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Ridgelines: From silver to skis: Sliding back through time

Tom Kelly

It was another blizzardy January afternoon day as we dropped off Supreme onto the aptly-named Ore Cart run. Down below we could just make out a huge metal framework rising into the clouds, towering 85 feet above the neighboring Empire Lodge. 

We paused to reflect on the old mining relic. Seven years ago it had plummeted to earth, its footings weakened by a collapsing, century-old, 2,100-foot mine shaft underneath. Thanks to the leadership of Friends of Mountain Mining History, along with the support of Deer Valley Resort and the entire community, the Daly West Headframe now proudly stands upright and strong on a solid new platform just a short distance uphill from its origin.

The history of our resorts in Park City is a true silver-to-skis tale, beginning with miners ascending into uninhabited mountains to seek their fortune 150 years ago. It’s a story told in much the same way across mountain towns from Aspen to Tahoe. But as you ski around Deer Valley and Park City Mountain, you notice a heightened sense of preservation and recognition.



Our guide dipped his skis into the two feet of fresh powder under the stanchions as we skied over to Ruby Express for more exploration.

The runs we ski at our local resorts sit over a catacomb-like web of over 800 miles of underground tunnels. This vast network provided miners with access to valuable ore, as well as to drain millions of gallons of underground water. Prospectors came to find gold, buoyed by stories of miners in the Sierra 600 miles west. There was not much gold, but they did find zinc, lead and, most notably, silver.



The first prospectors scaled the ridgeline from Big Cottonwood Canyon in autumn of 1868, planting poles with red bandanas onto what is now Deer Valley’s Flagstaff Mountain to stake their claims. A year later, the first ore was shipped out of Flagstaff. After completing the transcontinental railroad for Union Pacific that year, many workers headed for the mines and Park City became a silver boom town.

Soon more mines followed, including Ontario, on the eastern flank of Flagstaff, in 1872. It would go on to produce $50 million in ore, about $1 billion in today’s money.

Winter was a nuisance for the early miners, many of whom were of Irish and Chinese heritage. Scandinavians began arriving later, bringing with them their love for winter, often skiing up and over what we now know as Empire and Guardsman passes into Big Cottonwood Canyon and beyond.

Standing atop Flagstaff Mountain we surveyed the scene. On a clear day you can get a definitive picture of the terrain, mentally mapping out the mine locations along the entire 12-mile ridgeline that defines our community. Today that view was obscured.

We dropped down Bandana, aptly named for the prospector’s claim markers. As other skiers rushed by, we stopped at a magnificent old structure standing proudly on the south side of the run.

Just a few years ago, the Little Bell Ore Bin was a dilapidated structure. Community preservation efforts brought it back to life in 2018, its wooden beams telling a vivid story of Little Bell. Prospected by Irish immigrant Hugh Kilkeny in 1880, it thrived for several decades before he sold his interest to the Daly West in 1901.

It was adjacent to the Quincy Mine, where the only remnant is an aging old electric motor up on the flat, skier’s left on Bandana. Today, it’s buried under 10 feet of snow.

As you build your ski day between the five mountain peaks at Deer Valley, you are literally sliding through history. Today, historical interpretive placards — all marked on trail maps with a pick and shovel icon — guide you through time.

Heading down Homeward Bound to round out our afternoon, we stopped to read about the Naildriver and New York Mines. The Naildriver tailings pile now forms fabulous ski terrain in one of my favorite glades on the mountain, Sunset Trees.

As we glided through Silver Lake to the Homestake Express, our guide displayed a photo of what many feel was one of Park City’s first real estate developments.

Lake Flat, as it was known then, featured a gorgeous lake around which were development plots for cabins and a boarding house. It was the primary settlement for miners before our present day Park City began to grow. Some 700 residents made their homes there in the early 1890s, nestled along the lake amidst a barren hillside that had been logged of all trees.

But soon after the development began, it came to an abrupt end as a newly dug water tunnel somehow tapped into the lake, draining it. It was an omen to build a village down lower in the canyon where our town stands today.

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