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Sun Valley Resort Charged a Dollar to Golf as it Expanded to Include Summer Games
Bathing beauties helped advertise Sun Valley’s amenities, including its pool, in the resort’s early days.
Saturday, June 29, 2024


It’s generally acknowledged that Sun Valley’s gorgeous, event-filled summers have become busier even than Sun Valley’s winters. But did you know that Averell Harriman and Union Pacific Railroad didn’t initially consider making Sun Valley a year-round resort when they laid out the plans for America’s first destination ski resort? Learn more in John Lundin’s essay covering Sun Valley development as a summer attraction.



Sun Valley’s rodeo grounds opened in 1937 on Sun Valley Road near where the Horseman's Center is today.

Sun Valley Resort was initially envisioned as a winter ski resort only when Union Pacific Board Chairman Averell Harriman decided to create a destination ski resort designed to stimulate railroad passenger traffic, which had been decimated by the Great Depression.

Passenger traffic had collapsed “like a rotten trestle,” one official observed.

But, once the resort opened, officials began considering a summer operation.

John E.P. Morgan, one of Harriman’s advisors, noted that they’d tasked a local man with preparing a report on hunting and fishing in the Sun Valley area. And he noted that Roberta Brass, whose family ranch was purchased to build the resort, wanted to organize sleigh rides for guests.

Union Pacific Railroad dammed Trail Creek in 1937 to create a lake for fishing and boating.

“Hot springs, fishing, shooting and beautiful country were attractions for visitors,” he said.

“America’s St. Moritz” had opened Dec. 21, 1936, as a luxurious high-class resort in the remote mountains of Idaho.  It immediately captured the country’s attention, becoming a cultural icon.  The lodge offered New York city amenities: a ski shop run by Saks Fifth Avenue, a beauty specialist of national reputation, fresh orchids, a valet and a lady’s maid, Western Union office and daily stock market reports.  

Ski Instructor Otto Lang said “beautiful people, movie stars and moguls, captains of industry…and playboys and playgirls of the international social set… flocked to this wintery Shangri-la.”  Friedl Pfeifer called it a “romantic oasis. The Duchin Room… where an orchestra played every night, made Sun Valley a never-never land where everyone was rich and young and all invited to the dance.”

And chairlifts developed for Sun Valley by Union Pacific engineers became, according to Lang, “the most popular, efficient, and universally accepted mode of uphill transportation for skiers and summer sightseers.”

Rodeo shows in 1937 included wagons and other attractions.


Sun Valley closed for the winter season on April 1, 1937, and on April 4, Railway Age, a trade publication, announced “Sun Valley Lodge to Reopen for Summer Season” for summer vacationists desiring mountain trails, fishing, swimming, tennis and horseback riding.  

For Sun Valley’s first year of operation only the Lodge had been built.  However, for summer 1937, Harriman had a full agenda of improvements for Sun Valley planned, while keeping the Lodge open for summer guests.

On April 6, 1937, Union Pacific Board’s approved $1 million for the next phase of the “Development of Sun Valley, Idaho,” to expand its appeal to the large class of moderate income guests and provide accommodations for winter and summer seasons.   The plan called for building the Sun Valley Inn, Village, Opera House and other amenities.

Sun Valley’s outdoor ice rink was the nation’s second full-size, year-round rink.

On May 25, the Board approved another $65,000 to construct barns, corrals, grandstands and other rodeo facilities at Sun Valley to provide entertainment for summer guests.  Harriman said idea for the rodeo grounds came William Jeffers, who became the new president of Union Pacific in October 1937.  Jeffers didn’t know about skiing but thought a rodeo would attract tourists.

The New York Times of May 30 said Sun Valley was developing a “year-round center with tennis courts and outdoor swimming pools, horseback treks through mountains, fishing in lakes and streams rarely visited by the sportsman.”  Fishing will take place in “unmapped and untamed mountain lakes and streams,” it noted, and hunters will find ruffed grouse, elk and mountain goats. The article concluded that Sun Valley Lodge would open on July 1, for the summer vacation season.

The Challenger Inn and Sun Valley Village were built in summer and fall 1937 and were ready for winter 1938.  The Inn was a mountain-style building with 230 guest rooms and 100 rooms for help, with a number of retail shops. A swimming pool adjoining the Inn and a central heating plant for all the resort’s buildings were built.

A Bavarian Village surrounding the Inn provided shopping and recreational opportunities for guests.  It had a center square surrounded by structures of different appearances giving the impression of a European resort.  Two-story buildings were built of stucco and “wood painted in gay colors having artistically designed balconies and other exterior adornments which will give the whole a most pleasing appearance.” Aspen and Willow cottages and the Opera House, which was purported to accommodate 500 people, were built.

The new development will “provide comfortable and desirably appointed quarters catering to sports lovers at a minimum cost, and make Sun Valley the most sought after sports center in the state of Idaho as well as in the entire country,” reported the  Hailey Times on April 29, 1937.  In an article in the 1938 Architectural Record, Sun Valley’s architect Gordon Stanley Underwood said that “Harriman wanted Sun Valley Village to resemble ‘a Tyrolean village’ so visitors had the impression Union Pacific ‘had transported them to a charming European ski resort.’”

A two-year resort wide landscaping plan was begun in 1937, under the direction of Boise Landscape Architect Charles Davidson.  Trail Creek, Sun Valley’s main watershed, was diverted into an elaborate system to water its gardens, golf course, adjoining fields and lagoons in Challenger Inn Square.  Trail Creek Cabin was built on the creek, becoming a popular dining and party site.  And Trail Creek was dammed to create Sun Valley Lake which was stocked with trout.

An 11,000-seat rodeo stadium and stands, barn and horse track were built for $65,000 to be the centerpiece of summer entertainment. It was built in time for the first Sun Valley Rodeo held on Aug. 14 and 15, 1937.  It had a covered grandstand on the northwest side, an open grandstand on the south and a track around the facility.  Dog kennels were built near the stadium.

Sun Valley’s skeet shooting arena was also ready for use in August with a skeet and trap field and four electronically operated traps.  It was located in the Elkhorn Gulch, “convenient to the lodge, but far enough away that the blasts of the guns do not disturb the guests.  It promises soon to become one of the most popular sports here. In fact, it’s rapidly becoming one of the nation’s top amusements,” said The Idaho Statesman in August 1937.


On Jan. 22, 1938, Railway Age published an article for the railroad industry titled “Union Pacific Completes New Hotel in Sun Valley:”

Union Pacific has undertaken to develop a winter sports center in Sun Valley embodying all the recreational, scenic, climatic and topographical advantages theretofore considered to be possessed only by European resorts...The railroad is now engaged in publicizing the valley as a resort for the summer vacationist and has installed facilities and services designed to augment its appeal in this respect.

Summer attractions included an artificial lake, golf course, polo field, baseball diamond and horseback riding.  The rodeo grounds had a quarter-mile oval track, covered grandstand, pens and chutes for stock.

Sun Valley followed Steve Hannagan’s recommendations to put in a swimming pool and a popular bar and take lots of pictures of pretty women and celebrities.  Circulate the pictures back to the hometown newspapers of the guests and get free publicity portraying Sun Valley as a sunshine mecca, he advised.

Sun Valley’s activities were expanded for summer 1938.  The country’s second full-size all-year outdoor ice rink was built.  The Sun Valley Figure Skating Club was formed and had “a most successful season of unusual skating under a brilliant summer sun or cloudless starlit sky.”

During dinner, skaters and dancers enjoyed the Lodge terrace orchestra.

Members of the New York Skating Club and Philadelphia Skating Club visited, with one member training for the 1940 Olympic Games. For the second summer, a group of Dartmouth skiers took up rock climbing and toured the Sawtooth mountains to find interesting climbs, recommending it as the ideal summer sport for skiers.  Summer activities included fishing, hiking, polo, horseback riding, tennis, swimming, shooting, the rodeo and many others.

On June 12, 1938, the New York Times reported on “Summer Plans at Sun Valley,” describing the wide array of activities available:

There will be horseback riding, swimming, fishing, skeet shooting, and golf on the new course laid out in Trail Creek Canyon, as well as excursions into the hinterlands.  

Later in the season a five-day trip by saddle and pack horse will take fishermen into the unmapped White Cloud and Salmon River areas, scarcely ever before fished by white men...Just below Sun Valley is spring-fed Silver Creek, where rainbow trout are large and plentiful.  The less adventurous fisherman can stick close to home and fish by twilight in the clear waters of Sun Valley Lake.

Mid-June will see the inauguration of mountain climbing expeditions.  Members of these parties will tackle such challenging pinnacles as the Finger of Fate in the vicinity of remote Hell Roaring Lake and sharp-rising Heyburn Peak overlooking the blue expanse of Redfish Lake 5,000 feet below.  Provision is made for the less experienced sportsman, who will find plenty of thrill on 12,000-foot Hyndman Peak, almost in Sun Valley’s back yard.  An even easier climb is the walk up Baldy, 9,200 feet high.

A nine-hole, 18-Tee golf course opened on August 6, 1938, designed by William P. Bell, a golf architect from Pasadena, California, who built many of the west’s best courses, according to The Valley Sun, December 21, 1937.

The natural topography of the ground featured by tree-lined Trail Creek, which winds its way through the center of the property, has made it possible to design a course that will not only be a real test for the champion, but the average golfer will find every hole interesting and pleasant to play.  

It was irrigated by water from Trail Creek through a series of underground pipes that pumped water stored in a tank filled by gravity and laid out so it was functionally an 18-hole course.

There are 18 tees.  On the first round, the golfer drives from tees 1 to 9.  To complete the 18-hole round, he plays from tees 10 to 18, shooting toward the holes from new and different angles, thus completely changing the strategy of each hole.  The tees are arranged to avoid conflict.

The 18-hole par 72 course of 6,506 yards, cost $1 for nine holes and $2 for 18 holes (or all-day play).  

Sun Valley’s roads were paved in summer 1938 and Trail Creek cabin was built, a rustic creek-side cabin two miles up Trail Creek from the Lodge.  A physio-therapy department was added to the Lodge’s medical department, a greenhouse was built, the resort’s roads were paved, and the Skier’s Chalet was built, a two-story cottage adjoining the Inn with 20 rooms to provide economy accommodations for the skiing fraternity.

In September 1938, more than 180 manufacturers of railway equipment and supplies attended a meeting in Sun Valley.  They took a special train from Chicago on which Averell Harriman and U.P. officers served as hosts.  

Dick Durrance was one of Averell Harriman’s favorites.  In spring 1938, Durrance worked at Sun Valley during his summer vacation from Dartmouth, and told Harriman he was interested in photography.  Harriman got him a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic, “the press camera of choice.”  Durrance worked at Sun Valley as one of their publicity photographers. He took the camera back to Dartmouth where he took pictures and became the editor of the Dartmouth Pictorial.  

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw Sun Valley in the summertime...coming up by bus from Shoshone,” he said. “It had just rained, and that was the first time I smelled sage after a rainfall.  It was exhilarating, the nicest, freshest smell I could imagine.  Just the atmosphere itself was fabulous.  I loved Sun Valley.   The summers were totally unlike anything I’d ever experienced...I guess I was totally hooked...

I was only doing photography...working with Gene Van Gilder, who was head of publicity...Our job was to shoot pictures of anyone who came to Sun Valley and send them to their hometown papers... I’d shoot rodeos, tennis, fishing, horseback riding, rock climbing, anything that was going on.”

Pioneer Cabin was opened for 1938 as a backcountry ski hut.  One family who often skied there wanted Sun Valley to build a chain of five or six cabins joining the Pioneer Range to Galena through the Boulder Range for winter skiing and summer horseback trips.  

Saks Fifth Avenue operated a ski shop in the Lodge during Sun Valley’s first year of operations.  When Saks dropped its operation, Harriman offered Jack Lane’s son Pete the chance to operate the ski shop in the Challenger Inn.  Lane told Harriman he didn’t know anything about skiing, but Harriman said “neither does anyone else...but you know retailing.”  Lane opened his ski shop in the Inn and ran it until the resort closed for WW II.  He reopened the store after the war and sold fishing tackle, sportswear and tennis gear in the summer, with ski instructor Sigi Engl as the tennis pro.  In the winter, the shop had a wax room, sold high-fashion ski wear, operated a ski rental, and sold ski gear.  Masia, “Pete Lane’s of Sun Valley.”


Learn about summer skiing at Boulder Basin, Sun Valley Resort’s early climbing school and about Gen. George Marshall and President Harry Truman’s visit to Sun Valley when this look at Sun Valley’s summer continues in Sunday’s Eye on Sun Valley.

To learn more of Sun Valley’s history, read John W. Lundin’s award-winning “Skiing Sun Valley.”

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