Monday, November 14, 2016

Aerial Tram on Superstition Mountain

November 7, 2016 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

This is a reminder of what can happen when proposing ideas about how to make destination locations an exciting place to attract visitors to an area. During all the speculation associated with how to bring visitors to the desert area known as Apache Junction in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a great many ideas were suggested. The idea of an aerial tram from the “Superstition Ho Hotel” to the Flat Iron peak on Superstition Mountain was one of the more interesting.

This aerial tram idea fired the imaginations of several people who believed the concept was possible because it had been accomplished at many ski resorts in the western part of the United States.  The aerial tram proponents were thinking about huge gondolas carrying 20 to 30 passengers running to the top of Flat Iron every 30 minutes.

They also wanted a walkway constructed around the top edge of the Flat Iron (Ship Rock) for spectacular views of Apache Junction and the East Valley. They proposed a large circular rotating glass restaurant to serve evening meals at premium prices.

The tramway in the above photo operates at Palm Springs, California, and is very popular with the tourists of the area. Such a tramway was once proposed for the Superstition Mountain Wilderness (circa 1960). It failed in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Many believed the cost of such a project would be prohibitive in this small undeveloped desert community that in 1960 was filled primarily with retired winter residents trying to get away from the cold midwestern and eastern winters. It was shortly after this time that such a tramway was actually constructed in Palm Springs, California. That aerial tram soon became very popular tourist destination in the desert of California.

Many of the early settlers around Apache Junction strongly opposed the idea and immediately went about organizing a petition drive against such a proposal. These same people fought the incorporation of Apache Junction for decades until the city was finally incorporated in November of 1978.

It wasn’t long before Secretary of Interior Steward Udall voiced his opinion as to whether or not an aerial tram project was possible under current wilderness regulations. He strongly opposed the idea of changing the classification of land involved in this proposal.

It was soon learned that the R2 lands were not included in the wilderness area designation. Siphon Draw was also outside the wilderness boundary and located within the R2 lands. This provided an access to the Flat Iron where the tram’s towers could be constructed. This entire proposal began to look feasible when the R2 lands were examined for accessibility. The only major problem was the Flat Iron itself was within the boundaries of the wilderness, and the forest service’s wilderness concept strictly prohibited any such use of wilderness lands.

The supporters of the tramway were trying to form a committee and generate interest for the idea. Stewart Udall and Congressman Morris Udall both opposed the proposal. They were against any encroachment of the wilderness. Then there were proposals to change the “wilderness” status to a “national park” status. This idea found some support in Congress. Udall said a small portion of the land could be possibly changed to a National Park status.

The final result of proposals and counter proposals ended with the donation of 320 acres of land to be used as a national recreation park along the Apache Trail in 1967. Eventually this land (BLM) was turned over to the State of Arizona for the purpose of maintaining a park. In 1977 this land became Lost Dutchman State Park.

Lost Dutchman State Park actually was the congressional settlement in this controversy to build a tramway to the top of the Flat Iron. I do remember the controversy and so do others, but I could not find any newspaper accounts about it except for the transfer of land from the R2 lands to the BLM. Then this land was turned over to the State of Arizona. The State of Arizona can’t sell or transfer the title of these lands that form the Lost Dutchman State Park.

This was Congressman Udall’s compromise involving the lands associated with the concept of the tramway to the Flat Iron. Many people opposed the idea of the Superstition Wilderness Area becoming a National Park and others opposed the entire concept of a wilderness area east of Apache Junction. If there had not been some visionaries in those days who believed that wilderness was more important than development; we would have amusement parks with bright lights on top of Superstition Mountain looking down on Apache Junction today.
The facts, renderings and letters concerning this unpopular proposal still lie somewhere hidden from the eyes of historian and the general public. In my research I found several who remember this proposal and the temporary concern it produced in this community.

Today Apache Junction is unique to any other community in the Salt River Valley with this very popular Superstition Wilderness Area of some 242 square miles immediately east of the community. Over a hundred thousand people visit the wilderness area annually and it popularity grows each year.