A Walk Through History: Sun Valley Resort

Sun Valley Resort’s historical walking tour is a must-do for anyone visiting Sun Valley. But for those who can’t wait until they’re here to discover the secrets behind this historic resort, here is Part Three: Sun Valley Resort. For the complete series click here

The Red Barn once belonged to the Brass Ranch, on which Sun Valley Resort was built

STOP ONE: Take Sun Valley Road from the Lodge towards Ketchum and stop at the bright Red Barn on your left just before you reach the city. This barn is all that remains of the original Brass Ranch on which the resort was built. Used by the Brass family as a granary and machine shed, it is now an iconic image of Sun Valley. In January 1936, a week or so after Count Felix Schaffgotsch arrived in town and deemed the area “perfect” for a million-dollar ski resort, he bumped into Roberta Brass sitting on a fence pole near this very spot. “This is it,” he told her. “This is where Union Pacific is going to put in a ski resort. Next year at this time there will be a thousand people here.” Two months later Roberta’s father Ernest sold the family’s 3,888-acre sheep and cattle ranch to the railroad company for $39,000, or about $10 an acre. Construction of the Lodge began in May of that year, and its doors opened eight months later.

STOP TWO: Travel a few hundred yards along Sun Valley Road toward the Lodge and turn right down a dirt road to the Sun Valley Stables. It was here the Sun Valley Rodeo enjoyed its brief life. Having given little advance thought to what it would do with a ski resort during the summer, Union Pacific quickly whipped up a rodeo grandstand in the spring of 1937 and Sun Valley hosted its first Wild West rodeo on August 14. It proved too expensive however, and once visitors discovered the real draws of Sun Valley in the summer, the gimmick was no longer needed. The rodeo ended its regular run with the closing of the resort for WWII in 1942 and the stands were finally torn down in the late fifties.

STOP THREE: Continue east a mile or so along Sun Valley Road past the Lodge to the magnificent Sun Valley Club. Built in 2008, this 58,000 square foot clubhouse provides a luxurious base from which to access 27 of the resort’s 45 golf holes in the summer, and 25 miles of Nordic trails in the winter. Union Pacific was quick to spot the importance of golf to a resort, starting work on the Sun Valley golf course in the fall of 1937. Designed by William P. Bell, it opened in the summer of 1938.

STOP FOUR: Walk through the clubhouse and out to the expansive patio, where you will enjoy what is arguably the best view of Bald Mountain and Dollar Mountain in the valley. While it now stands as the centerpiece of Sun Valley Resort, Bald Mountain was not the initial attraction. When Schaffgotsch first arrived in the Wood River Valley, at the end of his six-week, 7,000 mile odyssey across the West in search of the ideal spot to build Harriman’s ski resort, it was the gentle inclines of Dollar, Proctor and Ruud mountains that caught his eye. He certainly noticed the “bald” mountain, but deemed it too advanced for the majority of skiers in America, where the sport was still in its infancy. He was wrong. Although lifts didn’t open on Baldy until December 23, 1939, even in the first season guests attempted to tackle its 3,400-foot vertical rise using the services of an early snowcat named “the tank.”

STOP FIVE: A few hundred yards further along Sun Valley Road look for a sign on your right pointing to the Hemingway Memorial. Take the trail down the hill and discover one of the most tranquil spots on the valley’s floor. A bronze bust of Ernest Hemingway sits there, presiding over the trickling Trail Creek. Inscribed on the memorial is part of a eulogy Hemingway delivered for the man who brought him to Sun Valley in 1939. Gene Van Guilder was a publicist for the resort and an avid outdoorsmen. He introduced Hemingway to the excellent hunting and fishing in the area, but tragically was shot in a hunting accident a few weeks after the author arrived at Sun Valley. A notoriously shy public speaker, Hemingway surprisingly agreed to write and deliver Van Guilder’s eulogy, perhaps an indication of how comfortable he felt at Sun Valley. Sadly, Hemingway’s association with Sun Valley ended with his suicide in 1961. He is buried in the Ketchum Cemetery a mile or so from this spot.

STOP SIX: Walk back up to Sun Valley Road and take in the mountains suddenly towering over you to the south. Proctor and Ruud in front of you, and Dollar to your right, were the first mountains in the valley developed for skiing. But it was on Proctor Mountain that skiing history was made. Named for Charlie Proctor, the American Nordic Olympian who together with Schaffgotsch selected the skiing terrain, the mountain was home to the world’s first chairlift. Sun Valley’s publicist Steve Hannagan greatly disliked skiing, and hated cold even more, so he constantly looked for ways to make the experience more comfortable. One of his better ideas was the concept of mechanical devices to take people to the top of the mountain. Putting the vast engineering knowledge of Union Pacific to work, the idea of a chairlift was born. Engineer James M. Curran’s previous experience building a device to load bananas onto a ship inspired him to create a people-carrying version, and the world’s first chairlift was installed on Proctor in December of 1936. The second was completed a few weeks later on Dollar. A J-bar lift was also installed on Proctor Mountain in 1936, but it was moved to Ruud Mountain and refitted with chairs the next year. That lift is the only one that still stands, and it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It can be visited via a short, but steep hike. From where you stand however, if there is no snow on the ground, you can just make out the original, decaying poles from that first chairlift on Proctor jutting up out of the hillside.

STOP SEVEN: Head further up Sun Valley Road to the newly remodeled Sun Valley Gun Club on your left. First situated along what is now Fairway Road across from the Sun Valley Lake, the gun club was constructed from the Hot Potato Hut that once warmed chilly skiers at the top of Proctor Mountain. That original structure is still part of the club, but the addition of marble bathrooms and other amenities has greatly increased the building’s luxury factor. Skeet shooting was once the most popular summertime activity at Sun Valley and the club hosted many internationally accredited shooting competitions. The addition in 1940 of Carl Bradsher, an internationally known skeet instructor from the exclusive Pennsylvania Rolling Rock Club, helped in generating interest in the sport. Today, that interest remains high, and the gun club claims the honor of teaching more beginners than any other club in the country.

STOP EIGHT: Opposite the gun club is the entrance to Trail Creek Cabin. Opened in January 1939 to create a destination for Sun Valley’s jingling scarlet and yellow bobsleighs, the cabin embraced all the rustic Western atmosphere that the Lodge lacked. Built not out of concrete but from real logs brought down off Galena Summit, it boasted a small coffee bar, a whitewashed kitchen where host August Jacobsen turned out pies and hot biscuits, and a fire that was always burning. Today, you can take a seasonal sleigh or hay ride to the cabin and enjoy dinner surrounded by the same spectacular beauty that Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn enjoyed when they had their pre-wedding dinner here in March of 1939. 

The history of Sun Valley is a rich tapestry that weaves the birth of America’s fascination with skiing, the glamor of the overlapping worlds of Hollywood stars and East Coast socialites, and the shadow of international disaster, into the creation of a vibrant and special community in Idaho’s high desert. This introductory tour merely scratches the surface of the fascinating events, amusing anecdotes and historical milestones to be tracked in this isolated valley. To read more about Sun Valley, its history and its characters, pick up a copy of The Sun Valley Story by Van Gordon Sauter. As Clint Eastwood wrote in his foreword “This book captures the magic and the tradition and a whole lot more.”

Written and researched by Jennifer Tuohy

Click here for Part One: The Sun Valley Lodge

Click here for Part Two: The Sun Valley Village 

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