A Cable Car Conspiracy?

On Monday May 22nd, Scarborough’s brand new North Bay chairlifts suffered what initially appeared to be a minor setback.

Above: A leaflet for the zoo advertises the new chairlifts (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)

A bizarre malfunction briefly hospitalised four adults and two young children, passengers on the cable car system that connected Scarborough Zoo and Marineland with the North Bay Promenade.

The exact details of the accident were murky from the outset. Passengers, witnesses and those responsible for the chairlifts all disagreed as to what happened. It seemed that one car, carrying a Mr and Mrs Thompson (who were staying at Colley’s Holiday Camp in Scarborough) slid backwards, knocking into another car and the chairlift station below. This was followed by another car, carrying Mr and Mrs Child (from Dringhouses, York) and their children Sarah and Michael, aged five and eight respectively. Varying accounts describe passengers flung from the chairlifts, suspended in precariously rocking carriages, and in some accounts the cable car partially, if not fully, came away from the cable that carried it.

Above: The original North Bay chairlifts (from the author’s collection)

The only certain facts were that the two women mentioned above – Mrs Child and Mrs Thompson – sustained greater injuries than their partners and children (to the back and chest respectively), and all concerned were treated for shock.

However, the accident and its coverage in local press uncovered a can of worms for Scarborough Zoo.

Zoo director Don Robinson stressed that the cable cars did not and could not escape the cable – in this case, he argued, they merely slipped backwards. However, he did not take the incident lightly, and the system engineer, Norman Dicken, travelled from Sheffield to inspect the chairlifts. His company, McKenna & Sons, had created the infrastructure, and he reported the following:

Yesterday one of the cars slipped on the bottom section, but we have not found the cause. The people were rocked about quite alot.

(Mr Dicken, quoted in the Scarborough Evening News, May 23rd, 1972)

No one was able to discover any fault with the chairlifts, in spite of numerous tests on the system, during which bags of sand were used to simulate the presence of passengers.

chairpostcard2

Above: The chairlifts were later revamped several times, changing shape and colour (from the author’s collection)

Following the accident, a number of witnesses came forward with further information. Mrs B. Patrickson (from Sheffield) was staying with her family at one of the North Bay Chalets at the time of the incident, and watched the events unfold. She claimed that after the chair carrying the Thompsons slipped, the Child family, whose car was further up the cable, were:

…stuck in the car for twenty minutes, several pylons up after the first car accident

Then…

The second car slipped back down the cable, hit part of the support, and came right off the cable, falling to the ground and throwing the four people [the Child family] out.

(Quoted in the Scarborough Evening News, May 24th, 1972)

This version of events was further supported by a Mrs Rickatson and her son Neil, the former adding:

…it was completely untrue to say that the car did not come off the cable. [We] saw it happen.

(Quoted in the Scarborough Evening News, May 24th, 1972)

To make matters worse, another witness came forward to describe an earlier accident. Mrs V. Simmonds (of Scarborough) reported that on Sunday April 9th, during the early days of operation, her two sons, daughter in law and granddaughter also suffered an accident whilst riding the chairlifts to the zoo.

The car slipped off the cable and ran back to the starting station, damaging the railings and the car. This was all kept very hush, and nothing was done about it. It ought to be looked into before a serious accident occurs involving someone’s life.

(Quoted in the Scarborough Evening News, May 25th, 1972)

This ‘first’ accident was brought to the attention of Scarborough’s then Safety Officer by two witnesses, but was dismissed on the grounds that the lift had passed all safety tests. Apparently nothing was found wrong after this initial incident, and owner Don Robinson was reportedly unaware of this earlier accident.

So what became of the chairlifts?

The last report stated that the ride would be closed for further tests, and whilst no date of reopening was mentioned in subsequent weeks, the chairlifts went on to enjoy nearly thirty years of operation. You can still see the struts today. Were the accidents merely flukes? Was a secret problem fixed? The 1972 cable car malfunction remains an unsolved mystery.

Did you ride the chairlifts? Do you remember any accidents or faults? What do you think the explanation might be for this strange little story?

Sources

All information in this post was obtained from old copies of local newspapers held in the Scarborough Room at Scarborough Library.

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