Text Box: Ketchum’s “alpine touring” terrain was ideal for skiing in 1936.  It's rolling treeless lower hills are indicative of the slopes found in St. Anton (Austria), while its wooded middle elevations are similar to the forested regions around Kitzbuhel (Austria), with its highest elevations mimicking the rugged alpine contours of St. Moritz (Switzerland).  This topography, so reminiscent of Europe’s renowned snow-covered Alps, composed just the right combination to inspire the Count and Harriman to choose what would soon be Sun Valley.

Harriman and Schaffgotsch in Sun Valley

Harriman skiing in Sun Valley

Harriman on Union Pacific Streamliner

Alf Engen in Sun Valley’s backcountry

The Count discovering Sun Valley

1936 Sun Valley Lodge

Skiing Sun Valley’s treeless expanses. 

The Count

Proctor Mountain and Chair-lift.

Dollar Mountain Chair-lift.

 

Dollar mountain Chair-lift

 

Charles Proctor

Skier and Sun Valley Lodge.

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Harriman’s preoccupation with skiing developed as a result of his travels in Europe as an international banker during the late 1920s/early 1930s where he discovered the boundless popularity of their destination ski resorts.  While in Europe, Harriman noticed his banker friends would take their vacations during the winter months at ski resorts in Austria and Switzerland.  Upon returning to the United States, and after becoming Union Pacific Railroad’s Chairman of the Board, Harriman quickly contemplated ways in which to enhance Union Pacific’s standing amongst its competitors.

With the Santa Fe Railroad to the south publicizing their winter travel through the sun, and the Canadian Pacific to the North, publicizing their beautiful Banff and Lake Louise runs, the Union Pacific lay sandwiched with no stars in their portfolio.  Remembering the popularity of Europe’s destination ski resorts, Harriman theorized if such notoriety might be possible in the west.  Having worked out west in 1909 with a Union Pacific surveying crew in the regions of Island Park and Victor Idaho, Harriman had a direct knowledge of the beautiful mountains the West possessed.  Convinced of the promise this idea held, Harriman set out on a crusade to discover an American ski resort that would rival or surpass anything in Europe, Canada or the Southern United States.

 

Having no knowledge of how to find such place personally, Harriman wisely retained the services of a European friend.  Count Felix Schaffgotsch, a European aristocrat and member of a famous Austrian banking family whose place Harriman rented in Austria while shooting Chamois (a small species of goat-like antelope), was Harriman’s choice to scour the western states in search of an American St. Moritz.  According to Harriman, Schaffgotsch was not the greatest skier in the world but had a lot to do with the development of ski resorts in Austria.  Alf Engen, (Alta, Utah’s ski school director for nearly 40 years) who guided the Count through the Wasatch Mountains in the winter of 1935/36, remembers him as being a very personable and bright person with a touch of arrogance.

 

Schaffgotsch had at his disposal the might of the Union Pacific Railroad’s vast network of lines in which to search.  The Count’s attention to perfection abdicated no positive results during his initial journeys through what are today some of America’s premier ski resorts.  Colorado’s areas were too high in elevation and non-precipitous while in the Sierras of California the weather was too severe.  The Wasatch Mountain’s close proximity to Salt Lake City rendered them not a good location (too crowded) and Mount Rainier in Washington didn’t have the light powder which was so cherished in the Austrian Alps.

So discouraging were the Count’s initial finding that soon people began to wonder if the mountains of the west could render such a place.  Then as if fate had finally revealed its arcane hand, the Count was taken to a sparse little mining/sheep town in remote central Idaho.  There Schaffgotsch finally found perfection, a paradise which in his words “contained more delightful features than any other place he had seen in the U.S., Switzerland, or Austria for a winter sports center.”

Sun Valley by Moonlight

 On Washington’s Birthday, 1936, Harriman traveled to Ketchum in his own private railroad coach and with Schaffgotsch as his guide, toured the Ketchum surroundings.  Harriman fell in love immediately with what would soon become Sun Valley.  With the sight for the new American St. Moritz chosen, the problem of how to develop and promote the place remained.  To both problems, as with Harriman’s genius of employing Schaffgotsch to find a European skiing paradise in America, nothing was left to chance; the best the world had to offer was consulted and hired to achieve this goal.

In the promotional department, Harriman retained the services of a flamboyant publicity genius named Steve Hannagan who, prior to Sun Valley, was best known for his promotions which developed Miami Beach.  Hannagan told Harriman that “just simply building a hotel in the middle of the Idaho wilderness would not make news, however, build a million dollar lodge there and headlines would shortly follow.”  Harriman took Hannagan’s advice to task and after receiving approval from Union Pacific’s board of directors, ground was broken in late May 1936 on Sun Valley’s million dollar lodge.  In the development department Harriman sought the opinions’ of Count Schaffgotsch, John Morgan (an early day ski expert), Charlie Proctor (Dartmouth ski coach and member of 1928 American ski team), and Alf Engen (in the mid-1930s, America’s premier ski jumper) to select the sights where the skiing would take place.  Sights on Penny, Dollar, Proctor and Ruud mountains were quickly chosen.

 

In 1936, ski transportation up the mountains in the United States was a rarity, aside from an occasional rope-tow or J-Bar found back east, and the primary manner by which people traveled up the hillsides were by foot or on skis.  Like his million dollar lodge, Harriman was intent on building a skiing luxury in the Idaho wilderness that would rival or surpass anything which Europe had to offer and ski lifts could defiantly compliment that theme.  In March of 1936, Charlie Proctor was hired to teach the local Ketchum community the art of being ski guides as well as advice Harriman on locations where the lifts would soon be placed.

Several different methods of uphill transportation were considered, however, it was a concept developed by a young Union Pacific engineer named Jim Curran which caught both Proctor’s and Harriman’s eyes.  In the summer of 1936, chairlifts were rapidly located on both Proctor and Dollar mountains with an additional lift, the following summer, being placed on the ski jumping Hill of Ruud Mountain.  At the time, few could envision the permanent consequences the chairlift would have on alpine skiing as well as alpine skiing instruction.

PICTORIAL HISTORY OF SKIING AND SUN VALLEY, IDAHO

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By Basil Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sun Valley’s Alps

Stuben Austria