A Homemade Aerial Tram

When high waters threatened to isolate these resourceful Tennesseans, they simply constructed a homemade aerial tram.

  • 068 aerial tram
    A homemade aerial tram — what the author called an Arizona sheep crossing — made it possible to traverse a sometimes flooded and unruly creek.

  • 068 aerial tram

It's often possible to find good prices on parcels of land for which most people have no use: odd-shaped plots; steep, wooded hillsides; or, as in the case of my family's purchase, 30 acres on the wrong side of a creek.

Most of our new neighbors thought we were daft when we began to build on a site that can be difficult to enter or exit anytime a hard rain turns the large stream into a raging torrent. (When that happens, the normally peaceful flow has been known to cover half the surrounding bottomland with water, uproot trees, and wash away established bridges.) But from the first time we looked at the property's streams, abundant timber, good pond site, fertile soil, and low price, we knew we'd found all the necessary ingredients for our dreamed-of homestead. Besides, I had a few notions about coping with that untamed river.

If at First You Fail ...

My first idea, however, met with disaster. The cable suspension footbridge took a week to construct, and one storm-swollen creek—aided by a floating tree—to undo. Rebuilding the twisted mess of boards and cables was futile... but that failed attempt roused a helpful childhood memory.

I decided to build an aerial tram—aka an "Arizona sheep crossing"—right here in Summertown, Tennessee! As a youngster in the Southwest, you see, I had often spent summer days swimming in a nearby river. While there, on Arizona Indian land, I'd seen an unusual contraption: a small "car" suspended on cables that were attached to steel towers on each side of the river. I later learned that the device was called a "sheep crossing" by the Indian shepherds who used it to traverse the river when it was swollen by seasonal downpours.

My crossing's construction was not complicated or particularly expensive. I first bought 3/8-inch galvanized cable (it was surplus, and thus low in price) from a Nashville supplier. (It's a stiff variety used to support power lines, and was rated at five tons' breaking strength.) To secure it in place, we bored holes through the base of one fair-sized tree at each side of the stream.

After fastening one end to the anchor tree (using a 3" washer and five cable clamps) on "our side" of the stream, we raised the cable up and passed it through a hole drilled near the top of a treated, 14-foot power pole placed about 20 feet closer to the water than is the anchor tree. (We buried the base of the pole four feet deep, which still put the cable ten feet above normal creek flow.)

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