PARK CITY — On Dec. 21, 1963 — 50 years ago this Saturday — a man by the name of William P. Sullivan, the mayor of Park City, wielded a pair of outsize scissors and cut the ceremonial ribbon that officially opened Treasure Mountains Playland.
Today it’s known as Park City Mountain Resort.
Only about 500 people showed up for the opening day, largely because there was more grass than snow showing at the new ski resort’s base. And also because few were prescient enough to foresee that the salvation of Park City was on top of the mountains.
For a hundred years, ever since U.S. Army regulars from Fort Douglas struck it rich prospecting on Flagstaff Mountain in the 1860s, Park City owed its existence to what was in the mountains. In one of the richest hauls in American mining history, some $500 million worth of silver came out of Park City mines, creating 23 millionaires back when being a millionaire meant something.
But by the 1950s the mines were played out, so played out that the coalition that owned them, a company called United Park City Mines, applied to the federal government for a low-interest loan available only to depressed areas looking for relief.
The miners applied for $1,232,000 to open a ski resort, an enterprise they figured might get them by at least until the price of lead and zinc improved. They got the loan, so the story goes, because Jack Gallivan, publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune and a nephew of Sen. Thomas Kearns, one of those 23 Park City millionaires, was friends with President John F. Kennedy, who made sure the application got special attention.
The terms were a 4 percent interest rate for 25 years on the $1.2 million. Today, people in Park City call that a house mortgage.
The bulk of the money, more than $600,000, was spent on a 2½-mile gondola that would carry skiers four at a time from the base to the 9,300-foot summit. A mile-long chairlift, called Prospector, was erected below the summit, along with two J-bars at the base and a nine-hole golf course.
All this was built in 193 days from May to December of 1963.
Park City people, down but not out, were hopeful. As an old-timer named Mel Fletcher famously reminisced to author Kristen Smart Rogers, “We had the mountains, the elevation, they (UPCM) owned the ground, and there were no environmentalists to tell them they couldn’t cut a tree down.”
In another quote for the ages, Seth K. “Red” Droubay, general manager of UPCM, stood up at a town meeting while construction was in high gear in the summer of ’63 and told the townspeople: “If you can hang on, hang on, because your property will be worth a lot of money someday.”
At the time, miner’s cabins in Old Town were selling for $500 back taxes.
Today, those cabins, or the land they once stood on, sell for $500,000.
But who knew? Back then, locals looked at the price of a day pass — $4.50 — as highway robbery. In 2013, a day pass costs $102.
The 1963 grand opening was originally scheduled for Dec. 1. But there wasn’t enough snow, and no one made snow back then, so the big day was put off for three weeks, when there still wasn’t much snow, but Christmas was just around the corner and the interest on that loan just kept growing.
Many who attended opening day rode the gondola to the summit and then back again, never touching the ground.
The gondola no longer exists. It was discontinued in 1997, replaced by the six-passenger high-speed lifts Payday and Bonanza, which whisk skiers and boarders to the summit much faster and without wind delays. The two-person Prospector Lift is now the Silverlode six-pack, one of the resort’s 16 chairlifts.
As for those old miners, they faded from the picture rather quickly. Running a ski resort was different than running a silver mine. For seven seasons they failed to turn a profit, and by the eighth, 1970-71, they were happy to sell their resort holdings — although they held onto much of their land — to New Orleans businessman Edgar Stern Jr.
The resort they started has gone on to host numerous World Cups and the 2002 Olympics, is the training area for the U.S. Ski Team and is recognized as one of the world’s premier ski and snowboard resorts. And it’s been some time now since anyone called the surrounding area depressed.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]