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.
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.
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.
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.