The Liberty Gazette
August 28, 2012Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Peering out from the vast green forest over even greater expanse of desert, visibility more than 200 miles, I looked down upon an oasis city surrounded by groves of date-palm trees that stretched off in the distance. Behind me, a boulder, wood and steel-beamed chateau, from which a vast complex of trails fans out, but no road or vehicle can be found. I imagined the energy and planning expended to build it here in this high mountain wilderness. One of the closest roads is eight miles away on the other side of the mountain. If one dared to step off and descend nearly vertically, about four miles in the other direction toward the city below, a road could be reached after losing nearly 6,000 feet in elevation and traveling through several life-climate zones in the process.
Linda: How does one get to this isolated paradise, escaping the sweltering heat from the desert below to a place where a jacket will be required? By tram! A human engineering marvel conceived in 1935, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway waited nearly three decades to come to fruition. Built with private funds, construction of the tramway started in 1960 and opened for business September, 1963. No roads invaded the rugged wilderness for its construction. Of the five massive steel towers upholding the cable on which the tramway’s 80-person capacity cars travel, only one, the lowest, is accessible by road. So without the benefit of roads how did the tramway get here? Simple, it flew! Yep, it was flown in by small bubble-canopy Bell 47 helicopters – the kind used on the TV show M.A.S.H. It was the first time anyone ever used helicopters in such a manner to the exclusion of all other forms of transportation during such an undertaking.
Mike: The Bells flew 23,000 missions through the nearly vertical crags, exposed to constantly shifting winds and turbulence. They lifted over 5,500 tons of material up the mountain for the construction of four of the five suspension towers and the mountain station at the top – 8,516 feet above sea level, in the midst of the San Jacinto Wilderness. Some of the board-and-plank helipads used during the original construction period remain on the mountain, reminders of this ingenious use of helicopters. A couple of the helipads are visible from the tram cars as they ascend and descend along the four-mile track. One span between two of the towers is two and a half miles, the longest single cable span of its type in the world.
Linda: From the mountain station the 10,834-foot peak of Mount San Jacinto is reachable by hiking an eleven mile trail that climbs a mere 2,300 feet, providing an even more spectacular view of the surrounding area. This peak is the terminus of the most vertical escarpment in the continental United States. If climbed via the rugged mountaineering Snow Creek route from the valley floor it’s a vertical gain of over 10,000 feet in a little less than five miles. Because of Francis F. Crocker, the man with the vision who pursued the tramway’s creation, and the little helicopters that could, people can escape to enjoy the high mountain meadows and climb peaks without undertaking such a grueling climb to get there.