FRANCONIA, NH — Cannon Mountain’s aerial tramway, which first opened in 1938 and was last replaced in 1980, is nearing the end of its lifespan.
The future of the iconic attraction, “a source of revenue and wonder,” was discussed at a presentation during the Governor and Executive Council meeting held at Cannon’s Peabody Base Lodge on Wednesday.
Three options exist, and estimates are very preliminary: approximately $10 million to replace the primary system, including tramcars, with an estimated lifespan of 20 years; approximately $20 million to overhaul the entire system with a new, 100-passenger tramway system and a potential lifespan of 40 to 50 years; or an unspecified amount to replace the tram with a gondola system featuring individual cabins.
Cannon has been in preliminary talks with Doppelmayr Garaventa, an Austrian company they have worked with before, about future options. The estimated remaining life of the current tramway system is three to five years.
“It’s a lot of money and we really want to think it through,” Philip Bryce, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation, said after the meeting.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first public presentation of options for the tram. Following the meeting, executive councilors, state commissioners, Gov. Chris Sununu, staff and guests enjoyed a trip to the top of the 4,080-foot mountain by way of the attraction itself.
Bryce told the Caledonian that the next steps for the project are to look for funding sources and decide on the best course of action.
John “J.D.” DeVivo, general manager of Cannon Mountain Ski Area and Franconia Notch State Park, who has spent the past 14 years helping rebuild and revitalize the ski area and state park with little impact on the state’s general fund, gave the presentation on the tram.
He told the crowd that the red and yellow cable cars, nicknamed “ketchup” and “mustard,” are the park’s most iconic and historic asset.
Cannon’s aerial tramway was the first in North America. It began operations in 1938 after being conceived five years earlier by a U.S. ski team member.
The cable cars, which bring visitors up to 4,080 feet in seven minutes, see between 100,000 and 120,000 visitors between May and October, operating daily, and 45,000 to 55,000 in the winter, operating four days a week.
According to DeVivo’s presentation, the tram generates approximately $2 million in direct revenue for the state park system (just in the summer), as well as additional summer revenue from added visits to other paid state park attractions in the notch.
He noted that N.H. state parks are self-funded, unlike in many other states. It costs approximately $350,000 a year to operate the tram, including general maintenance.
DeVivo told meeting attendees that while the tram was shuttered for almost 15 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state park system lost around $1.5 million in direct tram ticket sales and $1 million in associated revenue. The attraction reopened on May 28 of this year.
An estimated two years would be required to fully replace the tram, while replacing the primary system would likely take one summer and one winter season.
While a gondola has been discussed, DeVivo said it would not provide the same level of family or group experience “that makes the tram such a beloved feature and fixture.” The current system can hold 80 people per car.
He also noted that that the mountain’s weather conditions would likely make a gondola more difficult to operate than the tramway system.
The Cannon Mountain Advisory Commission, which helps to advise on expenditures from the Cannon Mountain Capital Improvement Fund — money that comes from the leasing of Mount Sunapee — will be meeting for the first time since November 2019 on Friday. DeVivo noted that improvements to the tramway will go far beyond the capacity and scope of the fund.
The first aerial tramway was built in the 1930s for around $250,000, while the second was completed in 1980 for around $5 million, both with state funding.