SUN VALLEY, EARLY DAYS UNDER THE UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD
John is writing a book on Sun Valley, Early Days Under the Union Pacific Railroad, with the Center for Regional History of The Community Library in Ketchum, Idaho, using original Union Pacific documents, and oral histories, books and accounts of those involved in the Resort’s early days. The book will include a large number of historic photographs of Sun Valley obtained by the library from Union Pacific. John hopes to have this new book published in 2019.
This book explores the early days of Sun Valley under Union Pacific Railroad ownership, primarily in the period from 1936 to 1952, when the resort occupied a unique place as the country’s first destination ski resort, designed to replicate the romance of those in Europe. It cost $1.5 million to build in 1936, and changed skiing in this country. Sun Valley was the concept of U.P. Board Chairman Averell Harriman, who created the resort as a central part of the railroad’s plans to increase passenger traffic during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
This book focuses on issues that are not central parts of existing books about Sun Valley. A primary focus is on Sun Valley’s relationship with the Union Pacific Railroad, and how railroad economics determined the resort’s role and future. The book discusses Harriman’s plan to make Sun Valley an international destination by hosting major ski racing events, and the locations used for the downhill, slalom and cross-country races inside the resort and in the surrounding mountains. It discusses where Sun Valley’s ski lifts were located and relocated, how important what we now call “back country skiing” was in Sun Valley’s early days, and related issues. Much of the information for this book comes from original Union Pacific and Sun Valley documents and oral histories from people involved with the resort from its beginning.
Sun Valley was unique. Most ski areas are stand-alone ventures that were expected (or hoped) to pay for their operations and generate a return on the money invested. Sun Valley was part of Union Pacific’s long term plan to recapture passenger traffic, and a source of publicity for the railroad, designed to add luster to railroad travel in the winter. It was never intended to return a profit. Harriman said Sun Valley operated with a deficit from the beginning, but “we didn’t run it to make money; we ran it to be a perfect place. And the deficit was relatively small compared to Union Pacific’s income, and the publicity I thought was worth very much more than the deficit. Of course, the deficit included new construction, repairs, and all that sort of thing.”
Sun Valley opened in December 1936, offering a modern, high class resort experience in the remote Wood River Valley of Idaho. During the middle of the Great Depression, Sun Valley was built and operated in a lavish style. It was the country’s first modern destination ski resort that attracted “the carriage trade,” including Wall Street barons, the Chicago social set, Hollywood stars and producers, serious skiers from all over the world, and people who wanted to associate with them. The new resort, accessible primarily by train, had a luxurious Lodge with high end shops, and offered a ski school with Austrian instructors that made skiing sexy. Chairlifts were invented by Union Pacific engineers for Sun Valley, based on a system used to load bananas onto ships, so skiers could ride up mountains in ease and comfort. Film maker Warren Miller said, “now you could finally ski downhill all day long and never have to climb back up. Just sit down in a moving chair and be hauled back up for as many rides as your strength, skill, and money allowed. All of this could be had for only a couple of dollars a day.”
Sun Valley was Union Pacific’s “jewel in the crown,” and was called the “St. Moritz of America.” Harriman’s biographer said, “Sun Valley became the San Simeon of the affluent sportsman; the harassed city dweller’s outer suburbia;…the most ‘in’ place to get a suntan this side of Waikike, and stars came to ski.” The famous ski racer from Dartmouth College, Dick Durrance, said Sun Valley was “the most important influence in the development of American skiing…Its concentrated and highly successful glamorization of the sport got people to want to ski in the first place.”
Durrance said Harriman “was determined that Sun Valley would match anything Europe had to offer,” and he set out to attract the biggest names in the sport. Harriman knew one way to “bring Sun Valley into the public consciousness was to get it onto the sports pages…No expense was spared when it came to promotion.” Harriman said competition “was quite important in the development of Sun Valley. It attracted people and, of course, some of the best skiers in the world came here for those competitions.” Sun Valley paid the expenses of top skiers to come to the resort, since “we wanted to have an internationally recognized, first class competition.”
Some of the top skiers we paid to attract them. We paid their expenses; we didn’t pay anybody, of course, because it was all amateur racing. But we paid their way and their expenses here, but there were just a few of them, just to get the racers here.
Harriman Cup Tournaments were the country’s most prestigious and competitive events, attracting the best skiers in the world. “Just as it is the dream of every tennis player to compete once at Wimbledon, it is every ski racer’s hope to participate in the famous Harriman Cup Races in Sun Valley.”
Harriman’s gamble worked. Union Pacific’s Streamliners soon became filled to capacity, operating throughout the country, and by 1939, Sun Valley had increased the railroad’s passenger traffic by 250,000 people, resulting in $250,000 a year in additional revenue. However, Union Pacific lost between $250,000 and $1 million a year operating Sun Valley, which was acceptable as long as Harriman was in charge, but things changed when he left his management role with the railroad after WW II.
Sun Valley had a monopoly on skiing grandeur in this country for several decades, and it influenced areas that developed later. “Sun Valley set the pattern for the great North American ski resorts, which were to arise after World War II: Aspen, Mont Tremblant, Squaw Valley, Stowe, Alta, Crystal, Mammoth, Jackson Hole, Lake Louise, Sugarloaf, Winter Park, Sugarbush, Vail, Steamboat, Park City, Waterville, Crested Butte, Telluride, Whistler.”