Uncovered In the Archives Episode 6: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
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Uncovered In the Archives Episode 6: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

October 12, 2019


– Welcome to
Uncovered in the Archives. I’m your host, Brad Pomerance. On today’s episode, we uncover
the history of the iconic Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Now, while over 20 million
people have ridden on this tram, in its over 50 years
in existence, this engineering marvel
was once called a folly and nearly derailed by politics, war, funding
and weather. How was this tram brought
back from the brink? That’s coming up on
Uncovered in the Archives! ♪ [bold horns/soaring music] ♪ ♪ – [Announcer]
Uncovered in the Archives is made possible, in part, by Loma Linda University Health. Additional support provided by Coachella Valley Water District, City of Riverside, County of Riverside, City of Hesperia, Steve Tobin and the
Grace Helen Spearman Charitable Foundation, City of La Quinta, and the contributions to your PBS stations by viewers like you.
Thank you. ♪ – So, we’re inside
the archives of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway We are joined by Jim Landells, he’s an expert on the
history of the tram. So, I wanna ask you
right out of the box, who is the first person,
who is the visionary, that thought, “let’s put
a tram up Chino Canyon”? – Well, as the story goes,
that was Francis Crocker, in about 1935. And the story I
was told is that they were driving with
a friend of his, Warren, – OK. – heading out of town and
he pointed up the mountain. He says, “you know?
They need to have a tram
up that mountain.” – What’s remarkable
about his vision is that-
word got out, and I actually spent
some time in the archives, before we came together
and I looked at an article. And all of a sudden, we
saw repeated reference to, “Crocker’s Folly”.
– Crocker’s Folly, yeah. – I mean, he was getting
lambasted for his idea to put a tram up Chino Canyon. – Well, it just seemed
impossible to most people, that it could even
be accomplished. – Then I understand that, Mr. Crocker was able
to enlist the help of a very prominent individual, in the Coachella Valley.
Who was that? – Yes, that would be
Earl Coffman. He was the owner and
operator of the Desert Inn and he foresaw Palm Springs
as being a huge resort area. – Right.
Around that time, once that momentum
started to build, I guess, from what I
read in the archives, that legislation was needed, through the State of California, to allow even the planning…
– Absolutely. Yes. – of a tram up
Chino Canyon. But it didn’t go well
in Sacramento. – No, it did not. The bills
were vetoed by the governor. – [Brad] Twice!
– [Jim] Twice. – Twice. And, I understand, the governor at the time, Culbert Olson, vetoed
two different bills. To make matters even
more frustrating, for these pioneers, World War II broke out. – Right.
– And, what’d that do? – Put back the time clock,
yet again. Here we are.
– So, what happened at the end of World War II? – Well, the bill
was reintroduced and the governor of the day, fortunately, signed it and we were on our way! – OK, that’s Earl Warren.
– Yes, Earl Warren. – who wound up going to the
US Supreme Court in 1945. He signed that
enabling legislation. So, as I was rifling
through the archives, I like looking at
newspaper articles. I found one that said that, “The tram would
be done by 1947.” – Impossible! – Not so much!
(chuckles) – What made it even
more impossible was, another military conflict. – Right, Korean War. – Korean War, delayed
the process yet again. – Yes. – So, once the Korean War ended, I understand that the momentum
started to build again. – Yes. – Now, I’ve learned
that the mountain, Chino Canyon, is owned by the
California State Park system. But then, there’s the question
of the land at the entry, to what would become the
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. – Right. – I presume that
land was in private hands. Is that right?
– Yes, it was. Yes. – Who can I speak with,
Jim, that can help us explore the question of
the acquisition of land, here at the floor
of this valley? – Well, there’s one man
that comes to mind, and that would be
Steve Nichols. I believe his father was
instrumental in that. – Okay, let’s go
meet Steve Nichols. (paper ripping) ♪ [bright music] – Steve Nichols, thank you
so much for joining us. – My pleasure.
– Before we learn about your family’s connection
to the tram, I see you bought a prop.
What’d you bring? – Well, I brought an article, from the Palm Springs,
“Desert Sun”, from May of 1940, that features on
the front page the possibility of a
tramway in this canyon. – So, that’s about
5 years after Francis Crocker dreamed up
this vision of a tram. The tram had been called
“Crocker’s Folly”, for a time. But by the end of the ’50s, it looked like the tram
was building momentum. I saw in the archives
private revenue bonds. $8.15 million in
private revenue bonds. No public monies whatsoever. What’s your family’s connection, to those private revenue bonds? – Well? My family, along
with many other folks, bought some of those bonds. And my family was also
connected, just in terms of, being involved in looking at
the feasibility of the tramway. – And, let’s talk about that.
Your father, whose name was
Culver Nichols. Tell me more about
his involvement, as it relates to the
creation, the vision, of the Palm Springs
Aerial Tramway. – Well, I think
you could call him, one of the dreamers
of the tramway, like Crocker and
like Earl Coffman. In fact, my father actually
took it one level further. He made at least one
trip, and possibly two, to Switzerland
to actually ride on existing tramways. – He did one more thing. Your
family did one more thing. – My grandparents
bought this land, from the Southern Pacific
Railroad, in the 1920’s. – [Brad] This whole area?
That we’re at right now? – [Steve] A square mile here.
– [Brad] OK. – [Steve] In the ’50s,
my father and mother donated this land to the
tramway for the lower station. – I must say, Steve, that
it’s just inspiring to think that the Valley Station
is here today, because of the generosity
of your parents. How does that make you feel? – It makes me feel proud and it makes me wonder, from time to time, would we be even standing here, if it hadn’t been for my
grandparents and my parents, doing what they did. – And, I wanna ask you then, if I wanted to
speak with someone who could tell me about the construction of
the actual tram, any ideas who I
could speak with? – I have one idea. That
would be Jim Landells. – Ah! – who was the
son of Don Landells, who ran the helicopters.
– Right! We spoke with Jim earlier,
inside the archives. Maybe we can find him again and talk to him about
the construction. – Sounds good!
– OK, let’s do it! Let’s go find Jim Landells. ♪ – [Brad] Jim Landells is back!
I gotta ask you, Jim, why did Steve Nichols
tell me, I should talk to you about
the construction of the tram? – I happen to have
written a book, in honor of my father, detailing the construction
of the Palm Springs Tramway. – And here’s the book,
right here. – Yes, sir! – Called, “We Can Do It” We see your dad’s name,
Don Landells. I wanna talk about,
the man, the myth, Don Landells, your father. What made him such
a pivotal player, in the construction
of this tram? – Well, Brad? Don was
one of the few pilots, in southern California,
that had the experience to fly this rugged terrain. And he had experience
flying these, newly powered, turbo-charged,
supercharged helicopters, that has much greater
lift capabilities. – And, that’s the
key to this story. But for these helicopters and the pilots that
could fly them, up Chino Canyon, there would be no Palm
Springs Aerial Tramway. – Absolutely true.
The helicopters were pivotal on the construction. 95% of the materials delivered were delivered by helicopter. – We are so lucky. We were
in the archives before. Some genius, decided to have, a series of photographers
take photographs from the vantage point
of the helicopter pilot. And some of these photographs
are absolutely remarkable. They show the huge
amount of materials and equipment that had to be brought
up this mountain. I see pictures of
these helicopters carrying huge slats
of steel beams. – [Jim] Right. Up to 20,
24 feet long. – I couldn’t believe,
when I saw imagery, of a water tank,
of fuel canisters, even tractors were
hauled by helicopters up this mountain?
– A piece at a time, disassembled into
700 pound loads. – And then, there
are all the workers that basically lived up there. – [Jim] Yep, they’d
go up on Mondays and come back down
on the weekends. They couldn’t take the time to fly them up
and down every day. – [Brad] So, the helicopters
had to bring up equipment to create a workers village? – [Jim] Absolutely, that was
their way in and their way out. – Now, there was one day though,
that was pretty scary. December 10th, 1962. You discuss it in your book. What happened on that day? It impacted your dad. – Well, that was the day
we had a mid-air crash. A flight plan change
had been made and the aircraft were
going to be coming in and weaving from
different directions. And, it was believed
that one of the pilots wasn’t clear on that. Because when my father
lifted off his pad, to take off and turn, he met mid-air with an aircraft that was coming in to land. – And, we’ve seen pictures
of the aftermath. – [Jim] The tremendous impact. – Right, of that crash. The pilot in the other plane?
Very minor injuries. Your father-? – [Jim] Not so lucky.
– Not so lucky. He survived, amen, a
severe leg fracture. But, continued his work. Your father also had,
really, the honor to fly someone pretty
high up in our state, to inspect the
construction of the tram. Who was that?
– That would be Edmund G. Brown. – [Brad] The governor!
– [Jim] The governor. – The first Edmund G. Brown,
Pat Brown, in the early 1960’s,
and his wife. – Yes. He flew them
up to the top and they walked around with
the board from Palm Springs and took it all in and I think he really
enjoyed the day. – I wanna ask you though.
You were too young to have worked on this site.
– Yeah, I was little! – But, do you know
anyone that did that can tell us
about those days? – Oh, sure.
That would be…uh? Steve Nichols.
– Steve Nichols! Wait! We talked
to Steve Nichols. – Yeah, Steve!
Steve’s the guy. – OK. Let’s go back and
find Steve Nichols! He must still be here at the
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. ♪ [upbeat piano music] Steve Nichols is back! Thanks for joining
us again, sir. So, Jim Landells told us that you actually worked
at the construction site, up at the Mountain Station. Is
that right? – That’s correct. In the summer of 1962, I worked
up there for a few months and it was one of the
best jobs I ever had. – So, how did you get
to the Mountain Station? – We took helicopters.
– So, who flew you? – [Steve] Don Landells,
and I think they had three choppers running
at any one time. And, that was one of the
best rides you could have in southern California. – So, Jim’s dad
flew you up to the Mountain Station in 1962? – That’s right. – So, Jim
provided us with some imagery, some pictures,
from his archives, of those helicopter rides.
They’re absolutely epic! I can only imagine
how it must’ve felt. Incredibly empowering, to
be inside those helicopters heading up Chino Canyon. – Well, it felt like
you were flying in a bubble, out
over a deep canyon. The first time it
was a bit scary. – I can imagine! – After a
while, you kinda looked forward to it. It was a major,
major experience. – Not surprisingly, when
we turn to the opening, the Grand Opening of the Palm Springs
Aerial Tramway, your family was involved. September 12th, 1963. What do you remember
about that day? – [Steve] Well, my brothers
and I, Larry and Prescott, hiked in from Idyllwild,
to meet the first car. – [Brad] Oh, really?
– [Steve] And it was a long, long hike, just for some
canapes and white wine! – (chuckles) So, that means
you hiked, though, to the Mountain Station?
– To the Mountain Station from Idyllwild.
– OK. – And we got there… we had to kind of
keep walking because we got there in time to
meet the first tramcar. – And, who was in the first,
or one of the first, tramcars? – My parents were in the car,
together with my sister-in-law
and my young niece. – And let’s look behind us.
– This could be the car. – Amazing! – It is.
– Amazing! And, in addition
to your parents, many dignitaries were there. We’ve found in the archives,
pictures of a governor.
This is Pat Brown. – [Steve] He cut the ribbon,
I think. Governor Brown. – [Brad] Gene Autry, Art Linkletter, June Lockhart. I mean, it was a big day! – A big day indeed.
Yeah, it was amazing. I just remember a
huge celebration there at the Mountain Station. – I wanna talk
about your family. In the 1920’s,
your grandparents bought land
in Chino Canyon. In the 1950’s, your
parents donated that land, so that this Valley Station
could be built. The legacy continues with you. – [Steve] The legacy does
continue. I had discussed with my father,
before he died, creating a foundation for, among other purposes,
land conservation. And, one of the things
that we’ve done that I’m most proud of is to
provide funding to acquire a key part of Chino, the
interior of Chino Canyon, for conservation purposes.
Such that, people coming to the tramway will always
be able to enjoy the natural
undisturbed land, rather than what
might have been, a hotel or other type
of development there. – I would be remiss,
if we didn’t thank you, for leaving that legacy
for future generations. Steve, I really wanna learn
more about the miracle, that is this civil
engineering feat, the Palm Springs Tramway. Any ideas with
whom I could speak? – I think you should
talk to Chris Bartsch, an engineer at the tramway. – OK, let’s go meet Mr. Bartsch! ♪ [upbeat music] ♪ – Chris, thank you so
much for joining us. We’re now joined
by Chris Bartsch. He is the maintenance
supervisor here at the
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. I wanna speak with
you about that tram. It went online in 1963,
but in 1998, something significant
happened. What was that? – The tramway contracted
with Von Roll Tramways, a Swiss company, to manufacture the new,
rotating tramcars. – In addition to the new car, we know that there were
new cables put in, a new drive system,
rock removal. It’s about a $15 million
renovation. Everything went back
online in September 2000. Let’s talk about the cabins.
– Yes. – The iconic cabins of
the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s… no longer. -New cabins. – Yes.
– Tell us about that. – The new cabins are the first
in the Western Hemisphere and the only ones still,
that rotate 360 degrees and actually do two rotations,
on the trip to the mountain. – I wanna ask you
about the cables. You took me into
the engine room An awesome sight, indeed. What were we looking at? – We were lookin’ at the drive
system, that runs the tram. You’ve got the electric
motor, a gearbox and then, the pull wheel,
which spins to pull the cable. Pulling the tramcar from the
mountain, down to the valley and that motion pulls the other
tramcar up to the mountain. – So there are 12 cables,
total. Is that right? – Altogether, yes.
12 separate ones. – And, how large are they?
– 16 millimeters, which is the
communication line, to 75 millimeters,
which is the ropes that hold up the counterweight
for the track ropes. – I wanna ask you
about the towers. There are five of them. How tall are they? – The shortest one is 65 feet.
That’s Tower Number Four. And the tallest one, Tower
Number One, is 227 feet. – What about the distance
between the five towers? – Anywhere from about 700 feet
to a mile-and-a-half. – Which makes sense, because
I believe the total tram ride is about two-and-a-half miles? – Yes.
– And how long does it take? – About 10 minutes.
– And I wanna take it! Can you help me?
– I can! – OK, how can I do it? How can I take the ride? – Let’s head on down. Ken Kietzer, with the
California State Parks, is waiting there for you now. – Let’s do it!
– Let’s go! [♪ cheerful music] – [Brad] So we finally
made it on to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. We are joined, right
now, by Ken Kietzer. He’s a senior
environmental scientist with the California
State Park system. And, I understand-
I’ve done some research before our trip, that there are
several climate zones as we travel up the tramway. How many are there? – Yeah. We run through
five climate zones running up the tramway. – So, Zone One goes from… is it Highway 111, when we enter, to
where we are right now? – Yeah, that’s correct. Just about that distance. And, it’s the northern end
of the Sonoran Desert which runs from, right
around Palm Springs, all the way nearly to the
southern tip of Baja, Mexico. – Oh, wow! And so, it’s at
about 2600 feet in elevation. What do we see in Zone One, in terms of the fauna? The animal life. You’re a zoologist.
What do we see? – [Ken] Yeah! Well? if you’re
lucky, you’ll see the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep,
the Desert Bighorn Sheep. Which is the icon of the area- – [Brad] Sure! – [Ken] A
federally endangered species. So, some of the other
wildlife you might see are a couple of foxes: the
Kit fox, and the Gray fox. These are things you’ve
gotta be really lucky to see. – What about the flora,
the plant life, in this Zone One:
the Cienega zone? – Well, yeah.
The Cienega’s a wetland. So you have
riparian vegetation, willows, cottonwood,
sycamores. And then, the iconic palm tree, the Washingtonia, that everybody knows of
from Palm Springs. – [Brad] Of course!
– [Ken] and Twentynine Palms and some of the
other desert oases. – So, I thought we’d
now move into Zone Two. We have- I’ll call him
the cable engineer, Dave, behind us!
(chuckles) He is going to
start the tram ride. And, as we move into Zone Two, let’s get a sense of
what we’re gonna see, that’s different from Zone One. Dave, shall we start? – [Dave] OK! ♪ – [Brad] So now that we’ve
left the Valley Station, we’re heading into Zone Two. And Zone Two takes
us from an elevation, I understand, of
about 2600 feet to about 4100 feet, and it will conclude
at the second tower. Talk to us about the
fauna that we would see in Zone Two. – Well, you’re gonna
still have some potential to see the Desert Bighorn Sheep.
But as you climb the mountain, they don’t get up that high. – What other life might
we see, animal life? – Well? If you’re
extremely lucky, you could see a mountain lion. You could start seeing deer and you continue to
see some of the foxes. And you might see the
ringtail, if you’re out here by any chance, at night. – What about the
geological formations? – [Ken] At this elevation,
you’re gonna see a lot of the metamorphic rock. Former seabed, shallow sea
that filled the Inland Empire. – Really? So Ken, we’ve
arrived at the second tower, which means we’re
entering the third zone, Elevation 4100 feet, to about 5800 feet. What can you tell us about the
fauna that we may see here? – Well? You’re gonna see
a lot of the same stuff that you saw a little
lower on the mountain. Except for, as I said, the bighorn sheep did
not get up this high. – They’re gone. – You’ll
start to see things like gray squirrels. You might see some of
the higher elevation birds. If you look out the
window of the tram, you might get the chance to see some of the soaring species. The hawks; potentially, a golden eagle. If you’re really lucky,
a peregrine falcon; some of the other
birds on the mountain. – What plant life would we see, now that we’re in Zone Three? – You’re gonna
start to see some of the shrubby chaparral species, mountain mahogany. You might see a juniper
or a pinyon pine. – Is the geology changing? The formations that
we see, the rock? – Yes, it is. If you look out the front
of the tramcar here, you’re gonna start to see more
of the true granitic rock. The plutons, that
were pushed up to make the higher
parts of the mountain. – This rock, Ken, is
incredibly majestic. The colors, the formation. I mean, I can see
why people so enjoy coming up this cliff, just to see the rocks
that are just sheer and absolutely beautiful. So, I see we’re starting
to see sprinkles of snow. It’s cold enough now that
when there’s precipitation, it’s gonna stick.
– [Ken] Oh, yeah. In the wintertime, we can
get quite a bit of snow at the higher elevations
of the mountain. – So, we’re now at
the third tower and we’re entering the
fourth climate zone. That zone takes us from
about 5700 feet in elevation, to about 7500 feet
in elevation. What can you tell us about
this fourth climatic zone? – So as we move into
this fourth zone, you’re gonna start to see
some of the pine trees, as well as continuing
to see some of the oaks and some of the chaparral
species, as well. – OK, Ken. We’re
now at Tower Four, which means we’re entering
the fifth climate zone. As I look outside,
lots of snow, lots of plant life. We’re about 7800
feet in elevation, heading all the way to
the top of the mountain. Which takes us to
about 8500 feet and then, even beyond that…
to 10,000 feet. – Yes, correct. So you’re
gonna start to see white firs, Jeffrey pines, lodgepole pines, limber pines,
and sugar pines. – What about animal life? – We’re gonna see
a lot more birds. The Steller’s jay
is one of’em. It’s really vocal. It’ll come harass you
for your snacks. – I like it! – You’ll see
the Clark’s nutcracker, which again, is really squawky
and loud, and noticeable. The white-headed woodpecker
is one of the birds birders like to come
up here and look for. – So, we’re heading toward
the Mountain Station. 8500 feet in elevation. We have literally
traveled on this tram, I guess, it’s 6000 feet. The ride took-
oh, I don’t know? About 10 minutes.
Is that right, Dave? – [Dave] That’s correct. – About 10 minutes
to get here! It is a marvel
like none other. As we get out of the station,
what are we gonna see? – Well, you’re gonna see the
view of the mountain peak. You’re gonna see
the pine forest that we were talking about. – Why don’t we leave
this cable car and let’s take a look at what we
can see at Mountain Station? ♪ [cheerful music] ♪ – OK, Ken. We made it outside
of the Mountain Station. It’s cold!
– Yes, it is. – 30 degrees.
– Correct. – What’s the differential
from the Valley Station to the Mountain Station? – Well, today’s
about 20 degrees. It’s in the 40’s
down in Palm Springs. – Okay. – It’ll warm up
later in the day and sometimes it’s as much as 40 degrees difference up here.
– Really? So, I wanna talk more
about the Mountain Station, a marvel in itself,
built in the early 1960’s. I can’t believe they
were able to do that. But we’ve learned, that
through the helicopter work, of many people,
all the materials were brought up here. Inside this
three-story building, there’s a restaurant.
We can enjoy a meal. We can enjoy a hot toddy.
It’s cold! There are two theaters. We can watch films on
the history of the tram, the history of the state parks. A gift shop, a nature exhibit. And let’s talk about
nature, your specialty. – Sure. – If we want to enjoy the nature that
we see behind us, the majestic beauty of
this mountain wilderness, what can we do? – Well, a great thing
to do would be have one of our state park
interpreters or volunteers, take you for a nature walk,
down here in Long Valley, right outside the tram building. Or you can hike
into the wilderness, backpack into one of our
wilderness campgrounds, spend the night in
the wilderness. It’s a great thing to do. – Can we ski?
Is there cross-country skiing? – Of course! Seasonally there’s cross-country
skiing, snow-shoeing. In the summertime there are miles and miles
of hiking trails. You can hike to
San Jacinto Peak, 10,834 feet. That’s the highest point in the California
State Park system. – Ken, thank you so
much for joining us. We appreciate it. I want you to remember this. In 1935 a young,
electrical engineer, looked up at these
snow-capped peaks. He looked up at
Mount San Jacinto and he had a vision. He had a vision that, one day, people would be
able to ride a tram up the sheer cliffs
of Chino Canyon. And, you know what? 20 million people
have done that! “Crocker’s Folly” has become
the Eighth Wonder of the World. We hope that you’ve
enjoyed this journey through the history of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, as much as we have. And we hope that you
join us next time, to see what we’ve Uncovered in the Archives! I’m Brad Pomerance. ♪ [majestic orchestral music] ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ – [Announcer]
Uncovered in the Archives is made possible, in part, by Loma Linda University Health. Additional support provided by Coachella Valley Water District, City of Riverside, County of Riverside, City of Hesperia, Steve Tobin and the
Grace Helen Spearman Charitable Foundation, City of La Quinta, and the contributions to your PBS stations by viewers like you.
Thank you. ♪

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