Museum displays a mining-era Mona Lisa
Richard Martinez used to measure his commute by depth, not miles or minutes.
An ex-miner, Martinez, who is 72 years old, worked in Park City’s silver-mining industry for 50 years, stretching from 1953 until 2003.
He remembers the trip into the Daly West, one of Park City’s most famous silver producers, nine men in a contraption that the creators designed to be a mine elevator.
"You got used to it after a while. When you first started going down in the mines, it was a little scary," Martinez remembers.
The mine elevator that once served the Daly West now sits outside the Swede Alley side of the Park City Museum, recently becoming one of the institution’s major pieces. The museum expects that the elevator will be a key artifact as it undergoes an ambitious expansion.
Sandra Morrison, the executive director of the museum, says the Jordanelle Special Service District, a waterworks department in Wasatch County, loaned it to the museum for 50 years. The district had previously purchased the elevator from United Park City Mines, the modern-day mining company that in the last 15 years has turned its business to real estate.
"One of the Mona Lisas, yes," Morrison says when describing the elevator, known as a double-cage and dating to the early 20th century. "It’s so unusual. It captures everyone’s imagination."
The elevator stands two stories tall and Morrison says it carried people, up to about 12 at a time, and ore through the Daly West. The mine’s shaft originally burrowed 1,500 feet below the surface. Morrison says the Daly West was the No. 3 silver producer in Park City.
"You’d get the sense of how claustrophobic riding into the mine would be and a sense of how dangerous," she says, indicating that, perhaps, people will be able to stand inside the elevator once it is on permanent display.
Morrison says, in the mining heyday, each mine would have had one of the elevators. There are now two or three of the elevators in Utah but she is unaware of one that remains in operation in the state. She says the one on display may have been used to rescue miners trapped underground after an infamous 1902 explosion and could have also carried out the bodies of some of the 34 victims in the blast, including 25 in the Daly West.
Morrison says the museum plans to feature the elevator, weighing 5,000 pounds and made of steel, as one of its centerpieces. She says the elevator will be suspended between the main floor of the redone museum and the basement.
Once on exhibit inside, the elevator will be visible from Swede Alley and the Old Town transit center, a high-profile location where scores of visitors pass by on their way from the transit center to Main Street. It will remain in its current location until the spring, Morrison predicts.
The museum installed the elevator as it continues its efforts to raise the money for the expansion, a 5,000-square-foot addition on the Swede Alley side.
Morrison says she hopes the work starts in the spring and it is expected to take about 1 1/2 years. Morrison says the expansion’s budget is between $5 million and $6 million. The museum has raised about half the money and Morrison says the fundraising is on schedule. Museum officials plan to approach the Park City Planning Commission with the expansion blueprints soon.
The museum is one of Main Street’s popular attractions, telling Park City’s history, first as a silver-mining camp and then as a renowned ski destination. The museum has secured a long-term lease with City Hall, which owns the building, allowing Morrison to pursue the expansion.
The elevator is now among the most prominently placed reminders of Park City’s silver-mining heyday, which lasted about a century and ended as the ski industry flourished in the 1970s. There are large mining-era buildings still standing in the mountains ringing Old Town, including some that sit on the sides of the ski slopes at Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort. Below the surface, miles of tunnels crisscross the area.
Lots of Parkites, especially City Hall officials and tourism boosters, promote the city’s mining heritage as setting Park City apart from other vacation destinations, saying that the city is more authentic than some competitors. Meanwhile, there was once an underground mine tour and there are lots of plaques around the city designating mining-era buildings and locations.
Martinez, the former miner, says he worked in the Daly West in the 1960s and 1970s. He recalls the elevator ride descended through a shaft surrounded by timber, with safety guides stopping the elevator from striking the wood. The ride, which lasted a couple of minutes, was pretty quiet, he says, but the elevator "rattles around a little bit."
"Now they’re a novelty for the tourists," Martinez says, expecting that Parkites will also be intrigued. "Not only the tourists."
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Thanks to COVID-19 cutting into visitation numbers, Park City’s seasonal workforce is sufficient. In any other winter, “the hiring situation would be dire.”