From Boom To Boom

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Mining had its ups and downs in the twentieth century, and early on there were periods when the biggest force in the local economy seemed to be “Mother” Rachel Urban, who oversaw a row of 16 little brothel houses at the far end of town. Whenever she was busted, she’d pay double her fines, both to keep herself in business and to help keep Park City afloat. Eventually, labor wars started to seem more enduring than the mining itself. The old city hall is now the local historical museum, and in the basement you can visit a jail cell whose wall was painstakingly decorated by an inmate with the insignia of the Industrial Workers of the World—the old radical Wobblies —done in smoke.

As the mines declined, skiers started creeping in. The first were Scandinavian miners getting to work in a way they were familiar with, and in the 1930s the Works Progress Administration cleared a ski run at the base of what was then the Park Consolidated Mine and is now Deer Valley Resort. By 1951, things were so quiet that Park City was included in a book titled Ghost Towns of the West . Then, in the early 1960s, a group of mine operators, in extremity, applied for a grant to build a ski resort.

The first ski area to open was the Treasure Mountain Recreation Center, now Park City Mountain Resort. Its slopes were spotted with old mine buildings and structures, and for a while it even used a mine-tunnel train and elevator as a ski lift. Soon other developers opened additional ski resorts down the valley. Main Street, which had been paved only in the 1950s, started to pick up; untouched saloons as old as the century got remodeled to look more like people’s idea of a Western saloon.

Deer Valley, the newest of the three ski resorts, opened in 1980, and a year later Robert Redford inaugurated his Sundance Film Festival, which takes place in several towns, including Park City. Since then, the growth has been explosive. In the mining days, the population peaked at around 10,000; today, more than 25,000 people live in Park City and the surrounding hills and valleys, in a sprawl that can seem as improvised and uncontrolled as anything a century back. A few dedicated locals have worked hard to keep the past alive amid the present boom, and plaques up and down Main Street, as well as a walking-tour leaflet, can open a window in time for the visitor, but the best visiting with history is to be done up on the mountains and on skis, especially at Park City Mountain Resort.

Both Park City and Deer Valley offer daily ski tours of the slopes; the former’s is also a historical tour, and it is led by devoted volunteers with a taste for local history. When I took the tour, we started up the Payday and Bonanza lifts—named, like almost all the lifts and trails, for mines—and on the way talked about how when this place was being worked, it was empty of trees and littered with machinery and mining debris, while inside of it ran much of the 1,200 miles of tunnels that reached beneath the mountains and the town. At the foot of the Bonanza Lift, my two guides pointed out the home of the Silver King Mine, one of the biggest. More than 300 men lived in three boardinghouses there, partway up the mountain, and some of the wooden structures still stand, now with a rustic loveliness amid the snow-covered trees on pristine slopes. A large explanatory sign that reproduced a couple of old photographs helped us connect present and past at the spot.

From the top of the Bonanza Lift, near the peak of the mountain, we headed down the Claim Jumper Trail to see the old King Con Ore Bin of the Silver King Consolidated Mine, in a spot once jumbled with boardinghouses, offices, hoisting works powered by huge steam engines, and tramways. An expert run named Widow Maker is called that not because of sporting difficulty but because miners sometimes used to slip and be crushed by the ore they had just unclogged at an ore bin there.

After another lift ride up to the summit, we skied past the Mid-Mountain Lodge, an old boardinghouse moved from the Silver King site that now serves chili and pizza and cocoa to skiers. Almost everywhere we saw shacks and heaps of brownish mine-waste rock that time and glistening sunlight made look downright lovely, as well as spectacular mountain views. And the skiing was great.

You can, if you want, take the Town Lift from those slopes right in and out of downtown; it runs next to a line of towers from an old ore-carrying gondola system. But don’t enter town that way without first pausing to look at the sprawl from above, the condos growing uncontrolled up the hillsides, the ramshackle houses still close together on some of the old streets, the clusters of ongoing development. It’s the 1990s’ and 2000s’ counterpart to the boomtown growth of the 1880s and 1890s, an otherwise unlikely settlement drawing its existence from its remarkable natural surroundings while almost threatening to overtake them, a whole economy again built upon exactly one activity carried on up on the slopes. There has never been a reason to be in Park City if you weren’t mining then or pursuing outdoor recreation now. Its success comes from how extremely good it has been in its time for both, and just as it depended on a strike or a rich vein then, so it depends on a cold winter and snow today.

And so Park City has begun a second boom that just might last the near-century that the first one did. And for all anyone knows, mining may even come back. It has happened before.

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