The idea that turned Park City around
December 21, 2013
Walker Wallace recognizes the irony of it all.
The ski resort that he suggested in the 1950s as a way to raise funds for Park City’s struggling mining industry is now an international destination, best known for having hosted snowboarding and alpine skiing events at the 2002 Winter Olympics. On the other hand, Park City’s mines haven’t produced an ounce of silver, lead or zinc in more than 30 years.
Today, as the community celebrates the 50th anniversary of Park City Mountain Resort, The Park Record looks back at some of the key milestones in Park City’s astonishing rise from crumbling mining camp to world-class resort, as witnessed by some of those who believed that the town had a future beyond its finite underground resources.
One of those was Walker Wallace.
The son of a former Salt Lake City mayor, Wallace, with a postgraduate degree from MIT in urban planning, opened a consulting firm in Salt Lake City in the 1950s. And one of his clients was United Park City Mines, the major local mining company, which was looking for ways to turn its flagging fortunes around.
In one of the company’s board meetings, Wallace suggested that UPCM look at the potential of its surface holdings as a ski resort. It was something he knew a little about.
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"I used to race," Wallace, who is now 90, said in a recent interview. "I was a ski racer – downhill and slalom and all that kind of stuff. I tried out for the ’48 Olympic Team, and unfortunately broke my leg in the downhill trial part."
The mining company hired him to conduct a feasibility study. His 1958 report concluded that there was, indeed, room for another major Utah resort to join Alta and Brighton.
Wallace said he also looked at the potential of summer recreation in Park City, including a golf course and a small water-skiing lake at the bottom of Deer Valley.
"I had read about a water-ski tow, kind of like a rope tow, that had been developed by some organization that did those things." However, he said he finally decided that idea wouldn’t work.
One thing made Wallace uneasy. He said there was scant historical data available on snowfall in the Park City area.
"I thought to myself, Gee, here I am recommending to a company that they probably spend more money than they would like on something that depends on whether they have adequate snow." It was a dilemma that would confront the resort about two decades later.
Seth "Red" Droubay, then the vice president and general manager of UPCM, wondered whether the existing above-ground mine tramways on the mountain could be converted into uphill ski transportation, Wallace said.
"I rolled my eyes in my head (and said), ‘I don’t think that’s possible, but I will find out.’"
Wallace said he managed to convince Gordon Bannerman, the retired president of the tramway division of U.S. Steel, to visit Park City to look at the old mining relics.
"He was afraid of heights," Wallace said. "He didn’t want to go up on any of those tramway towers. I was the same thing, but I was younger, so I volunteered. He wanted to get the rope size and the number of strands and so forth that were in those cables. So I went up there, hanging on for dear life, and measured the size of the cable and so forth." However, it turned out that the tensile strength of the cables and the location of the tram towers made them poor candidates for ski lifts.
Building new lifts would be expensive for the cash-strapped mining company. It kept its plans on hold – and under wraps.
In the meantime, a business partner of Wallace’s paid a visit to the county recorder’s office in Coalville.
"He found that probably 80 to 85 percent of all the (Park City Old Town) lots – home lots, and business properties, for that matter – were for sale for taxes. So he said, ‘You know, I think we can buy a bunch of those. If what we do lets Park City rebound, that’s going to be some valuable property.’
Wallace said he gave his partner the green light to spend $85,000 to $90,000 to buy "several hundred" lots.
"And then I told my partner, I said, ‘You know, we’re working for United Park Mines Company, and I think we owe it to them to let them know about this and see if they want to buy those, or some of those, lots.’ Well, they did. They were grateful. And they bought about 90 percent of what we bought, for the same price that we had bought (them for)."
In 1962, the mining company applied for a low-interest loan from a new federal loan program designed to bolster the economies of depressed areas. Utah newspaper publishers used an August 1962 luncheon with President Kennedy to lobby on the company’s behalf. Later that month, the government approved a loan of $1,232,000.
Treasure Mountains opens
On Saturday, Dec. 21, 1963, Park City Mayor Will Sullivan cut the ribbon to mark the official opening of the new resort, Treasure Mountains. It featured the Summit House restaurant, the gondola, the gondola base building, the Prospector chairlift, a J-bar and a rope tow.
Many of those hired to tend and maintain the lifts were survivors of Park City’s failing economy, including a number of former miners. However, Park City native Gary Kimball, who logged about eight years of part-time and full-time work at the resort, said men who had spent much of their adult lives underground didn’t always interact well with the public. He recalled one incident when a passenger complained to an old miner about a gap at the bottom of the gondola door.
"I was helping (the miner) and some woman was saying, ‘There’s a crack in the bottom here,’ and he sticks his head in and looks down at the crack and says, ‘Lady, you’re too fat to fall through there.’"
Gary’s wife, Jane, was a nurse at the Miners Hospital, which then stood at the base of the resort on the site of the present Shadow Ridge Hotel. With safety bindings still a work in progress, Jane said the hospital’s doctor, William Orris, had plenty of business.
"They used to have people in that old hospital just lined up all on the floor, people just laying everywhere, ’cause he was seeing them, Dr. Orris was seeing them, and stabilizing them before they were either treated or taken to Salt Lake," she said.
In addition to hiring former miners, the mining company also relied on its current workforce for expertise. Rich Martinez, who worked in the Judge Mine machine shop, said he spent one winter rewelding defective chairs from one of the lifts. Phil Jones, who joined the resort as a ski instructor for the 1964-65 season, said the mine’s electrician was also doing double duty.
"If we had an electrical problem on the mountain, we would have to call the mine, get hold of Neff Murdock," Jones said. "He would have to drop what he was doing, hopefully, come out of the mine, drive over to the ski area, get up on the mountain to one of the lifts. I mean, that was a bit of a challenge as an operator, but that’s the way it was in those days."
Jones would spend the next 33 winters at the resort, moving up to become president and general manager.
In the winter of 1964-65, the resort added the Thaynes chairlift and opened what was billed as the world’s first underground ski lift, a modified mine train that ran almost three miles into the mountain using the old Spiro drain tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, skiers would transfer to a "cage" elevator for the ride to the surface, ending near the bottom of the Thaynes lift.
"They had some design for taking the miners back into the mining areas, and they just kind of converted those to passenger use," Wallace recalled. "Put covers over them, metal covers. And they were all right, but they were pretty primitive, no question."
The so-called Skiers’ Subway lasted only four years, but the mine train continued to run as a summer attraction for several more years. The resort’s summer activities in the 1960s also involved the gondola, horseback riding and a nine-hole golf course near the resort base.
At the start, Wallace said, UPCM saw Treasure Mountains as a source of revenue for its mining operations. However, it soon became clear that the resort was not a good fit.
"I think the mining company didn’t really have the expertise to be involved in recreation and be involved in (the) public," Jones said. "And I don’t think they had the money to maybe do some of the things that could have been done as far as marketing and mountain expansion and grooming equipment and that sort of thing. It was a pretty tight operation financially."
Royal Street takes resort reins
By 1969 the mining company had begun discussions about selling the resort – by then known as Park City Resort – to Royal Street Development Co. of Newport Beach, Calif., headed by New Orleans financier Edgar Stern. In January 1971, Royal Street exercised an option to buy UPCM’s recreation division, which included the existing mountain facilities, the golf course, and about 4,200 acres of ground, for $5.5 million. UPCM was to lease another 6,000 acres to Royal Street under a long-term agreement.
The impact of the sale became clear immediately. In February 1971, Royal Street announced plans to spend $100 million over 10 years on new ski lifts and runs, overnight accommodations, private home sites, condominiums, commercial villages, an expanded golf course and other projects.
"They seemed to have a lot of money, and (started) building condos and hiring a lot of people that were in construction – building construction, road construction, design engineering, sales people," Jones said.
"I think that was a positive transition, but it was way, way different, with the number of people in the company. It was no longer just a ski company. It was a development company, a sales company. … But it brought a change and it brought opportunity and the marketing picked up and exposure picked up."
That summer the new owners – doing business as Greater Park City Co. – built three new lifts – Payday, Crescent and Lost Prospector, and a new resort administration building. Construction also began on the Three Kings Condominiums and the expansion of the golf course to 18 holes. In August, Olympic gold medalist Stein Eriksen joined the staff as director of skiing.
"Money is no problem now," Warren King, president of Greater Park City Co., told Robert H. Woody, business editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, early in 1972. "We’ve got a product with a track record."
By the summer of 1972, construction was under way on the Crescent Ridge and Payday condominiums, along with the Snow Country employee housing project and another new chairlift, First Time, near the base of the resort.
Greater Park City also continued the UPCM program of summer activities with gondola and mine-train rides. That summer the 18-hole golf course opened along with three hard-surface tennis courts. In September about 7,000 people attended an outdoor concert at the resort featuring Leo Kottke and Gordon Lightfoot.
"All of that, I think, was pretty much a loss leader, and it was there to make it easier to sell a condominium to a family," Jones said. "So they could say, ‘You know, we have really good skiing in the winter, but in the summer we also have lots of things you can do as a family, or an individual.’ But I don’t think any of those things ever made money."
National Training Center opens
In 1973 the resort opened up new intermediate terrain with the new King Con triple chair. And it converted three historic mine buildings – the 1896 Silver King Mine boardinghouse and two nearby bunkhouses – to serve as a training center for U.S. Ski Team alpine athletes. At the same time, the resort cut four new training runs for the athletes on the east side of King Con Ridge.
"That was another thing to try and bring credence to the ski area and support ski racing," Jones said.
Hired as director of the new U.S. Ski Team National Training Center was Willy Schaeffler, a German-born skier who later became head coach and program director of the U.S. national alpine team. His assistant was Karen Korfanta, a native of Pinedale, Wyo., who had skied at the University of Utah and on the U.S. Ski Team before moving to Denver to join the staff of the United States Ski Association (USSA).
"Willy Schaeffler, who was University of Denver coach for many years and then a U.S. Ski Team coach, was a very good friend of Edgar Stern’s," Korfanta told The Park Record.
"It was a very European thing that you would have a mountain that had runs that were dedicated to training, and you had a facility where athletes would stay – they would stay on the mountain and the facilities were all right there. So that’s how that whole thing started."
U.S. Ski Team follows suit
The following summer the staff of the U.S. Ski Team followed Schaeffler and Korfanta from Denver to Park City, setting up offices on Main Street in a building previously occupied by the Mount Air Market. The U.S. Ski Team headquarters have been in Park City ever since.
Unfortunately, the "European thing" on the mountain didn’t stick.
"It didn’t really make sense," Jones said. "When ski racers want to train early in the season, they need snow. And Park City is not known for its early snow. And in those years I don’t remember if we had much snowmaking at all." Korfanta said the training center lasted two years at the most.
By early 1975, only three years after his euphoric pronouncement in the Salt Lake Tribune, Warren King was singing a different tune. The resort was facing a "very serious financial situation," King told Max C. Jarman of The Park Record. Of 132 Park Avenue condominiums completed in 1974, 109 remained unsold. Other projects faced similar problems. King said the resort was facing a $29 million liability. He blamed the struggling national economy, high interest rates, a local building moratorium and a late start to the 1974-75 ski season.
"I think the Park Avenue condos were probably the final straw," Jones said. "I know they had a big sales effort down there, dropped the prices and did everything they could to unload those. They had golf carts for people and you could go down there and run around in a golf cart looking at condos, but it was pretty much a fire sale. So that was a huge detriment to the company on the real-estate side, and certainly affected the mountain side."
Financial woes prompt sale to Badami
Royal Street’s financial woes ultimately led to the sale of the resort to Nick Badami, owner of Alpine Meadows of Tahoe Inc., in the fall of 1975. But Jones said that Badami wasn’t Royal Street’s only serious suitor.
"When Royal Street started looking for somebody to take over, Vail came into town," Jones said. "And I remember taking them up on the mountain and skiing around. There were three or four executives from Vail, and one of their photographers. And they were there, I don’t know, a few days, and I remember all of a sudden they said, ‘Well, we’ve got to leave. A situation back in Vail has come up and we have to leave.’ And so they just packed up and took off. And I don’t know what happened in Vail, but something – I always surmised financially – changed, so it changed their interest in purchasing Park City."
With Nick Badami and Alpine Meadows came another change in direction at the resort, Jones said.
"They had no desire to develop real estate or anything like that. They just wanted to run the ski area. So there were people that were involved on the development/real estate side that the Badami group had no need for," he said.
"And I remember Nick saying that it will be good for the town, good for local business, if we get out of all this stuff. And, he said, ‘We don’t know how to do anything but run the ski area, and we have to do a good job there.’ So that was our goal. We leased out the food because we didn’t feel like we were food operators, and pared the size of the company way down, and even ended up selling the golf course." Park City Municipal Corp. bought the course for $1 million in 1979.
A number of former Greater Park City Co. employees stayed in town and ultimately channeled their talents into other areas. Among them is Jan Wilking, former publisher of The Park Record and Park City Magazine.
Jones said he developed great respect for Badami. "Nick, he had a really good business philosophy, and he tried to take care of the employees. I remember him saying, ‘If you take care of the guest, and you take care of the employees, then the executives will be taken care of.’ He didn’t publicize that, but he talked to me about the things like that."
He said that Badami had the chance to take over the leases on all of the mining company’s resort terrain. "He had the opportunity to take the lease on the property that Deer Valley is (now) built on. And I remember him saying, ‘We don’t want that, because that’s not my business.’"
Edgar Stern would make Deer Valley his business, opening an elegant new resort there in 1981.
Meanwhile, Jones said, Badami focused on the Park City Resort’s basic needs. "The first two or three years that he was there, we were able to buy a bulldozer. We bought a backhoe. We bought some snow cats. We developed, first of all, a pretty primitive maintenance shop on the mountain."
In Badami’s second season, 1976-77, the resort added two more lifts: Jupiter, which opened up new expert terrain, and the Ski Team chair, which ran from the base to the top of King Con (Ski Team) Ridge.
Editor’s note: Part 2 of PCMR’s colorful history appeared in The Park Record’s Christmas Eve edition, Dec. 24.