On Oregon’s SkiWay
Re-use, re-purpose, re-imagine. The concept is not new. Why re-invent the wheel, when you can just re-purpose? That is the innovative concept behind a flying bus. The 1950s were filled with dreams of flying cars, but who knew the bus would come first? Buy your ticket and you could hop a flying bus that would carry you up to the heights of Mt. Hood, where you could hop off and enjoy a day skiing the pristine snow without the chore of installing snow chains on your car and driving the perilous roads winding up onto the mountain.
The year was 1948 when Dr. J. Otto George was looking at easier ways to transport people to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. He formed a corporation called the Mt. Hood Aerial Transportation and created the SkiWay aerial tram using repurposed city buses . The massive undertaking required clearing a path through the forest almost 4 miles long, installing the steel towers, building landing platforms, and converting the buses into aerial trams.
Timberline Lodge was built in 1937 and sits at 6,000 ft near the very peak of the mountain just outside of Portland, Oregon. The Lodge quickly became a favorite destination for travelers. The massive circular stone fireplace with a soaring ceiling encircled with comfortable chairs made for a picture-perfect spot to enjoy a weekend skiing. In the summer, the drive up was easy and picturesque and was a great place to use as a home base when heading out for a hike. Filled with arts and crafts style with carved wood, metal ironwork, and enormous windows overlooking the mountain top, Timberline is still a thrilling destination today.
In the 1950s though, to get there you had to drive up a winding, very snowy two lane road up to the Lodge – a beautiful drive to be sure, but a bit harrowing in the days before the all-wheel drive SUVs of today. Transporting skiers directly from the closest resort town of Government Camp would be ideal. It would require a long 3.2 mile aerial tram with an increase of 2,100 miles in elevation.
The Skiway Tram opened in 1951 and cost $1.50 to ride round trip. The bus tram was unusual in that most aerial trams are pulled up by a pulley system. The Skiway bus used the bus engines to drive the pulleys. In theory, it worked fine, but in practice it was less successful. The riders reported the noise inside the bus was almost unbearable being uncomfortably loud with the clanking and grinding making conversations nearly impossible and ruining what should have been a pleasurable ride. The Skiway bus was also a victim of bad timing. The road up to Timberline was improved around the same time, making paying a little extra to ride the tram less appealing. Taking 20-25 minutes to ride one way on a tram when you could drive in half that time quickly made the aerial bus unpopular. Investor’s discussions to replace the buses with standard gondolas and using a more standard pulley system never came to pass. Ridership dwindled rapidly once the novelty wore off. By 1956, the tram stopped completely and by1960 the steel towers were removed and the landing platforms repurposed. The lower landing was converted into the Thunderhead hotel with coffee shop and swimming pool, now converted once again into condos. The path carved through the treeline is now the Glade Trail used by skiers in winter.
That path may once again be used to transport visitors. The concept of the flying bus has not gone away entirely – although with modern alterations. There is talk of returning the tram up to Timberline once again – alleviating traffic and parking issues at the popular lodge. While it no doubt can be guaranteed it won’t be a flying bus, it will most likely be a modern version similar to the tram currently soaring up the hill over Portland between the Willamette River and OHSU hospital or the gondola ride at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia. The concept of an aerial tram taking visitors to the very popular Timberline Lodge was not a bad idea – just poorly implemented. Done well, the flying bus could just be a trip worth taking once again.
You can visit Timberline Lodge out of Portland or Vancouver on a Columbia River cruise:
Portland to Clarkston
- 10 Nights
- June 5, 2024,September 25, 2024,October 5, 2024
- From $8,205
- American Song
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