photo shows the 7th and last tower in the old KSL tram line, which ran from the Flying J area in Lake Point to the transmitter cluster atop Farnsworth Peak. This photo appeared uncredited in a 1995 Deseret News article and was likely taken by the FAA.

The following originally appeared in the March 18, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Alan Larsen or Gray Meyer?  Gazing up at the snowy slopes of the Oquirrh Mountains, I’m not sure whose boots I would have rather been in on that frigid morning in 1962.  Both were young, skilled Federal Aviation Agency technicians.  Both woke up that day anticipating a routine tram ride to the air traffic control transmitters atop Coon Peak.   And about 250 yards from the summit, both heard the same horrifying bang.

The difference was that Alan Larsen saw the 2 inch thick rail cable whipping toward them before it slammed the aluminum tram car.  Gray Meyer didn’t.  And before either of them could begin to process what was happening, their carriage fell from the sky.

Six of the seven massive black towers of the old KSL tramway still stand today, oddly camouflaged against their Oquirrh backdrop.  Most visible are the tram building and towers 1 and 2, located behind the truck stops in Lake Point.  The rest take a little squinting to spot, but they’re there, rising stately and quietly in a neat line—rusting tributes to their storied past.

Though I had read a paragraph here and there about the tramway, I didn’t give it much thought until a curious reader called the Transcript Bulletin’s offices asking what they might be.  This request immediately raised two questions for me:

1) was there an interesting story behind these towers, and 2) are at least a few of them hikeable?  The answer to both questions, it turns out, is a resounding “yes!”

The tramway dates back to the early 1950’s shortly after KSL-TV installed a transmitter atop the 9,066 foot Coon Peak (renamed Farnsworth Peak in 1969.  The M*A*S*H style bubble helicopters of the day couldn’t operate safely at that altitude, so technicians had to hike or ski to and from the summit every week.  Various solutions were considered before KSL purchased the tramway from a mining company in Ketchum, Idaho.

The “Coon Peak Express” consisted of seven towers positioned strategically on slopes and ridges between terminal buildings at Lake Point and on the summit.  Its three-mile route climbed about 4,700 feet up ridiculously steep slopes and across deep canyons, taking an unprecedented 30 degree turn from the sixth tower to the top.  The 5,000 foot stretch between towers 4 and 5 over Big Canyon constituted the longest unsupported span in the world, besting the Glen Canyon Bridge by 1,000 feet.

The tram carried its first passengers in 1957 and operated almost continuously for 27 years.  Many passengers found the 45 minute gondola trip to the summit at least a little unnerving.  One new technician quit his job halfway up his first ride (his supervisor made him finish his shift).  On some stretches the tram rode 1,000 feet above the ground.  It’s small, square carriage was often tossed about by powerful cross winds.

Tower 1 with tower 2 in the distance (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Journals document a number of incidents with the tram—iced cables, a broken wheel shaft, failed gears.  Given weather conditions, the intense slopes and the later realization that a 30 degree turn on a tram line is an engineering no-no, the fact that so few incidents occurred with such regular use is amazing.

Even with the outstanding safety record, you might say something like what happened to Alan Larsen and Gray Meyer on November 19, 1962 was inevitable.

The trouble began after the carriage passed through tower 6 when a poorly-welded counterweight broke away, causing the carriage to plummet.  The flailing cable snagged inside the terminal building, seriously injuring operator Cloyde Anderton.  After a sickening series of yo-yo’s, Larsen and Meyer were suspend 50 feet above the forest floor.

“I hit the floor [of the car] and I see this pine tree in the window.  It would come up and it would go down.  Up, then down again,” recalled Meyer when I reached him at his Salt Lake City home, over 47 years after the incident.

When it came to a stop, the carriage was only partially attached to the rail cable.  The two technicians hung there, frozen, for three hours until technician Vic Moulton arrived on snowshoe to throw them a rope.

“There wasn’t a hell of a lot said between us,” Meyer said of the wait.  “It was cold and we were shivering.  I thought we were going to shake that thing off and it was going to come down.”

Larsen and Meyer escaped without major injury.  Anderton suffered broken ribs and cracked vertebrae.  Even at age 90, he says those injuries still give him trouble.  It’s no surprise that, with over 400 tram trips under his belt, he wasn’t sad to see the tram retired in 1984.

Increased regulations and escalating expenses had made the tram less practical.  Newer helicopters could fly higher and were much less expensive than maintaining the rickety tram.  They cut its cables in 1985.

“It’s like the covered wagon,” Anderton told me.  “It was great for when it was needed, but then we got cars.”

The old KSL tramway may have gone the way of the covered wagon, but interested hikers can visit the towers.  At least the first three towers sit on BLM land.  I visited towers 1 and 2 last weekend.  Standing beneath them after hearing those stories was an awesome experience.  Walking from tower to tower I spotted the tram’s pull cable partially buried in the dirt.  Tower 3 stood high on a ridge above a large scree field at 5,600 feet, with tower s 4 and 5 visible in the distance.  Tower 6 was behind a ridge.  Tower 7 was dismantled in the 80’s.

Above them all stood the ever-present beacon cluster blinking perpetually in the afternoon haze.  I imagined that final ascent to the top.  It must have been one heck of a ride.

Remains of the tram's pull cable lie partially buried between towers 1 and 2 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

TRIP TIPS

To visit the lower towers, follow Droubay Road north until it becomes a rough dirt road and curves into Foothill Drive.  Turn east at a livestock gate 1.5 miles from the pavement’s end and follow it, taking all left forks, for 2.2 more miles to a horse gate.  This road traverses private property, so do not leave it.  Only non-motorized traffic is allowed on the BLM land beyond the gate.  The tram building is heavily fenced, but towers 1 and 2 are a short 1.4 mile hike away.  Please explore responsibly.

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10 responses to “Mysterious black towers bear testament to abandoned tramway that once held life and death in the balance

  1. Blessed

    March 25, 2010 at 3:40 am

    That is an interesting story – um, you wouldn’t have found me in that tram… I don’t get along with heights that well!

     
  2. Larry

    July 8, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    this was awesome to read thanks. I have hiked the Kessler route a couple times and always see these towers.

     
  3. Nathan

    March 20, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    So great to see this write-up online. My kids asked me yesterday about the tram towers when we were out looking for climbing areas in the North Oquirrhs. Mystery solved. Well done, thanks for the research and for preserving this for those of us who had no idea what those tram towers were all about.

     
  4. Larry Soule

    June 28, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    There seems to be a road that goes down to tower #6 from Farnsworth peak. You can see it on Google Earth. I wonder if in the latter days of operating the tram they only went to tower 6 & used vehicles for the remainder of the climb. I want to hike down to it sometime when I’m up there. I believe the Helipad for KSL now sits on the exact spot that Tower 7 once stood.

     
    • bonnevillemariner

      October 25, 2018 at 7:11 pm

      Larry, do you work at the Farnsworth Peak site? I’ve been trying to get up there for ages. Every time I get close to securing permission, something falls through. I’d love to update this piece with photos from the top, and I’d love to investigate the road you mentioned.

       
  5. Susan Richardson Recksiek

    October 12, 2018 at 3:13 am

    My father, Earl Richardson, started working for KSL TV in 1949 when the transmitter was located on the Union Pacific building in downtown Salt Lake City. There was not enough room for all of the equipment at this location and on December 22, 1952, my father and another engineer “put the transmitter back on the air this day from Coon’s Peak”, (later renamed Farnsworth Peak).

    His first trip to the “mountain” in May, 1951 was on foot. During his 40 years working on Farnsworth Peak, he hiked, snowshoed, drove a 4-wheel drive truck, a snowcat, skied, and on January 4, 1956, flew up in the first helicopter my father had ever seen in Utah. None of the methods of transportation to the peak were safe. They rolled vehicles, had a helicopter crash and many other disasters.

    On July 22, 1954, my father made the “first tram try”. It was not successful. After many more tries, and having to replace the tramcar that been wrecked in tower six, my father successfully ran the empty tram car all the way to the top for the first time on Sept. 15, 1954. There were many more tram accidents other than the one recounted in the previous article, including an accident my father was in on December 17, 1974 when the tram car hit the ground and slid to a 45 degree angle. The quick thinking of my father grabbing the microphone and yelling, “STOP” and the tram operator up in the tram building shutting the tram down immediately, saved the two engineers from a very serious accident.

    I was privileged to ride up in that tram with my father when I was a very small child. I remember thinking how high we were off the ground and seeing a small deer below that my father pointed out to me.

    My father not only ran the first successful tram run up on Sept. 15, 1954, but he also ran the final tram run down on October 10, 1984.

    Dates and details were taken from a history written by my father titled, Life at the Top, a 60 page detailed account taken from the the logs he kept from 1952 until his retirement from KSL in 1992.

    By Susan Richardson Recksiek

     
    • Steve Horrocks

      October 25, 2018 at 5:19 pm

      Susan, thank you for your comments and peak back into Salt Lake Valley broadcasting! My father, Gary Walter Horrocks, was the director of engineering for KCPX/KTVX back in the day, and I remember him talking about the ‘KSL Tram.’ My experiences were not quite as thrilling as your father’s, as one of my first jobs (in 1972) was to drive the water truck up to the top of Mt. Vision to fill the water tank (but not drinking water) for the crews that lived and worked on top 24/7/365. A fun and exciting job for a 16-year old, until I ran the truck off the road and crashed 😦

       
    • bonnevillemariner

      October 25, 2018 at 7:23 pm

      Susan, I’d love to hear more about your experience riding the tram! I hope to update this story and perhaps visit some of the higher tower sites, then publish an updated version of the story.

       
  6. Bob Maxwell

    October 22, 2018 at 2:22 am

    I rode that tram once. I think it was during the wnter of 1956-57. The ride up in the sunshine was not too bad. All communication with the operator at the top by radio. In that long unsupported span there were two “floating towers.” These were pulleys supporting the traction cable that were attatched to the support cable. When these were approached the operator was contacted by radio to slow the tram in order to make sure the traction cable was not whipped off the pulleys. If they were, someone in the car would have to climb on tpo of the car to pry the cable back on. Running through them with the traction cable riding on the axle of the pulley would drop the car onto the axle of it’s own wheels. If this happened the car would be unable to move past the next tower. Fortunately there was no trouble on this trip.
    Coming down in the dark on a winter night was no fun. The car had a small lp gas heater, but it would not light. The fuel tank was either set so it was only getting liquid, or it was filled with butane which remains a liquid below freezing temps. I thought we would freeze to death before we got down.

     

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