Caption This – Head in the Clouds

By Labiba Faiza, ROAAr, McGill Library

woman on a chairlift
McGill Rare Books and Special Collections Topographical Postcard Collection

On the occasion of International Women’s Day last month, ROAAr shared this image of a woman bravely riding a chairlift at Mount Norquay as a prompt for its Caption-This series. Community members were invited to share their thoughts on the image, and they did not disappoint. Unsurprisingly, the intriguing photo inspired some creative and amusing captions.

Jayne: “Great View …Did I lock the front door?”.

Steve: The Travel Agent promised this would take me to

Hawaii!  For only $165!  Sob……

Annmari: “Head in the clouds”

Some participants also shared their thought-provoking observations:

Marcia: “What captures my attention in the photo?   The clouds—I love to read them.  The light-weight garb of the seated lady soaring over the mountain and her posture (still  a very youthful posture, as mine now can only be with regular attendance in chair aerobics classes at the very least for an hour and a half two or three times a week).  I find it impressive that she has nothing in her hands other than her elbows.  It is as if she holds the world in holding herself together for this total bliss […] this “arms akimbo” figure reminds me of Mary Poppins as she rides the thin air to some very promising destination (without a purse or backpack, spare sweater)….such confidence!”

John: “I am particularly struck by the absence of breeze, let alone wind: note the skirt and the hair. The sharpness of the image makes it look clearly like a picture rather than a photograph, but perhaps the light is particularly sharp there. Personally, I would be terrified at that height, with my hands glued to the chair, holding on to anything for dear life.”

While a lot remains unknown about the photograph and the postcard it was printed on, we have uncovered some of the mysteries surrounding this brave skyrider. Let’s go through them!

The back of our postcard clearly stated that it was published by Byron Harmon Photos. Luckily, the University of Calgary holds a sizable digitized archive of Byron Harmon postcards. There, I found a familiar photograph:

On front: View of a woman riding a chairlift, with Mt. Rundle visible in the background. On back: Undivided back. “Banff Chair Lift.”, 1951, ( CU16348222) by Harmon, Don, 1917-1997, photographer. Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary. Used by Permission of Carole Harmon.

At first glance, it appears to be an older, unretouched version of our postcard. However, closer inspection reveals that the postcards feature two distinct photographs, although the woman in them is the same. Aside from the obvious difference in colour and resolution, the discrepancies are so minute that one may make a fun game of spot-the-difference out of them. Notable examples include the position of her skirt and the placement of her hands. Can you spot the rest of them?

sepia image of a woman on a chairlift beside a colour image of the same

These photos, which appear to have been taken merely seconds apart, were not taken by photographer Byron Harmon, as the name of the publishing company might suggest. They were actually taken by his son, Don Harmon. 

The coloured version in ROAAr’s collection was part of a postcard series called “Canadian Rockies in Natural Colour.” The sharpness of the image, which caught John’s attention, is very likely an intended result of the subsequent colorization and retouching. Our guess is that the printing company “Mike Roberts Color Production,” whose name appears on the back of the postcard, is behind the process.

Initially, there was no way of determining when the colour photo was taken because the postcard was blank and did not have a date printed on it. The postcard in the University of Calgary’s holdings, on the other hand, had a message written on it: “6 miles drive up hill.” It was dated June 28, 1951, which provided a rough estimate of when the photo was taken.

Image: “Banff Chair Lift.” Back, 1951, (CU16348222) by Harmon, Don, 1917-1997, photographer. Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary. Used by Permission of Carole Harmon.

We were able to obtain a more definite time frame by researching the history of the chairlift. The North American Chairlift was installed in December 1948 by Norquay owner George Encil. And so, it was established that the photo was taken sometime between 1948 and 1951. Nicknamed “Big Chair,” the chairlift was given its name because it provided access to the “steepest, longest terrain in North America” when it was first installed. In fact, it was the first mechanized chairlift in the Canadian Rockies.

Don Harmon photographed several other women enjoying a ride on the Big Chair around this time. In addition to being delightful to look at, these photos clear certain confusions surrounding the positioning of our enigmatic explorer’s arms and the alarming lack of safety precautions on the chairlift. Even though she may have appeared, like Mary Poppins, to be crossing her arms nonchalantly despite being thousands of feet above ground, she was actually clutching a metal bar attached to the chairlift, which is clearly visible in the pictures below.

While this one Big Chair passenger is still a mystery to us, we were pleasantly surprised to discover another who we did recognize – Marilyn Monroe herself! In 1953, the Hollywood superstar visited Norquay to film River of No Return (1954). Photographer John Vachon documented her trip and published the photographs in his book Marilyn, August 1953: The Lost Look Photos. In one of those photos, she can be seen on the chairlift smiling and waving enthusiastically, exuding the charm and playfulness for which she was known world-wide.

As the popular saying goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Nonetheless, one cannot help but be curious about the destination. As Marcia remarked, the explorer seems to be heading somewhere “promising,” with an absolutely spectacular view of Mount Rundle and the Banff Townsite far below. However, the destination at the top remains speculation for the time being, as we could not find what the chairlift led to between 1948 and 1951. In 1952, also under Encil’s ownership, a teahouse, the Tea Room, was built at the top of the Chair at an elevation of 7,000 ft. Visitors, including Monroe, would ride the lift to the teahouse and take pictures.

The North American Chairlift has gone through a great deal of modifications over the years, but it remains a popular tourist attraction today. It also continues to take passengers to the aforementioned tearoom, which has now been refurbished as a modern eatery, The Cliffhouse Bistro.

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