NH Governor Sununu Urges Gondola Replacement for Cannon Tram; Mountain Management Stands Firm on New Tram
“We at Franconia Notch State Park have been ‘all tram all the time’ since day one.” - Cannon Mountain General Manager John DeVivo.
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This story has been updated to include a response from Governor Sununu’s office.
“It’s history and something to be proud of.”
Andrew Hartford has been skiing Cannon Mountain “anytime I can” since 1957. He took his first-ever ski lesson there. Now 74 and retired, the Lancaster resident skis the 2,180-vertical-foot mountain “two or three times a week” with his 72-year-old brother, Dennis.
“It's a great mountain to ski,” Hartford says. “It's cold and windy with plenty of ice. The front five has nice steep skiing. Sometimes at the top you are actually above the clouds.”
While Hartford averages around 40 days skiing at Cannon per season, he only occasionally rides the mountain’s most famous lift: the 2,021-vertical-foot aerial tram. He avoids weekends – when the tram typically runs – and prefers to start his days by riding the Peabody high-speed quad to the Cannonball quad to the summit.
Still, asked about the fate of the tram, which at 43 years old is due for replacement, Hartford firmly supports keeping a version of the lift at Cannon.
“I think this may be the first tram in the United States – it’s history and something to be proud of,” he says. “I don't want anything more taken away from the North Country.”
Cannon’s tram, originally built with 24-passenger cabins in 1938 and updated to its current 70-passenger model* in 1980, was the first such lift not just in the U.S., but in North America. Eighty-five years later, it is one of just two such lifts in New England (the other serves Vermont’s Jay Peak), and one of just a handful on the continent (U.S. ski areas with trams include Alyeska, Heavenly, Palisades Tahoe, Big Sky, Snowbird, Snowbasin, and Jackson Hole). It is a gorgeous machine, singular and revered, synonymous with Cannon ski area and the Franconia Notch State Park in which it sits.
But machines don’t last forever. Cannon’s tram is outdated and worn out. The lift’s manuals are written in Italian. Officials have testified that the state-owned lift must be replaced within five years or risk mechanical failure.
So what? Lifts wear out all the time. But the Cannon Mountain tram, like all of Cannon Mountain ski area, is owned by the State of New Hampshire. Which means large capital investments can be subject to the whims of politicians. Last month, Republican State Senator Carrie Gendreau introduced a bill requesting $25 million in state funds to upgrade the tram. Last week, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu (also a Republican) urged the legislature to instead consider an eight- to 10-passenger gondola as a replacement lift, which he says would be cheaper, faster, safer, and more comfortable for passengers.
Cannon management, backed, it seems, by a majority of the mountain’s season passholders, is staunchly pro-tram, and they frame their argument in righteous and noble terms.
“We at Franconia Notch State Park have been ‘all tram all the time’ since day one,” Cannon Mountain General Manager John DeVivo, who oversees the park year-round, said in a prepared statement that he shared with The Storm Skiing Journal. “History, iconography, cachet, generational bonding, and the anchor-store tourist attraction position within North Country tourism mean everything to us.”
The fate of Cannon’s tram is not simply a utilitarian calculation of finding the most appropriate and cost-effective ski lift. That’s a factor, of course. But the debate echoes and could be swallowed by larger political standoffs around fiscal prudence and the appropriate use of tax dollars. The high-dollar, high-profile request reminds the citizens of New Hampshire – including those that don’t ski – that they own a ski area, and risks re-igniting standoffs over whether they should. There is the question of whether the tram should be considered primarily a ski lift or a warm-weather tourist attraction, and to what degree history and precedence should factor into future investment when deciding which lift best serves the location now. And any position taken by Governor Sununu will invite conflict-of-interest accusations regarding his family’s ownership of Waterville Valley, which the governor once ran and which his family still owns.
This is the second high-profile political clash around a publicly owned ski area in New Hampshire in the past eight months. And while a debate around a single lift is less consequential and less existential than the bar brawl that swallowed Gunstock last summer, its outcome is likely to resonate far beyond a single ski area or state. Here’s a deeper look at why Cannon and its loyalists are so committed to a tram, the arguments against such an expensive lift, and what various outcomes could mean for the ski area’s stature and future.
*Cannon’s tram can carry 80 passengers for non-ski operations.
Below the paid subscriber jump: a full breakdown of the tram replacement project, a new lift for America’s wildest ski area, Indy Pass’ big change, an industry legend passes, and much more.
“This is not primarily about skiing or the ski area.”
The first thing to understand about Cannon’s tram is that it is not exclusively a ski lift. It runs year-round as the marquee attraction at Franconia Notch State Park, a stretch of terrain so rugged that Interstate 93 collapses to just one lane in each direction as it passes through – the only such constricted stretch in the nearly-47,000-mile U.S. Interstate System. The tram costs $28 per round-trip adult ride, and generates around $1.5 million in annual ticket revenue – a number that would likely increase with the installation of a more modern, higher-capacity tram. The lift, and its easy access to the area’s dramatic terrain, is an important reason why Franconia Notch State Park delivers 48 percent of the annual revenue for the park system’s 93-park network.