It Happened in Sun Valley

Bob Dunn

…only seventy years ago…or certainly fifty years ago…

When my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Sun Valley, I did not realize that Sun Valley Resort was twenty years old.  Marion and I are back again for the celebration of Sun Valley’s seventieth anniversary and our fiftieth.  We have come here to the Valley many times over the years and always visit with our good friends, Mary Ann and Jack Flaherty.  We always spend some time reminiscing about the old days.  Our favorite spot to sit and talk of the past and present fun is in the Duchin Room at the Lodge prior to heading over to the Ram restaurant in the Challenger Inn for dinner.  The area has changed over the past fifty years.  There is now a town of Sun Valley and many homes and condominiums.  The comment always seems to be:  “Remember when you could buy that acre lot for under a thousand dollars?” (one that now would sell for a million plus).  The photos show how the mountain and area have grown since 1936.  The Brass Ranch and surrounding properties, a total of 3,881 acres, were purchased for $10.04 per acre by Averill Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Railroad.  Harriman had a dream of the perfect year-round resort.  He hired Count Schaffgotsch from Austria to search the west for the perfect site along the Union Pacific line.  His telegram to Harriman was “I’ve found it!  Come see for yourself.”

The old single chair lift.
Of course, there was no such place seventy-one years ago. The town was and is still called Ketchum, settled in 1879 by a miner, Dave Ketchum, who built a cabin in the valley on the Wood River.  The original name that residents chose for the town was Leadville, but the US Post Office rejected it because there were too many Leadvilles across the west.  Ketchum prospered during the 1880’s and was a boisterous town in its heyday of mining.  The area was the terminus of a Union Pacific branch line that serviced the mining and sheep-herding businesses of the area.  Miners working the Queen of the Hills and Minnie Mae mines had one wild party on a St. Patrick’s day in the ’80’s, and the Governor had to come with the Army to quiet things down. The mining days ended when silver prices dove and the mines closed up shop.  What remained were a few ranchers and the sheep-herders in the surrounding mountains.

Old photo outside Challenger Inn.
The first chairlift for skiers was built here for the new Sun Valley Resort to begin operating the winter of 1936.  Charlie Proctor, a member of the 1928 US Olympic Ski Team and former captain of the Dartmouth Ski Team, was the one responsible for designing the original ski slopes and lifts.  The chairlift was constructed under his supervision on Proctor Mountain, not far from the Sun Valley Lodge. The chairlift type of ski-lift was the idea of Jim Curran, a Union Pacific employee.  Curran had worked on a project for the United Fruit Company and had constructed an endless cable that carried large hands of bananas on hooks suspended from the cable from the fields to the warehouses and ships.  He made some changes for the ski area by substituting a chair for the hooks that held the bananas.  Each chair carried one person and after loading on, the rider (skier) closed a bar that connected to a foot rest and had a blanket attached to keep the rider warm during the ride up the mountain with skis or feet resting comfortably on the footrest.

Simultaneously, Schaffgotsch chose a site for the lodge.  The location was perfect.  It gave a beautiful view of Bald Mountain and the Sawtooth Mountain Range.  Construction started in June of 1936, and it opened for business on December 21 to a full house.  The total cost for the Lodge was 1.5 million dollars.  Today that would get you a two or three bedroom home on a half acre lot.  The public relations man hired by Harriman was Steve Hannigan and, at the time, he was famous for his promotion of Miami Beach.  He chose the name Sun Valley for the resort because, during his visit, every day was sunny (and every night it snowed a few inches). Harriman and he decided to promote it as America’s first destination resort.  Special trains were organized to transport Hollywood stars to Sun Valley and they partied all the way.  Hannigan also thought it would be great to have a number of special cars added to the cross-country Union Pacific trains and fill them with New York society, who had a multi-day party across the country.

Today outside Challenger Inn.
Due to the popularity of the resort, a number of Hollywood movies were filmed here.  The most famous was Sun Valley Serenade which was done in 1941.  It starred John Payne and Olympic skater Sonja Henie.  They shot all the scenes on Hollywood sets and Sonja and Payne never went to Sun Valley during the filming.  The skiing scenes of Payne and Sonja were performed in Sun Valley by Hans Hauser (Austrian ski instructor) as John Payne’s double and Gretchen Kunigt, a woman racer, doubling for Sonja.  During the filming of the final ski scene, Gretchen was away to compete in a major race.  Her substitute was a thirteen-year-old local schoolboy, Jack Simpson, who donned a blonde wig and skied the mountain scenes.  Simpson and his family operated the Warm Springs Ranch restaurant for many years.  Sun Valley Serenade is presently shown every afternoon at the Sun Valley Opera House.  The resort closed for WW II but was reopened in 1943 to serve as a Naval Hospital and recuperation center for sailors and marines injured in the Pacific Theatre. Open gambling was allowed in Ketchum in those days but because many servicemen were losing their pay, the town council voted to end the gambling.

Quad chair up Warm Springs.
Bald Mountain, 3,400 vertical feet, was developed in 1939 and had its first chair lift installed.  It crossed the Wood River immediately and climbed the mountain to connect with two other lifts in order to deliver the rider to the top of Baldy (which is what regulars began to call Bald Mountain).  The development of trails on Bald Mountain was primarily on the River Run side of the mountain with only one trail down the Warm Springs side.  If you skied down Warm Springs, it was necessary to take a shuttle truck back to the lifts at River Run.  These days a high-speed quad chair whisks skiers and boarders up the 3,250 vertical feet to the top in under ten minutes.  The Warm Springs side of the mountain was developed in 1967, and it really could be classified as a separate area because it has a great number of excellent expert runs.  Seattle Ridge is another separate area developed in 1976 with a spectacular top lodge built in 1993 and is a very popular intermediate trails area opposite the Holiday Bowls.  The beautiful log lodge on top of Seattle Ridge was duplicated over the past years at the bottom of River Run and Warm Springs.  And last year an even larger lodge was built at Dollar Mountain, the beginner mountain of about 628 vertical feet, located near the Lodge.

Nowadays my first run down is usually Christmas Ridge or a fun run down College, groomed to perfection, making you feel like such a good skier.  My first run with Jack Flaherty in 1956 was Easter Bowl in two feet of new powder that some friends of his were saving for the honeymoon kid from the east.  “Weight both skis evenly and don’t begin your first turn until you see the tips of your skis” were my directions for my first run in deep powder, as we stood on a snow cornice looking down a very steep Easter Bowl.  I always have felt that they enjoyed my first run in deep powder more than I since there was great laughter at my falls.  I had made three turns and my speed signaled my “brain” to check the speed, and weight went to the downhill ski which resulted in a good head beater.  When I was clearing the snow from my goggles, the comment I heard from the surrounding group was “we told you not to weight the downhill ski”.  Bald Mountain has it all for any skier or boarder--as smooth or as rough as you would like with each trail different.  One thing to remember, the “green” “blue” and “black” marked trails are relative to that particular mountain and Bald Mountain greens may be blue at many other mountains.

The view of Baldy from inside the new Dollar Mountain Lodge.

Ownership of the resort has been in three hands over the seventy years:  the Union Pacific Railroad from 1936 until 1964; the Janss Corporation from 1964 to 1977; and the present owner, Earl Holding, who also owns Sinclair Oil and the Little America motels and hotels.  Holding has done a great job of modernizing the lift complex, installing  snowmaking and, in the past two years has been upgrading the Sun Valley Lodge and Challenger Inn.

Our guides for our 50th wedding anniversary trip were Mary Ann and Jack Flaherty, both recently retired from the Sun Valley Corporation after over forty years of service.  Jack left Malden, Mass., to become a night baker at the lodge.  The job gave him the opportunity to ski during the day.  It wasn’t long before he became head baker and was referred to by many as the best powder skier in the valley.

Sun Valley is very accessible.  Delta Express flies into Hailey, about a twenty minute drive from the lodge.  In 1956 it was necessary to fly into Twin Falls and then take a two and a half hour bus ride.

Jack Flaherty provided some background information for this article.  Dorice Taylor’s history of the resort was also a valuable source.

Photos courtesy of Sun Valley Resort

IF YOU GO . . .
LOCATION:  Sun Valley is in south central Idaho, in   the middle of the Sawtooth Mountains.

GETTING THERE:  Gateway cities are Salt Lake City, Utah and Boise, Idaho.  Both are serviced by most airlines. Flights from Salt Lake City are continued on Delta Express to Hailey, Idaho. Sun Valley Resort guests are met by vans with complimentary transportation to the Lodge, Inn or condominiums.  Bus service is also available from the Boise airport to the Lodge.

GETTING AROUND:  No need for a rental car. Free bus service throughout the Ketchum, Sun Valley area via the KART bus system.

ACCOMMODATIONS:  In addition to the Sun Valley Lodge, Challenger Inn and  condominiums, there are many other inns and motels throughout the valley.

INFORMATION:  Call Sun Valley Resort at 1-800-786-8259.

Helpful web sites:

February, 2006