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 

Sun Valley Movie History: The Hollywood Connection

This week the second annual Sun Valley Film Festival comes to town. In honor of the event and the enduring bond between Hollywood and Sun Valley it represents, The Valley Sun blog is running a series of movie history posts by guest blogger Jennifer Tuohy. For more on the festival, which runs March 14 through March 17, visit sunvalleyfilmfestival.org.

Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert chat on the slopes of Sun Valley in the early '50s. The two were among the celebrities to visit Sun Valley in its opening season and, like many of their contemporaries, returned year after year to their favorite ski resort.

At 11 o’clock on a chilly Wednesday morning, a slender figure clad in a long camel hair coat dashed across the platform of Los Angeles’s Central Station and slipped onto the waiting train. Hidden beneath a ski cap, the irresistible eyes of Hollywood’s most famous leading lady, Greta Garbo, smiled mockingly back at the waiting photographers and newsmen, whom she had manage to evade.

It was December 30th, 1936, and the train was filled to overflowing with Hollywood’s elite on their way to ring in the New Year at a glamorous new winter wonderland nestled in the heart of Central Idaho. Once inside the special Union Pacific train, Ms. Garbo took her seat alongside the assembly of glittering stars and powerful men, including film noir femme fatale Joan Bennett, swashbuckler Errol Flynn, America’s sweetheart Claudette Colbert, Hitchcock heroine  Madeleine Carroll, Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick and celebrated director George Cukor. As the “Sun Valley Special” pulled out of LA, beginning its 20-plus hour trek to the tiny town of Shoshone, Idaho, the passengers’ eventual destination was placed firmly on the map, and the special relationship between Hollywood and Sun Valley, America’s first destination ski resort, was born.

Of course, it was not by happy accident that this galaxy of stars had aligned itself to travel in style for a taste of America’s newest passion, skiing. It was the result of months of schmoozing and networking by three men, Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad company and founder of Sun Valley; Steve Hannagan, the larger-than-life publicity guru who sweetened the deal by promising stars they could write off their snowy vacation on their taxes if they posed for his photographers; and Count Felix Schaffgotsch, the charming Austrian nobleman who had found for Harriman a “St. Moritz in the Rockies.”

Although Sun Valley was originally envisioned by Harriman as a modest ski lodge for him and his wealthy East Coast buddies, the savvy Hannagan already had a handle on the power of celebrity. Having introduced the idea of the bathing beauty to the world with his enormously successful promotion of Miami Beach, America’s other destination vacation spot, Hannagan knew how important pretty pictures of celebrities cavorting on the slopes would be to the success of Sun Valley. So he convinced Harriman to tap his somewhat limited Hollywood connections to drum up interest in Sun Valley along the glamour-filled West Coast. Harriman sent his golden boy, Count Felix, off to California with specific instructions to gather as many celebrity bookings as possible.

“I am hopeful that we can get a big crowd from Hollywood,” Harriman said to Schaffgotsch on October 29, “and the kind that we want, if you are able to contact them and tell them the story in the vivid and enthusiastic way that you do.” Just a few days earlier he had dispatched letters to his connections, including Selznick, actor Gary Cooper and Hollywood heavy-hitters Samuel GoldwynMerian Cooper (King Kong producer), and Lewis Milestone (Oscar-winning director of All Quiet on the Western Front), in which he introduced the “Austrian boy who discovered Sun Valley,” and asked if they would “put him in touch with a few people who might be interested in hearing about [SunValley].”

Count Felix Schaffgotsch escorts actress Madeleine Carroll into the lodge in January 1937. At Harriman's request, the Count spent a week in Hollywood before the resort's opening charming stars and directors into booking rooms at Sun Valley.

Arriving in Los Angeles on a Friday night in November, the handsome Count proceeded to charm the pants off Hollywood society, securing large reservations from Selznick, Goldwyn and Cooper, as well as Paramount star Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin, among others. However, it was a chance conversation that planted the seeds for another, now deep-rooted connection between Sun Valley and the world of filmmaking.

On November 20th, 1936, after a long week of schmoozing starlets and chatting-up producers, Schaffgotsch sat down at the desk of his Beverly Wilshire hotel room to relay his successes to Harriman. Alongside the list of celebrity bookings, he described a conversation from that day with some Paramount executives. “They want to shoot a picture under the name of St. Moritz,” he wrote. “It was supposed to be taken in Lake Placid. But as it stands now, I have the feeling they will do it in Ketchum … It certainly would be excellent publicity if the first American snow picture will be done there, the title of St. Moritz is not definite yet, and it would be a good breack[sic], if they would change it to Sun Valley.”

While a name change was in the picture’s future it was not in Sun Valley’s favor and Idaho’s mountains merely stood in for their Swiss counterparts. Indeed, the movie’s eventual name, I Met Him in Paris, so detracted from its shooting locale that many erroneously believe Sun Valley Serenade to be the area’s first claim to movie-making fame. While Serenade, shot in 1941, certainly put the resort on the map, its star, Norwegian figure skater Sonja Heine, never actually shot a scene there, due to something familiar to many Sun Valliants – un-cooperative skies.

I Met Him in Paris was a moderately successful, lighthearted romantic comedy directed by Wesley Ruggles; today its biggest claim to fame is ironically its shooting location. As soon as the Paramount scouts arrived in Ketchum one a sunny December day, they fell in love with the place. “Paramount location men I talked to in Hollywood have arrived with others yesterday,” Schaffgotsch reported to Harriman on December 8, 1936. “They are crazy about the place. Producer Ruggles coming today; it is very likely picture will be turned here during January.”

The picture’s star, Claudette Colbert, was duly dispatched to the grand opening of Sun Valley Lodge on December 21, and, when she returned a few weeks later to “turn” the film, the friends she subsequently made cemented a long-lasting relationship between the actress and Sun Valley. I Met Him In Paris was actually filmed seven miles up the road from the lodge on land owned by a local silver prospector, 28 year-old Gus Anderson (Anderson appears in the movie as a skating waiter who serves Colbert a drink). The production crew built an entire Tyrolean village set on his Baker Creek property, complete with a Swiss-style lodge with overhanging eaves and carved balustrades, a little church and a skating rink with an ice-bar. After filming was complete the Andersons moved into the lodge, which today stands on the west side of the southern end of Ketchum’s Main Street.

A postcard of The Challenger Inn, modeled on the sets built for the first movie to be shot in Sun Valley, Caludette Colbert's I Met Him In Paris.

The other legacy the movie left behind however, is far grander. During the filming Harriman was contemplating the building of a second hotel at Sun Valley. He instructed Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the architects of Sun Valley Lodge, to draw up some sketches but was disappointed with the results (it looked exactly like the hotel he already had). As soon as he saw the elaborate Swiss village at Baker Creek he knew he’d found his new hotel. He asked the movie’s art director, Ernst Fegte, to come up with a design for a hotel. He complied, producing a series of sketches depicting an idyllic Tyrolean village perfectly evoking the Austrian ski towns Sun Valley was modeled on. Harriman was delighted and demanded the sketches come to life. This proved to be slightly tricky however, as Fegte was far from a trained architect. But with some tweaking the Challenger Inn was born. Now called the Sun Valley Inn, the hotel boasts a variety of different facades, giving the illusion of a classic Austrian village street when inside it is all one building – lending a touch of Hollywood magic to the heart of Sun Valley.

Jennifer Tuohy

Coming Wednesday in the Sun Valley Movie History series: “The Perfect Location” A look at all the motion pictures shot in the Sun Valley area from 1937 through to today.