Sun Valley was an idea looking for a place to happen. The idea belonged to W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the Board of Union Pacific Railroad, who was looking for ways to strengthen the railroad as a constructive force at a time when the country was trying to pull itself out of a depression.
It was not a time for adventure. Families were struggling to put food on the table and a nickel would actually buy something. Harriman was searching for ways to develop industry and passenger travel in the west. He thought the railroad might make an asset out of the liability of having so much snow along its route. In addition, ski resorts might become a much-needed new industry in the mountain states.
In his travels to Europe, Harriman had visited fine ski resorts and in the United States, skiing was quite limited — largely confined to the icy trails of New England where sub-zero temperatures and gloomy skies made the sport hard to promote. There were no real mountains. The 1932 Winter Olympics had been held at Lake Placid, New York, but it was no match for the upscale winter resorts in France, Austria and Germany.
By 1935, Averell Harriman had decided that, depression or no depression, the time was right for an American ski resort. “The very fact that it was a depression is one of the reasons we wanted to do this,” Harriman told authors Doug Oppenheimer and Jim Poore, who published the book, Sun Valley–A Biography in 1976. “There was enough money by that time. There was still a lot of unemployment but there was an improvement in business.”
Harriman had his idea, but no idea of where to build his dream. He called upon the services of Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch, whom he had met somewhere in European society. He brought the count to the United States in the fall of 1935 and gave him a simple set of instructions — search the American West and find an area where the powder is dry, the sun shines all day, and the harsh winds of winter don’t penetrate. There was one stipulation: Harriman wanted the resort on or close to the Union Pacific line.
The count visited several areas that have since become prominent ski resorts — Jackson in Wyoming, Aspen in Colorado, Alta in Utah, and Lake Tahoe on the Nevada/California border — and at every one, he found something wrong. The search seemed at a dead-end when a railroad official, after traveling with the count, told his tale to a business associate who asked if they had looked at the Ketchum and Hailey area.
Schaffgotsch spent about a week exploring the Ketchum area and wired Harriman saying, “It contains more delightful features, than any other place I have seen in the U.S., in Switzerland or Austria, for a winter sports center,” according to Sun Valley—A Biography.
Within days of Schaffgotsch’s report, Harriman headed west and purchased the 4300-acre ranch of Ernest Brass, one mile east of Ketchum. Construction started as soon as the snow melted in the spring of 1936. The million-dollar lodge was built first. Then two hills, Dollar and Proctor, both within walking distance of the lodge, were developed for skiing. The next challenge, how to get the skiers up the hills, was solved by Union Pacific’s engineering department, namely Jim Curran, who invented the chairlift, drawing on his experience with designing equipment to lift bananas onto boats.
Sun Valley opened in late December 1936, with the glitter and glamour of socialites and business leaders from New York to Hollywood, but a week earlier there was much wringing of hands and reference by some outsiders to the “Ketchum con.”
There was no snow. The wind blew across Dollar and Proctor mountains, rattling the sagebrush and whistling down the slopes. Finally on December 14, it snowed, not as much as the 18-year average of 16 inches but it snowed before the grand opening.
A huge expansion followed in 1939 when Harriman approved the development of Bald Mountain, which loomed high on the valley’s west side. A three-stage chairlift was finished by the winter season, along with the Roundhouse Restaurant, an octagonal structure with 46 windows located high on the mountain, now known as Baldy, which peaks at 9,151 feet.
Sun Valley quickly became a popular location for movie production. One of the most famous of the 22 movies made at the resort is Sun Valley Serenade in 1941, starring Sonja Henie and Glenn Miller. Bus Stop, starring Marilyn Monroe, was filmed there in 1956 and Pale Rider, starring Clint Eastwood, is one of the more recent productions in 1985.
In 1964, Union Pacific decided to get out of the resort business, and Sun Valley was purchased by Janss Corporation. Owner Bill Janss continued to make significant expansions, including the construction of 575 condominiums built from 1965 to 1977. In 1977, Janss sold to the Little America family under the ownership of R. Earl Holding, who has continued to expand the facilities.
The main lodge has been refurbished twice and three day lodges have been constructed on Baldy, along with one at the base of Dollar Mountain. Seven high-speed quad chairlifts make lift lines a rarity and the resort has one of the world’s largest computer-controlled snowmaking systems, which guarantees fresh powder each morning.
The entire Wood River Valley continues to grow. The Sun Valley Chamber and Visitors Bureau’s most recent figures for home sales through September, 2005, list the average sales price of a single family home in Sun Valley at $2,231,875; in Ketchum at $1,295,041; in the Mid Valley (between Ketchum and Hailey) at $1,275,304; in Hailey at $464,231; and in Bellevue at $364,065.
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