The Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway ferries passengers up and down breathtaking Cannon Mt. year round. Its history is as fascinating as the tram is useful.
By Bethany Bourgault
Oct 11 2019
The red car of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway is fondly nicknamed “Ketchup” while its yellow counterpart goes by “Mustard.”Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Few stories of Yankee ingenuity can match that of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. What started as a simple idea in the mind of a single skier eventually became the first aerial tramway in America, a multi-million dollar project with multiple millions of passengers attesting to its draw. Its construction, woven into the fabric of American history, was truly an unprecedented feat. Riding the tramway is not for the faint of heart — the car, at times, reaches dizzying heights — but those brave enough to take a ride in the 80-passenger cabin and look out over the panoramic vistas will certainly be glad they did.
Alexander Bright, a champion downhill skier, returned from a 1933 ski trip in Europe with an idea. The lifting mechanisms he’d seen over there (“tramways,” they were called), would be immensely beneficial in the White Mountains, he thought. Something like that would attract tourists in both the summer and winter, while helping to popularize the area’s already-growing ski industry. Determined to bring his idea to life, he rallied the support of local businessmen and contractors, who conducted the first physical survey of Franconia Notch and gained the support of New Hampshire lawmakers. Just less than one year after Bright’s return, the governor appointed a committee to select a mountain to host the tramway. The unanimous choice was Cannon Mountain, a 4,180-foot peak in the heart of Franconia Notch. Not only did Cannon — located on a popular tourist route and already an established ski destination — offer the most public visibility, but adapting the site would also require the least deforestation.
As the nation’s economy slumped in the year’s following the 1929 stock market collapse, however, Bright’s tramway project skidded to what looked like a halt when the federal funding that had been promised to the project became unavailable. Discouraged but not dissuaded, Bright and his supporters persisted, and secured a $250,000 federal bond in 1937.
Construction of the tramway took nine months and required the labor of more than 200 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Around 50 men were needed just to ferry construction supplies to the top of the mountain, carrying up things like concrete and tools in backpacks in December. All of that hard work was rewarded on June 28, 1938, when the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway was dedicated.
The tramway was the first of its kind in America, and quickly became a major tourist attraction. Visitors thrilled to watch the cars on the road below shrink away during the ascent. The tramway was featured in both local and national media; its image graced postcards and souvenirs. From its opening in 1938 until its closing in 1980, some 6,581,388 people took the scenic ride.
Although it remained a popular attraction, the original tram became unsustainable as replacement parts became difficult — and expensive — to find. As costs escalated, the decision was made to build a new, $4.6 million tramway to replace the original.
Construction began in 1978, and Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway II was opened to the public in 1980. This time, workers were spared the task of ferrying the materials to the summit by foot, since they already had the existing tramway at their disposal.
The new tram featured two cabins, each with an 80-person capacity (70 in the winter to allow for the weight of ski equipment). The added capacity, along with its ability to travel at 1,500 feet per minute, made it three times more efficient than Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway I.
You don’t have to be a skier to appreciate the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. A one-way tramway pass, available at the visitors’ center at the base, is a great option for hikers wanting only a one-way trek. For those who’d prefer to catch a ride both ways, a rim trail around the summit offers the same breathtaking views, and is easily accessible from the tramway. Without even leaving the tram, passengers can see parts of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York, and Canada.
If you are a skier, though, the tramway makes for a fun trip to the summit. The 2.1 mile journey takes roughly 8 minutes, and allows access to almost all of Cannon’s 95 ski trails. At 4,080 feet, Cannon boasts the highest ski peak in New Hampshire and offers the option of the largest vertical drop in the state, at 2,180 feet. A warm and cozy ski lodge, open year-round, serves up a wide variety of cafe and pub food at the summit, with even more dining options available at the base. The New England Ski Museum, a modest collection of historic skiing memorabilia, also calls the base of Cannon Mountain its home.
With all of these options, it’s easy to spend the day at Cannon Mountain no matter the season. For help in planning your next trip, check out their website, or call them at 603-823-8800.
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.