Tram marks 10th anniversary

Downtown attraction now serves about 200,000 people a year

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2006

Before joking about the "liquid sunshine" Friday afternoon, Mount Roberts Tramway operator Erick Karlson told passengers it was a ride people have been taking for 10 years and a day.

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And free birthday cake was waiting at the top.

Goldbelt Inc., Juneau's urban Native corporation, which owns the operation, will continue celebrating through today. Tramway General Manager George Reifenstein said cake will be offered to visitors 1,800 feet up the mountain until it runs out. It's been 10 years worth of celebrating, he said.

"The project was controversial, of course," Reifenstein said. It took almost three years for the permits to go through. "Many people have come to realize it's a great access into the alpine environment for locals and tourists."

Juneau residents have supported it by buying season passes, he said. On Friday tram officials thanked the community by discounting tickets for local residents.

"This year we set a record on the number of local passes," tram Vice President Bob Martin said. Tourists keep coming too, he added.

The tourist-season operation serves about 200,000 customers a year, he said. That's more than six times Juneau's population. "It's definitely one of the more popular attractions in the state."

Tramway brochures bill it as Juneau's top attraction, full of "fun, food, hiking, Native arts and spectacular views." Karlson, a Goldbelt shareholder, said getting people up the mountain is a great job.

"I've met people from 31 states and 16 countries - and two celebrities," Karlson said after a run up to the Mountain Station. Rap star and actor LL Cool J rode up with him last year. Last month, actress Meg Ryan was in his car.

Operations supervisor Skyler Mazon, in his seventh season, said the job also presents a great opportunity for young people to gain experience in the business world. He said he has learned a lot from Reifenstein.

"It sure beats being behind a desk all day," Reifenstein said. Over the years, more than 60 percent of the people hired have been shareholders or descendants of shareholders, he said, noting the operation's importance to Goldbelt. "When you have 100 people on the payroll, it makes a significant difference."

In the early 1990s, Goldbelt was approached by a group that had just built a tramway at Alyeska and was interested in building one in downtown Juneau, recalled Martin, who was on the board that moved ahead on the project.

"I walked up there a number of times before the tram," he said, having come to Juneau for high school after growing up in Kake. "That's where the scenery starts."

Sometimes during 112 years of construction, workers had to hike up and down because weather got so bad that helicopters were grounded. "There were no injuries. Obviously there were no fatalities."

A display near ticket counter stresses the safety of the cables. Martin said there are multiple safety measures in place to rescue people if they get stuck.

Safety isn't an accident, Reifenstein said. It's something staff works on. Twice, in 2001 and 2004, people been flown by helicopter off the mountain because of equipment failure.

The tram is in a good spot, in the shadow of the mountain from prevailing storms, and it provides a straight shot to the top, Martin said. Reifenstein said the AJT Mining property proved to be an ideal location.

People working on it knew it was going to be a success, Martin said. They asked about investing in it. But according to the arrangement, it became totally owned by Goldbelt after its first year of operation.

"It's been very good for us," he said. "The shareholders, especially the young ones are able to have a real pride of ownership." Martin said there is one operator who sometimes brings a drum and sings for passengers a song he wrote.

While Karlson was telling passengers before going up they had to wait to start for the top car to be ready to come down, he noted the opposite Eagle and Raven moieties of Tlingit culture and their balance.

Martin said there was a contest to design a symbol for the cars that avoided favoring one Tlingit clan over another. One of the finalists adorns the cars. Another hangs on the wall behind the ticket counter at the Harbor Station.

A totem pole nearby isn't just decoration, Martin added. Carved by Stephen Jackson, it tells the story of evolution of mankind and, like the story it tells, isn't finished yet. "Every know and then he'll show up with his tools."

Shareholder and 10-year tram employee Lillian Austin works in the craft shop at the top and said she had the opportunity Friday to talk with a woman from Britain about weaving. Austin's mother, Ida Kadashan, is pictured weaving on one of the postcards sold in her area.

The tram isn't just a place she works, she said. "I feel like it's for my grandchildren, my children."

Ray Wilson, who volunteers at the tram, said he talks to people about his culture. "I try to show people we're just like everyone else."

"They're proud in sharing their Tlingit culture," Reifenstein said of the people working at the tram. And the operation has always tried to be a good neighbor. Deeply discounted school field trips are common and nonprofit organizations get the best discounts possible.

Reifenstein said the people of Juneau showed what great friends they were after his injury last September. He fell while inspecting a water pipe he believed was damaged by a falling tree about halfway up to the Mountain Station. A bone was crushed in his back and two bones were broken in his neck.

The outpouring of support he received from Juneau surprised him, he said. "I ended up with more game in my freezer than if I had gone hunting last winter."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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