Top 50 Stories: 1936 — Sun Valley, U.S. resort model

It ushered in the era of destination ski areas, set Idaho tourism standard

rphillips@idahostatesman.comJune 20, 2014 

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There's often debate about which is the best destination ski resort in the U.S., but there's no debate about which was first.

Sun Valley opened Dec. 21, 1936, with celebrities, politicians and dignitaries on hand, and it set the standard and template for the modern ski resort.

The lodge was the "keystone of a 3,300-acre ranch and the steppingstone to vast countryside offering unlimited territory for extended conquests by winter sports-loving adventurers," according to a Dec. 20, 1936, Statesman article.

The resort was developed by W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, to boost traffic on passenger trains heading to the West.

He modeled Sun Valley after resorts in the Swiss Alps, and brought Europeans over to help run it.

The resort cost $1.5 million by a "conservative estimate of Union Pacific officials," the Statesman reported, and construction employed "500 men on the hotel proper."

By comparison, $1.5 million in Sun Valley today would get you a three-bedroom, three-bath house.

Sun Valley Resort combined ski amenities, such as the world's first ski lift and European ski instructors, with fine dining, heated swimming pools and year-round ice skating.

Sun Valley's original ski lift was inspired by a conveyor used to unload bananas from ships.

The resort's grand opening in 1936 drew Errol Flynn, Claudette Colbert and Joan Bennett, among others, and featured music by Harl Smith's New York Orchestra.

Among the dignitaries were Idaho Gov. C. Ben Ross and Sen. William Borah.

The guest list included people from New York, Chicago, Omaha, Hollywood, Palm Springs, Boston, Seattle and Milwaukee.

Sun Valley is still going strong 78 years later. The resort and town still attract celebrities and politicians, including Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Secretary of State John Kerry.

The area has produced a long line of Olympians, including snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington, who brought home a gold medal from the Sochi Olympics in February.

Lest you think dry winters are a modern phenomenon, the ground was bare of snow for Sun Valley's grand opening on Dec. 21, 1936.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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