February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
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.
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).
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.