The Riblet Tramways on Mount Spokane and Beyond

Byron Christian Riblet arrived in Spokane in July 1885 after completing the Civil Engineering program at the University of Minnesota. He spent the first few years as a railroad engineer, and then started building tramways in 1896 in Nelson, B.C. with his brother, Walter Riblet. According to the Riblet Tramway website, there’s a legend that Byron, having been instrumental in laying out Spokane’s streetcar system, was first invited to visit British Columbia to advise on what he thought would be a streetcar system. Learning on arrival that the project would be somewhat different, Byron Riblet proclaimed himself a designer of aerial tramways, and he left the railroad and streetcar business behind.

In the following 10 years, the Riblet brothers designed and raised more than 30 aerial tramways in the booming mining districts around the Kootenay Mountains in southern British Columbia. Byron returned to Spokane in 1908, and partnered with his brothers, Walter and Royal, to found the Riblet Tramway Company.

Conflicting online sources report that the Riblet brothers built their initial ski chairlift in 1938 or 1939 on Mount Hood. In any case, the Spokane company grew to unbelievable heights following the postwar popularity of ski resorts and aerial trams. They built numerous lifts across the Pacific Northwest and even as far away as Australia. According to Wikipedia, they have the most double chair lifts operating in the U.S.

Royal Riblet was disassociated from the Riblet company in 1933. Although he wasn’t an engineer, he did become a successful inventor, and became a flamboyant personality around Spokane. Originally called the Eagles Nest, the Cliff House, now owned and operated by Arbor Crest Winery, was his over-the-top mansion and playground. Nearly everyone who tours the Cliff House grounds encounters the Riblet square-wheel tractor. Patented in 1947, there are reports he created it several years earlier. Few people are surprised to learn that before his death in 1960, Royal Riblet was married eight times.

Gondola over the Spokane River in Riverfront Park.
Gondola over the Spokane River in Riverfront Park.

Byron Christian Riblet passed away in 1952. Nearly a decade after his death, Riblet Tramway Company built its first triple chairlift in 1963, and its first quad in 1967. Even when it appeared they were building nonstop, the demands for Riblet chair lifts continued to explode. Many of the greatest ski resorts in North America were adding a new ski left every year.

In 1946 the Riblet Tramway Company installed an old mining ore tramway on Mount Spokane. This is the birth of the claim that Mount Spokane is home to the world’s first double chairlift, and it served an hourly capacity of roughly 550 skiers. Sadly, it only operated for three years. It was located just south of the current radio and cellphone towers, but it had to be torn down because it was often rendered useless due to rime ice.

In the summer of 1956, a new Riblet double chair was installed on Mount Spokane following the addition of Lodge One. A second double chair was constructed five years later, and a third one appeared in 1970. The fourth and fifth double chairs were completed by 1977. Mount Spokane hopes to add another Riblet ski lift in 2017. It was purchased used from Bridger Bowl in 2010.

In a strange twist of fate, the Riblet Tramway Company actually owned the Mount Spokane Ski Park for a short stint. The majority owner of Mount Spokane Chairlift Inc. was founder Al Mettler. He sold his interest in 1970 to Rock Caley. Six years later, Caley filed for bankruptcy and the ski area assets were sold to their main creditor, Riblet Tramway Company of Spokane. Eventually the resort changed hands a few more times, and it’s currently operated by Mount Spokane 2000.

Perhaps someday they might name a lodge or a ski run after the Riblet family. After all, they did participate in creating one of the Inland Northwest’s best ski and snowboard parks. //

Jon Jonckers serves on the board for the Friends of the Centennial Trail and is also an assistant cross country coach at Shadle Park High School. He is the co-author of “Climbing the Rocks of Sharon,” available at Mountain Gear. Jon has been writing for Out There Monthly since 2006.

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