From Boom To Boom

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Park City, Utah, where much of this winter’s Olympics will happen, is a two-boom town. It rode its first boom as a mining center for almost a century before the ore finally became too expensive to extract, at which point, in the 1960s, the heads of the declining mining companies decided that the future still lay in the surrounding mountains, and cannily remade their deeply tunneled and at the time heavily scarred slopes into ski areas, triggering a second birth of prosperity. Park City was once one of the biggest, if not most celebrated, Western mining towns, but it’s far bigger now. There’s still plenty of the old town to see there, even—or most of all—out on the slopes, where you can ski past the ghostly remains of tunnel entrances, ore bins, and miners’ boardinghouses, remnants of a lost civilization that are clearly identified for you as you schuss past.

Even before September 11, the people in Park City, Utah, were worried that they’d have fewer visitors this winter; people would think the Winter Olympics would take over the place, since many of the main events will be held at the three big ski resorts there, but in fact the Olympics will use only a tiny fraction of the thousands of skiable acres and thousands of hotel rooms, and the Utah ski season will continue well into the spring, when the Olympics are long gone.

Surrounded by high mountains on three sides, Park City is less than an hour from a major international airport, but it was a remote wilderness when a Mormon settler named Parley Pratt and a small number of Saints, newly arrived in Utah, began grazing their livestock in its meadows in 1847. Prospectors for the U.S. Army came over a high pass into the valley in 1868, just as a group of private ore seekers also showed up, and by 1871 the first silver shipments had begun.

In 1872 one of the legendary figures of the West, George Hearst, got involved. Having made his first fortune in San Francisco real estate during the Gold Rush and his second at the Comstock Lode in Nevada, Hearst paid $27,000 to buy a claim in Ontario Canyon, above Park City, as the little community of Parley’s Park was soon renamed. The mine he built there went on to produce more than $50 million over its lifetime and contribute a good part of the wealth that Hearst’s son, William Randolph, would use to become the most powerful newspaperman of all time. The descendant of Hearst’s mine is still there, mainly a real estate firm now, but it was working its mines as recently as 1984, and it stands ready for action again if the price of silver rises high enough.

In the 1870s, Park City’s population shot from less than 200 to 3,000, and the newcomers brought with them competing claims, lawsuits, mine disasters, fires, and other havoc. The town had already become, as it remains today, a very un-Mormon spot in Mormon country. The editor of its newspaper was rabidly anti-Mormon, its mine workers were mostly Catholic immigrants who lived in boardinghouses until the early 1900s, and saloons and whorehouses lined the streets. Beautiful Silver Lake, up in the mountains, was emptied by the draining of mines (it is now the mid-mountain area at Deer Valley), and the stream that flowed down through town from it, Silver Creek, came to be known as Poison Creek. Along the banks of Poison Creek lay a typical Western Chinatown.

Park City is entirely wholesome now, though a waitress at the Morning Ray Café assured me that the restaurant’s owners sometimes are rebuked by pious Utahns for opening on Sundays. But Main Street is still as unordinary an environment as it was in the 1870s and 1880s. Now, in place of brothels and saloons, there are expensive restaurants, gift shops, condo sales offices, Western art galleries, fudge stands, and ice-cream parlors.

The original Park City was mostly false-front wooden buildings. It was platted by someone far away who didn’t understand it was practically in a ravine, and some of the side streets had to be built as wooden staircases linking the avenue. There are still wooden staircases, and the town still has the semi-improvised feel that you find only in the West, but the hectic original version was swept away, inevitably, by fire.

PARK CITY WAS CALLED A GHOST TOWN BEFORE SOME MINE OPERATORS DECIDED TO BUILD A SKI RESORT.

That happened in 1898, close on the heels of a plunge in silver prices that almost crippled the town. No one knows how the fire started, but it roared up Main Street and destroyed almost everything. An indestructible local legend insists that a piano player pulled his instrument out of a saloon during the blaze and banged out “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” as the flames flew. People wondered if the town would ever recover. It did right away. Almost all the buildings that now stand were built in the following years; an exception is the old Union Pacific station, which survived the fire and is now a restaurant called Zoom Roadhouse Grill that is owned by Robert Redford and specializes in macaroni and cheese (but has plenty else to eat, including a black Angus rib-eye steak and a portobellomushroom sandwich for vegetarians).