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Sun Valley Resort Could Have Been a Rich Man’s Club had Averell Harriman’s Original Vision Been Realized
Tuesday, December 15, 2020


Averell Harriman had originally planned on financing the construction of Sun Valley Resort with his own money and that of his wealthy friends. But, when his friends backed out, he decided to build it with Union Pacific money.

“He started building it without getting formal approval from the Union Pacific board,” said John Lundin, author of the new book “Skiing Sun Valley: A History from Union Pacific to the Holdings.”  “When they realized they couldn’t stop him, they reluctantly approved.”

A retired lawyer, Lundin has been a voracious reader of Sun Valley history. But it was only when he began delving through archives contained in University of Missouri-St. Louis that he realized how Harriman had been involved in every decision concerning the building of Sun Valley big and small.

He will discuss that at 6 p.m. tonight—Tuesday, Dec. 15—during a Livestream program organized by The Community Library. Tune in at The talk will also be archived for those who would like to see it later.

Lundin has been researching the history of the Wood River Valley for the past 10 years, inspired by his  great-grandparents who operated a hotel in Bellevue in 1881. He wrote his first book “Early Skiing on Snoqualmie Pass” for the Washington State Ski and Snowboard Museum in 2017, then published “Sun Valley, Ketchum and the Wood River Valley” in June 2020.

Asked to tell the story of Sun Valley by The History Press, Lundin focused on the resort’s relationship with Union Pacific Railroad, which he says had not been fully covered. He combed through the 500-plus oral histories at the library’s Regional History Museum, then jumped at a chance to peruse Union Pacific’s internal documents and telegrams to and from Harriman in the archives at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

He learned how Sun Valley Resort came to own the Silver Creek Nature Preserve, as well as the grazing rights that came with the Brass Ranch. He found old maps showing ski trails from Galena Summit to East Fork. And he got a chuckle out of learning that Ed Seagle, the engineer who had a big hand in Sun Valley’s formation, was forbidden to ski because he was considered too valuable to risk a broken leg.

But he was especially interested in the story of Averell Harriman who had been on the Union Pacific  board since he was 22 years old and a college student. Harriman wanted to build Sun Valley Resort to resurrect passenger traffic, which had been a great source of revenue for Union Pacific before the Depression eroded it.

Harriman could have tightened the railroad’s belt following the Depression or slashed expenses, Lundin said. Instead, he invested $50 million dollars to streamline passenger trains, then looked for a place to send those new trains.

Many of his wealthy friends always disappeared for a few weeks during winter to ski in Europe. Maybe that could work here, he thought.

Harriman visited Ketchum in February 1936 on the advice of Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch, whom he had sent around the country to search for the ideal spot for a winter resort. He nearly didn’t make it, his journey up the tracks into Ketchum hampered by so much snow.

Excited by what he saw, he had workers break ground in April. With Ketchum being a town of 150 people in those days, Harriman had Union Pacific send hundreds of employees to create infrastructure so they could build the lodge. They converted railroad cars for shower and dining cars for the workers. And they opened the lodge in December 1936.

“People think of Sun Valley as a Union Pacific project. I don’t think they realize to what extent it’s an  Averell Harriman project,” Lundin said.

While Sun Valley may be best known for its skiing, it was also a mecca for gambling in its early days, Lundin said.

Dutch Weinbrenner, who was associated with the Detroit mob, began managing the Christiania, a new gambling establishment, in December 1937. It attracted Hollywood high rollers who thought nothing of gambling $100,000.

Weinbrenner lived in an apartment on the fourth floor of the Sun Valley Lodge, and all new guests got invites to Christiania when they checked in. Conversely, gambling losses were included in their bill when they checked out.

Sun Valley had slot machines everywhere, with Seagle taking the winnings to a bank in Hailey since there was no bank in Sun Valley. Union Pacific representatives scratched their heads when Sun Valley reported $41,000 a month in recreation, wondering how the resort made so much money off its bowling alley and pool tables.

Lundin said he was perhaps most surprised by how a handful of things had to go just right in order for Sun Valley to take its place in history as America’s first destination ski resort. If any one of those things had not happened, there might not be a Sun Valley Resort.

The first step was the ability of Robert Strahorn, a scout and publicist for the Union Pacific Railroad, to convince Union Pacific to build a railroad branch into the Wood River Valley. The next was that of the owners of the Philadelphia Smelter to convince Union Pacific not to stop at Hailey, as Strahorn had wanted given his land investments, but to take the tracks another 12 or 13 miles further to Ketchum so they could ship their smelted products out of the valley via train.

“When Count Schaffgotsch came into the valley, he thought Hailey was ugly. It was only after he got further north that he fell in love with the place,” noted Lundin.

Another factor contributing to the building of Sun Valley was the refusal of the Wyoming highway department to keep Teton Pass open in winter so that skiers could get from Union Pacific’s Yellowstone terminus in Victor, Idaho, to Jackson Hole where Schaffgotsch might otherwise have put the resort.

And, finally, it was the chance meeting for drinks between a Union Pacific representative and Idaho’s director of highways that sealed the deal.

“When the Union Pacific representative talked about how he’d had to escort this crazy Austrian all over Idaho, the highways director asked him: ‘Did you show him the Wood River Valley?’ ” Lundin recounted. “He said, ‘By God no, I forgot.’ Sun Valley might never have been had it not been for those three scotch and sodas.”

  • “Skiing Sun Valley: A History From Union Pacific to the Holdings” is available at Chapter One Bookstore, Ketchum Kitchens, the Sun Valley Lodge, Farmer’s Daughter, Sun Valley Ski Museum, Iconoclast Books and Amazon.

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