Sun Valley Resort slides into a milestone for skiing in the United States as it celebrates its 75th season this winter. It is no ordinary milestone, for Sun Valley carved its way into the history books with many firsts. For example: It was the first major ski resort built and home to the first chairlift in the world.
"Sun Valley's 75th season provides a great opportunity to celebrate our heritage as America's first all-seasons resort, as well as an opportunity for new generations of mountain enthusiasts to create memories of their own," General Manager Tim Silva told OnTheSnow.
The country's oldest four-season resort started far more humble, without even a rope tow in place. Averell Harriman, chairman of the board for Union Pacific Railroad, envisioned a resort in the West to provide a winter destination for train travelers. He sent his emissary, an Austrian count, to comb the mountains for the ideal location to build a resort modeled after European resorts. The count rejected Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Yosemite, Jackson Hole, and the Colorado mountains before he discovered a sagebrush pasture with cows grazing outside the tiny town of Ketchum, Idaho.
That pasture became the site for America's first major planned resort. The $1.5 million resort opened the glitzy 220-room Sun Valley Lodge and two chairlifts in December 1936 after only seven months of construction. Hollywood stars gave their stamp of approval by showing up for the opening bash and New Year's Eve party. Harriman added an ice rink, circular outdoor swimming pools, and Challenger Inn, later known as Sun Valley Inn by the following winter. He died in 1986.
A zinger of a marketing plan put Sun Valley Resort on the map. Publicity made use of Hollywood celebrities such as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, and Claudette Colbert who learned to ski at the resort. Sun Valley's first ski poster used bare skin to sell its winter sunshine: it showed a man in skis striped to the waist, glistening with Vaseline, and standing on cotton gauze in place of snow.
Sun Valley changed the face of skiing by installing the world's first two chairlifts in 1936 - one on Dollar Mountain, a sagebrush pimple on the valley floor. Harriman enlisted his railroad engineers to design a new uphill transport for skiers, something with a bit more ease to it than rope tows. One engineer drew on his experience working with a continuous cable with hooks to unload bananas from tropical boats. He replaced banana hooks with chairs-each holding a single rider.
But the first chairlift frightened some skiers who needed the lift to stop for loading and unloading. Adept skiers showed the fearful how ro slide into position to allow the chair to run as intended.
Sun Valley Resort expanded by 1939 to include Mt. Baldy, installing lifts to the top and building the octagonal Roundhouse Restaurant part way up the mountain.
"With the opening of Baldy, Sun Valley had itself a real skiers' mountain," Stan Cohen wrote in his Pictorial History of Downhill Skiing. The Roundhouse furthered the resort's glamorous image with gourmet dining rather than the chili stall found at other ski area eateries. The resort expanded on the Warm Springs side in 1965 and added Seattle Ridge in 1978.
Early ski movies moved Sun Valley to the big screen. Two 1940's flicks - Sun Valley Ski Chase and Sun Valley Serenade -helped cement the image of the new resort as a swanky place favored by Hollywood.
Sun Valley's 75th season also celebrates a resort that has had only three owners in its lifetime. Discontinuing the rail service to Ketchum prompted Union Pacific Railroad to sell the resort in 1964 to Bill Janss, a former Olympic ski team member. Janss sold 13 years later to Earl Holding of Little America, the current owner.
Click to see the second in this two-part series about Sun Valley's 75th Anniversary.
Check out this wonderful clip below from the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade starring ice skater Sonja Henie, actor John Payne, bandleader Glenn Miller, and comic Milton Berle.