Sandia Peak Tramway - A Brief History
The scenery steals the show on the Sandia Peak Tramway.
The Tram, as it is affectionately known, has taken more than 11 million passengers to the top of Sandia Peak and back again, and celebrates its 50th anniversary in May. Located on the eastern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, the Tram is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Central New Mexico.
Although the Tram is an engineering marvel, visitors come mainly for the spectacular view - 11,000 square miles of the Land of Enchantment. Passengers ascend 4,000 feet in about 15 minutes, gliding along the western face of the rugged Sandia Mountains. The granite rock faces, eroded into spires, cliffs and pinnacles, the aspens, hardy pines, scrub oak, fir and spruce, are home to many different birds and other animals. Tram riders may see an eagle or a mule deer or perhaps a black bear as they look out the windows of the cable car into the deep canyons.
No matter what time of day, the view is unparalleled. West across the Rio Grande and a volcano field, Mount Taylor rises, more than 100 miles away. To the north is Cabezon, a stump of an eroded volcano, and other volcanic necks and plugs. To the north and west, Redondo Peak stands tall in the Jemez Mountains, rising from a caldera known as the Valle Grande, a volcanic crater reported to be the largest in the world.
To the east lies the heavily wooded backside of the Sandias and, on the far horizon, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the capital city of Santa Fe. Farther to the south, the Estancia Valley and the Manzano Mountains frame the view. The view from 10,378 foot summit parallels what one might see from a very still airplane on a scenic flight.
A trip to Europe by Robert Nordhaus, one of the founders and owners of the Sandia Peak Ski Company, inspired construction of the Tram. Nordhaus came back with the idea of a tram similar to those he rode in Europe and with partner Ben Abruzzo made the idea a reality. It would connect Albuquerque to the top of Sandia Peak, combining first-rate views with efficient transportation for skiers, avoiding a half-hour or more drive on an icy, curving mountain road.
The tram took two years to move from idea to construction project. Its development marked by city and state hearings, financial planning and interest and skepticism on the part of the public. Because of the difficult terrain, topographical engineering, foundation engineering, and studies of the geology were required. An engineer from the U. S. Forest Service also was assigned to the project.
Installing the tram posed considerable problems because of the steep, rocky terrain. Bell Engineering of Lucerne, Switzerland, the company contracted to do the work, had built more than 50 tramways throughout the world beginning in Switzerland with their first passenger tramway in 1888. Their engineers but readily admitted that the Sandia Peak project was their most challenging. Just stringing all of the cables up the mountain the 2.7 miles alone took five months.
The tram cables are supported by only two towers between the terminals. Tower One is located at an elevation of 7,010 feet is 232 feet tall. Tower One leans at an18 degree angle to evenly support the cables between the lower terminal and tower two. As a result, the top of Tower One is offset more than 70 feet out from the center of the tower base. Several 30 foot deep stressed steel rod anchors hold the towers in place.
Tower Two located at a breathtaking 8,750 feet, is 80 feet tall. Helicopters were used to construct this tower as the terrain was too difficult to build a construction road to ascend the rocky face to the required tower location.
Holes were drilled and steel rods were anchored in the granite (many over 30 feet deep) to anchor each of the footings for the towers and terminals of the tram. Keeping the towers in alignment was of major concern and importance. When construction was finished, the line from the bottom to top including the towers was within 3/8 of an inch.
Construction took 24 months, then the tram underwent 60 days of strenuous testing. Only then did it take its first riders up Sandia Peak on May 7, 1966.
The Sandia Peak Tram is 2.7 miles in diagonal length and is a bi-cable double reversible aerial passenger tramway. Both tramcars are attached to the hauling cables and the weight of the downhill tramcar helps to pull the uphill tramcar to the top. When the tramcars pass at midway, they are almost 1,000 feet above the ground. Top speed of the tramway is 24 feet per second, averaging 12 mph. The main drive is a 600 horse power dc electric winch motor.
In case of a power failure, the tramcars can be returned to the terminals with an auxiliary Ford industrial engine.
Each of the four 100,000 pound track cables is stronger than required to support one car, and, as an added safety precaution, each car travels over two such cables. The original track cables were replaced in the spring of 1997, during a seven week project with the help of Swiss cable experts. The tramcars were designed with track cable brakes. These brakes would close automatically and hold the car firmly in place in an emergency or haul cable failure. The brakes on the main drive are electronically/hydraulically opened before the tramcars can move. If the power should fail, the brakes are applied automatically, stopping the moving cables and tramcars.
Each tramcar is capable of carrying 50 passengers or 10,000 pounds up the mountain at a maximum rate of 200 passengers per hour On the average, the tram makes 10,500 trips per year.
From the tram station at the top of Sandia Peak, passengers may hike along the forest trails in the Cibola National Forest observing the rock formations, natural vegetation and wildlife. The tram serves Sandia Peak Ski Area, a prime spot for intermediate and beginner skiers from mid December through mid March. During the summer, one of the chairlifts offers a lovely ride down the east side of the mountain through the towering trees. Sandia Peak has more than 26 miles of trails for mountain bikers with easy access via the chairlift for riders and their bicycles.