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No. 2968:
Riblet Tramways

by Andrew Boyd

Today, a tale of two brothers. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Byron Riblet was the brains behind the operation. He received a degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1883, then began a career with the railroads that took him west to the city of Spokane, Washington. It was in Spokane, where he was in charge of laying streetcar lines, that his life took a turn.

Byron was hired by a Canadian firm to build what he apparently thought was a streetcar line. Upon arriving in Canada, however, he learned the work involved construction of an aerial tramway for transporting ore. Rather than shy away, Byron rose to the occasion, and in doing so made a name for himself in the aerial tramway business. After a decade of experience building tramways throughout the West, Byron returned to Spokane to found the Riblet Tramway Company. Among other successes, the company would go on to become a leading maker of ski lifts. 

Enter Royal Newton Riblet, Byron's younger brother. Royal began working with his brother as a laborer, building parts for the trams. But Royal's ambition and flamboyant personality quickly made him the most visible member of the Riblet enterprise. Before moving to Spokane, Royal had been a bicycling celebrity in South Dakota, holding several state titles. He married seven times, the last time to a woman thirty-two years his junior. He also built the Cliff House, an Italian inspired country home sitting prominently on a bluff above the Spokane Valley. The house immediately became a local attraction and boasted as many as ten thousand visitors per year — quite a feat for Eastern Washington in the mid-1920s.

Cliff House photograph

In part because of Royal's larger than life persona, in part because he seemed quite willing to accept credit for his brother's labors, Royal is often credited with the success of the Riblet Tramway Company. The actual contribution of each brother is lost to history. But it is known that the elder Byron ultimately fired Royal for pilfering company money, and the two cut all personal ties. Royal went on to found his own tramway company, but the venture proved unsuccessful.

For his many foibles Royal was an accomplished inventor, filing for over twenty patents. His inventions included a car turn signal and a 'pigeon hole parking system' that used lifts to place cars on shelves. The system was actually implemented in 1950s Spokane to relieve downtown parking congestion. But without a doubt Royal's most celebrated invention was a square-wheel tractor. The main wheel consists of sixteen flat segments, three of which are on the ground at any given time, thus improving traction. The original tractor still exists, housed on the site of the Cliff House. But don't expect to be greeted by a member of Riblet family if you visit. The house and surrounding estate now belong to one of Washington State's many wineries.

Riblet square wheels sign on a tractor
close up of the Riblet square wheel

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

W. E. Barr. Royal Riblet: Man Against the Corporation. From the History Link website: Accessed August 26, 2014.

N. W. Durham. History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington, Volume 2. Spokane, Washington: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912. Also available on Google Books.

S. Pettit. 'Square-Wheel Tractor at Arbor Crest an Advance in its Day.'Spokesman Review, June 19, 2014. See also: Accessed August 26, 2014.

Riblet History. From the website of the Riblet Tramway Company: Accessed August 26, 2014.

This episode was first aired on August 28, 2014.