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The Making of a World-Class Ski Resort 

Let’s take you back to 1936. While things were a bit glum,- we hadn’t quite yet pulled out of the Great Depression and World War II was looking imminent,- the 1936 Winter Olympics persevered. It was a moment when everyone came together to celebrate the world’s best athletes and watch in awe as skiers seemed to glide effortlessly down the side of a snowy mountain. 

The American elite had also started to take up the sport ever since the 1932 games were held at Lake Placid in New York. Thus, the savviest of business folks in our country were clamoring to provide a (rather lucrative) pastime to 

those adventurous souls willing to strap on some skis and be hoisted to the top of a snowy peak. 

And so, Sun Valley, A world-class ski resort was born. But how did this all come about? What exactly transpired? 

Here are some key events from 1936-1937 that brought to light all that is now Sun Valley. 

  • In 1936, William Averell Harriman, who was Chief Executive of the Union Pacific Railroad, (and a rather savvy businessman) commissions family friend/Count/Austrian Felix Schaffgotsch to scour the Rockies for the perfect location for that next big ski resort.
  • Schaffgotsch scours the land but comes up empty-handed. He is headed back to the east coast when a Union Pacific railroad worker (whom he had met) gets a message to him and says “oh hey, I forgot about this little town in Idaho- Ketchum. You might want to check it out.”
  • Schaffgotsch comes back, is in awe of what he sees, and makes the statement that “It contains more delightful features for a winter sports area than any other place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria.”
  • Well, Harriman is pleased and makes a trip to see it for himself. Seven months and $1.5 million later, a four-story lodge is constructed on the former Brass Ranch. Ski runs are in full operation at the nearby Dollar and Proctor mountains.
  • Next, it’s all about marketing. A name is needed, and Harriman hires Steve Hannagan- known for his renovations of the incredibly popular Miami beach. Hannagan names the new resort “Sun Valley”.
  • Harriman recognizes he needs to go bigger and better in 1937 and begins work on a hotel called “The Challenger”. It will include a kitchen, dining rooms, a bowling alley, and game rooms. It’s completed by Christmas of 1937.
  • Also, in 1937, Harriman thinks up the idea for the world’s very first ski lift. Up to this point, skiers were about worn out after riding up on tow ropes and T-bars. Union Pacific Engineer James Curran invents the lift based on technology he had helped design to hoist bananas onto cargo ships. It was a huge success and the resort became unlike any other in the world!
  • On the afternoon of Dec. 19, 1937, the fastest streamlined passenger train in America, “The City of Los Angeles”, leaves Grand Central Station in New York City with some 200 elite passengers. They are wined and dined on their 40hr journey to Sun Valley, Idaho to officially kick off its second season.
  • Upon their arrival, they are greeted by two Sun Valley orchestras as the disembarking elite pass through a double line of girls holding aloft their ski poles to form an archway. This led them to their various modes of transportation; sleighs being drawn by horses, huskies, and reindeer.
  • The festivities continue well into the night at the new Challenger Hotel, with the customary pomp and circumstance of the time that includes Idaho’s governor, Barzilla Clark, along with his family. The crowd has no way of knowing all the glitz and glamour that will surely fall upon this beautiful resort for nearly a century -but they certainly threw open the doors in grand style.
  • The season officially kicks off with the highly contested intercollegiate ski meet between Dartmouth College and the University of Washington. As a result of its success, the collegiate meet becomes an annual event.
  • The holiday season concludes, with a group of skiers lighting a star atop Dollar mountain on New Year’s Eve. With a lighted torch in-hand, each of them ski down, lighting up the mountain and welcoming in 1938.

83 years later, when perhaps the nostalgia of traditions means even a little bit more, the skiers will again ski down Dollar mountain with lighted torches in hand welcoming in 2021. 

We hope you can join us, and if not, find a way to engineer your own glitz and glamorous party. We’re all hoping to throw open the doors to better days ahead. Best wishes for a healthy and happy New Year!