Tom Kelly: Summit County’s skiing origins, from silver to snow
The Denver & Rio Grande steam train pulled around the bend and into a wide open valley. It had been a long three-hour journey from Rio Grande Western station in Salt Lake City, with a short stop in Sugar House, up and over Parley’s Summit, down through Snyderville and snaking through a narrow corridor past Park City’s old red light district and on into Frog Hollow.
On board, hundreds of men, women and children hustled to pull on coats and hats, grabbing their skis and poles and venturing out into the freshly-fallen snow. It was Winter Carnival at Snow Park, what we now know as Deer Valley – 1936.
Today, as we glide effortlessly down pristine slopes at Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain, we visually see our town’s history in the mining structures that dot the snowscape. We ride comfortably in gondola cabins or high-speed chairlifts from bottom to top.
Earlier this week, a group of advocates from our community’s Friends of Ski Mountain Mining History gathered in the historic Mid Mountain Lodge to talk about the past. How did we get to where we are today – silver to snow – from one of the world’s biggest silver mining towns to one of its most notable ski resort towns?
Local miners of the 19th century faced challenges with heavy snow. Rudimentary skis were a functional way of getting around for those who stayed in the mountains over the winter months. Across America, Scandinavian immigrants brought skiing to our new land not just as functional tools, but for recreation and competition.
In 1915, a Norwegian immigrant, Martinius ‘Mark’ Strand, led efforts to build a ski jump in Dry Canyon, not far from Fort Douglas in the Salt Lake City foothills near the present-day Federal Heights area. Despite its small size, it quickly became a showcase for the sport – not just for jumping, but for enticing others to use skis for recreation.
Strand soon found that snow was not so plentiful in the wide open, very exposed faces of the hillside at Dry Canyon. So he began his search over Parley’s Summit for a new location where snow was more consistent. He found it on Rasmussen Ranch, a broad hillside south of what we now know as Kilby Road, just west of High Ute Ranch. Recreational skiing came to Summit County.
Together with fellow Norwegians Axel Andresen and photographer Peter Ecker, they had formed the Norwegian American Athletic Club (later the Utah Ski Club) – the first ski club in the western USA. By Christmas Day 1928 they had built several small jumps at Rasmussen Ranch, holding the first tournament in 1929. The towering Ecker Hill jump, located to the west in what is now Pinebrook, would go on to become one of the world’s premier world-record-setting venues.
Despite the Great Depression, skiers flocked up Parley’s to the new Rasmussen Hill. The epicenter of this first local resort was the Well Come Inn, a charming little restaurant and inn located along what is now I-80. Owned by the Rasmussens, it was a great gathering place for skiers through the 1930s.
Parley’s Summit became a popular destination for skiers, traversing the backcountry from Lamb’s Canyon up to Parley’s Summit and down to the Rasmussen Ranch. Another popular route included an overnight in Thaynes Canyon then over Scott’s Pass to Brighton, where the Wasatch Mountain Club (formed in 1920), had a cabin.
Further down the road through Snyderville and Park City, locals were exploring the feasibility of another ski area in an area called Frog Hollow. Park City officials approached President Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration (WPA) with the concept to create a winter sports center. Similar resorts would be opening across the mountains at Brighton (1936) and Alta (1939). With help from the Union Pacific Railroad, Sun Valley opened in 1936. The WPA began work in the mid-30s clearing runs for skiers taking the train up from the valley, but no lifts were installed.
After World War II, skiing in Summit County grew quickly. A J-bar lift was installed at Rasmussen Hill by Judge James Kilby, who had married Selma Rasmussen. Otto Carpenter and Bob Burns entered into a lease with United Park City Mines to build a ski area with a chairlift at Snow Park. Mel Fletcher ran the ski school.
Seeing its success, the mining company built its own ski area, Treasure Mountains, which opened in 1963 with the longest gondola in North America. It went on to become today’s Park City Mountain. Snow Park, which closed when its lease ran out in 1968, became Deer Valley Resort in 1981 with development by former Park City owner Edgar Stern.
Along the way, Navy veteran Cal McPhie, who had run Little Mountain in Emigration Canyon, opened Gorgoza in 1968, which later became Parley’s Summit Ski Area and now Woodward Park City.
This weekend when you scan your Epic or IKON pass and hop on a chairlift for the five minute ride to the top, think back to those days 90 years ago when skiers made their own way up the mountain in makeshift gear and fashionable wool coats. Imagine traversing the Wasatch Back with wooden skis and bamboo poles when a good ski outing was a long weekend trip from Park City to Brighton to Alta.
A lot has changed, But the smiles were still the same!
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 50th season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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It’s fitting in this fact-free world, writes columnist Tom Clyde, for Wasatch County officials to host a “grand opening” for a road that isn’t open yet.