Friday, November 26, 2010

The resort that almost wasn’t

Sun Valley celebrates its 75th season, long after it was almost overlooked

Express Staff Writer

Photos courtesy of The Community Library’s Regional History Department Count Felix Schaffgotsch, left, and Union Pacific board Chair Averell Harriman stand in front of the Sun Valley Lodge sometime during the 1930s.

Sun Valley was the country's first destination ski resort and is now celebrating it 75th winter season, but it wasn't even on the long list of sought-after locations.

In the early 1930s, the Union Pacific Railroad had built the first streamlined passenger trains but needed an attraction, something to draw people to the West, a destination to make the ride over the rails enticing.

An idea hit Union Pacific board Chair Averell Harriman—build a ski resort. Finding the ideal location was the job of Austrian alpine expert Count Felix Schaffgotsch. The company gave him the entire West to choose from.

His six weeks' odyssey took him to 14,400-foot-high Mount Rainier outside of Seattle. He toured Oregon's highest peak, Mount Hood, Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains, Yosemite, the area around Salt Lake City and Lake Tahoe. He explored Colorado and crossed Teton Pass by sleigh in the winter for a view of Jackson Hole.

But Schaffgotsch was a perfectionist. He crossed each and every one of these places off the list, reporting to Harriman that every mountain was either too high, too windy, too near a city, too remote to be reached by railroad, not remote enough or had too many weekend visitors.

He had seen eastern Idaho and was on his way back to tell Harriman that nothing measured up to the sites of Europe's greatest resorts. Someone mentioned Ketchum. The defunct mining town had a peak population of 2,000 in the 1880s but had declined to a couple hundred by the 1900s, most of whom left during winter. The road wasn't plowed. The only contact with the outside world during winter was a little train that twice a week puffed up the branch line from Shoshone.

"It was in a blizzard late on the afternoon of Jan. 19 that the count reached this hamlet in the wake of the county snowplow," reads Sun Valley Resort's record of the arrival.

"Among the many attractive spots I have visited," Schaffgotsch wrote to Harriman, "this combines more delightful features than any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria, for a winter-sports resort ... An ideal situation in a small basin, surrounded by perfect mountains, hills and slopes largely free from timber."

Harriman and others from Union Pacific followed within days, setting into motion a wave of construction ending with Sun Valley's opening day on Dec. 21, 1936.

Celebrating the 75th anniversary

The resort has assembled a season-long array of events to honor its long run. It was announced earlier this year that 2010 Olympic gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek would star in the Silver & Gold Ice Show on Sun Valley's opening-day anniversary of Dec. 21 at 6 p.m. However, Sun Valley announced more recently that the show now boasts even more silver and gold medalists, including 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, 2007 U.S. silver medalist Ryan Bradley and 2010 novice U.S. gold medalist Nathan Chen. The grand finale will be a torchlight parade on Dollar Mountain and fireworks immediately followed by a meet-and-greet autograph party in the Limelight Room.

This Commemorative Week also offers a gala gourmet dinner in the Sun Valley Lodge Dining Room on Dec. 21, the third annual Christmas Concert on Dec. 23 and Sun Valley's traditional Christmas Eve festivities on the Lodge Terrace, Dec. 24. A special Christmas Eve dinner buffet is also set for the Sun Valley Club.

Prior to Christmas week, a 75th Season Rail Jam Exhibition and barbecue will be held at Dollar Mountain's Terrain Park on Friday, Dec. 17. The event is expected to draw star athletes anxious to ride the park's unique Quad Wall, to be unveiled during the exhibition party.

River Run Plaza will be the place to be the next day, Saturday, at 2 p.m. when a Vintage Ski Party and Contest will highlight Sun Valley's glamour and style through the decades. That evening, Sun Valley's traditional Tree Lighting Ceremony will take place in the village, celebrated by the arrival of the Sun Valley Carolers.

The season's end will include the 33rd annual U.S. Collegiate Ski Association Championships from March 8-12, Dollar Mountain's Lunar Eclipse Rail Jam on March 19, and a weeklong celebration with the International Skiing History Association and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame beginning Sunday, March 27. This week promises to bring skiing legends back to where it all began, and will culminate with the Ski Hall of Fame's induction ceremony on Saturday, April 2, at 6 p.m. in the Sun Valley Inn Limelight Room. Sun Valley Resort owner Earl Holding and Olympian Muffy Davis will be among those inducted.

Thanksgiving week's festivities

The Boiler Room will boast a special gourmet dinner buffet on Friday, Nov. 26, and a special showing of the comedic family musical Forever Plaid. Warren Miller's "Wintervention" will be shown in the Opera House that night and the following night.

Consult the resort's website,, to see an up-to-date calendar of events.

Trevon Milliard:

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