Sun Valley History: The Reindeer of Sun Valley

 

The Sun Valley reindeer forage for food by Trail Creek in 1937.

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen … but do you recall? Streamer, Liner, Clipper, Saint and Nick? Probably not. Their’s was a short and unhappy life in Sun Valley, as the resort’s first and only reindeer herd.

It was 1937, and in anticipation of Sun Valley’s second ever Christmas, marketing genius Steve Hannagan, the man who gave Sun Valley its name, convinced resort owner Averell Harriman that a herd of reindeer was an essential ingredient for a picture perfect Sun Valley Christmas. Hannagan tasked Andres Bango, a Laplandar whose father had brought the first reindeer from Siberia to Alaska in 1898, to round up 13 of the beasts from the tundras of Teller, Alaska and escort them by boat, plane and train to the heart of Idaho. Newspaper reports from the day indicate that Harriman and Hannagan had hopes this group may be the nucleus of a permanent stand of reindeer in the Sawtooths.

Once arrived in Sun Valley, the beasts were fitted with special harnesses and sleighs for ferrying guests from the railroad to the resort and, most importantly, to pull Santa’s sleigh. However, while every comfort was afforded the reindeer – including a special barn built just for them – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, Streamer, Liner, Clipper, Saint and Nick had a difficult transition to life in Idaho. Reindeer are the only domesticated deer in the world (in the wild they are known as caribou), and in general they are  easy to domesticate, being naturally docile with a trusting disposition. But the 13 reindeer that ended up in Sun Valley were not so cooperative. They did not take kindly to being required to abandon their usual diet of tundra moss in favor of the more readily available alfalfa and by all accounts arrived from Alaska on the verge of starvation. A train load of moss was quickly dispatched from their homeland, but before it arrived the creatures had made the switch to alfalfa, refusing to return to their native diet.

By this point, the baker’s dozen were a nervous and ill-tempered bunch and when Bango hitched them up to a sleigh he couldn’t control them. To keep them running away or attacking passengers he had to hold their antlers until the sleigh was loaded and then release them and leap into the driver’s seat. According to his biographer Rudy Abramson, Harriman witnessed the creatures’ cantankerous nature first hand during the 1937 lighting of the Christmas tree. Santa Claus was delivered to the Lodge on his sleigh, but as soon as he stepped down, the reindeer charged at the jolly red man. The sight of a terrified Santa being pursued by angry reindeer in front of all his high-profile guests was enough for Harriman, and the reindeer were banished from Sun Valley.

Sun Valley's reindeer herd was replaced by this less aggressive breed.

But what became of the Sun Valley reindeer? While there is no record of exactly what happened to them, today caribou do exist in Idaho, although they are one of the most critically endangered mammals in the country. The last herd of Woodland Caribou in America lives in Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho, eastern Washington and southern British Columbia and numbers just 34. It’s nice to think that maybe, just maybe, Streamer, Liner, Clipper, Saint and Nick led their brethren to the cooler, wetter climes of northern Idaho, where they lived out their lives as wild caribou. Perhaps, 75 years on, their descendants are still roaming that land.

Happy Holidays!

Jennifer Tuohy

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