Idaho History

Sun Valley came into existence thanks to railroad chief, Austrian count and optimism

Say "Sun Valley," and many think of the endless list of celebrities who played there: Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe.

But the story behind Sun Valley could be a movie of its own.

In the fall of 1935, Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman sought to build a resort accessible from his railroad. Times were tough, but Harriman wanted to display optimism.

"The very fact it was a Depression is one of the reasons we wanted to do this," he said 40 years later.

He chose an Austrian, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, to pick the site. The count began his tour at Mt. Rainier in Washington, but he found it too crowded.

It rained when he visited Mt. Hood in Oregon; Yosemite in California and Alta in Utah would be crowded; Lake Tahoe had drawbacks; and Colorado's Aspen was too high.

At Jackson Hole, the count loved the scenery, the mountain and the snow. But the Wyoming highway department refused to keep the road over Teton Pass open in winter.

Escorted by Bill Hynes, a UP freight agent from Boise, the count spent a week in eastern Idaho, but again was dissatisfied.

Hynes was having a drink with Joe Stemmer, state highway director, and told him of his week of escorting the count and his skis. Stemmer asked if they'd seen Ketchum.

"I forgot," said Hynes.

"Hell's bells!" shouted Stemmer. "Get the count on the telephone in Denver and yank him into Ketchum, God's own choice for a ski resort."

The count returned, and they made it through a snowstorm to Ketchum. When word got out, locals were skeptical.

"Don't cash any of his checks," said Jack Lane, a merchant and sheep rancher.

After three days, Schaffgotsch wired Harriman: "This combines more delightful features than any place I have seen in the U.S., Switzerland, or Austria for a winter sports resort."

Harriman got the 220-room Sun Valley Lodge built for $1.5 million. It opened Dec. 21, 1936.

Jim Curran, a young UP engineer, invented the chairlift — an improvement over rope tows, J-bars and trams.

New York press agent Steve Hannagan coined the name Sun Valley and sold the package, using a shirtless skier wiping sweat from his face in the first Sun Valley poster.

Hannagan insisted on luxury, suggesting a bowling alley, opera house, ice rink and sleigh rides.

"When you get to Sun Valley," he wrote, "your eyes should pop open."

— Reprinted from: Idaho A Century of Pioneers, The Idaho Statesman Centennial Edition July 1, 1990.