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FIRST EXPLORERS TO THE VALLEY
The earliest known written record of the Wood River Valley came from a beaver trapping expedition led by Alexander Ross in 1824:
“In the vicinity of our present encampment were the finest appearances of beaver we had yet seen...” “the place was promising, the weather fine and grass good, so that our worn-out horses both fed and rested.”
In 1860, gold was found in Central Idaho. By the winter of 1861-62, thousands of gold seekers were pouring into the Idaho mountains.
In 1870, prospectors searching for the next Mother Lode discovered silver and lead ores in the Galena area (approximately 25 miles north of present day Ketchum) and the first mining claims were filed -- the Gladiator and Senate mines.
Within nine years later a small “Tent City” had been established and was named Galena. In 1880, Galena boasted four general stores, several saloons, restaurants, a hotel, livery stores, a shoe store, sawmill, an icehouse and a post office. At its peak Galena had some 800 citizens and acted as a major stop for the stage lines that connected the various isolated mining towns deep in Idaho’s Central Rockies. Present day Galena Lodge, used year-round as a recreation site for many winter and summer sports, now stands near the original town site.
CHINESE CONTRIBUTION AND THE SHEEPEATER WAR
The burden of mine construction fell squarely on the backs of the thousands of Chinese that labored endlessly. Their dedication, loyalty and hard work ensured that the mines would be profitable.
As more Europeans arrived in the Wood River Valley to seek their fortunes in mining, hostilities heightened between the prospectors and the “Sheep-Eaters” -- the Native American Shoshone/Bannock nation. In 1879, the killing of five Chinese miners at Loon Creek was blamed on the Shoshoni/Sheepeaters, even though no reliable evidence linking the murders was found. The US Cavalry was called in to round up these “renegades,” beginning the Sheepeater War. The war ended with the capture of 51 men, women, and children who were resettled on the Fort Hall Reservation, near present day Pocatello. With the hostilities over and new smelting technology introduced, the area attracted merchants and families, and in 1879 the valley’s first permanent town of Bellevue was founded approximately 40 miles south of Galena.
Among the early prospectors was David Ketchum, who operated a pack train to serve the prospectors and merchants. Assisted by a friend from Montana, Albert Griffith, they built a shelter to protect their wares. This shelter was the first structure to be built in what was to become the city of Ketchum.
When the rush really began in 1880, Isaac Ives Lewis, one of Ketchum’s founding fathers, arrived by horse and wagon and brought with him an entire assay laboratory from Butte, Montana. Within weeks, several hundred people reached the site and the town of Ketchum was born. Soon after arriving, Isaac built the first road over Trail Creek summit and started operating Lewis Bros. Stage Lines to haul ore out of the mines and bring in supplies. His wagons were the largest in the state. Sixteen feet long, 15 feet high, and weighing 6,400 pounds, these wagons once carried more than 18,000 pounds of ore on a daily basis and were pulled by 20 mule teams. One of the wagons remains on display in Ketchum today.
Around the same time the Union Pacific Railroad was pushing the Oregon Short Line across southern Idaho from Ogden to Portland. The enormous amount of freight from the Valley, via wagons like the Lewis Bros. Stage Lines, was noted by the railroad and a branch line was built north from Shoshone, arriving at Hailey on May 7, 1883 and at Ketchum on August 19, 1884.
By the end of 1889, the town of Ketchum had over 2,000 residents, 13 saloons, 4 restaurants, two hotels, several bordellos, two banks, a drug store, a bookstore, a brewery, a weekly newspaper called the Ketchum Keystone, a lumberyard, three blacksmiths, six livery stables and seven stages per day. When the silver market crashed, resulting in many mine closures, most of the Ketchum residents left in search of greener pastures. However, because of the railroad, a new industry was born in Ketchum -- sheep.
SHEEP HERDING PREVAILS
It is said that John Hailey brought the first sheep into the Wood River Valley in the late 1860’s. As that time, Idaho recorded a breeding sheep population of 14,000. As the mines began to play out in the Valley, the sheep industry filled an increasingly large role in the local economy. By 1890 there were a reported 614,000 sheep in Idaho. In 1918 the sheep population in Idaho reached 2.65 million, almost six times the state’s human population. During this time, thousands of lambs were shipped by railroad from Picabo, Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum to markets around the west. As a major sheep center, Ketchum was second only to Sydney, Australia.
As Sun Valley was opening its winter ski resort in 1936, sheepman Jack Lane was holding fort at his general store in Ketchum. It served as the sheep center where ranchers congregated, swapped stories about the prices and weather, and still stands today, as Starbucks, at Main Street and Sun Valley Road.
From the area of north central Spain and southwestern France where the Bay of Biscay meets the western range of the Pyrenees Mountains, the Basques arrived in southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon in the late 1880s to herd sheep and work in mines and timber. In a few years, many Basques formed their own sheep and cattle businesses, and a few became wealthy. Others moved into cities and towns and took up a wide variety of jobs. Basque women and children came to Idaho as soon as the men were well established. Young men continued to come, usually starting their lives in America as herders. The largest concentration of Basque people in the United States is in Southern Idaho.
Today as in the early part of the century, sheep migrate north each spring from the Snake River plain of Southern Idaho region, traveling in bands of close to 1,500 sheep, through the Wood River Valley to summer high mountain pastures. This traditional route takes them up Highway 75 through residential areas and the towns of Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum. Some continue their journey over Galena summit into the Sawtooth Mountains. In the fall, the animals retrace this trail south to desert fields. In October of 1997 the first annual “Trailing of the Sheep Celebration” was held.
Ketchum continued as a small sleepy sheep town until Averell Harriman purchased the Brass Ranch in 1936 and developed the first destination Ski Resort in the United States.
SUN VALLEY’S BEGINNING
In the 1920s, businessman, diplomat, and former New York governor Averell Harriman was the Chairman of the Union Pacific Board of Directors, and he was looking for a way to attract train passengers to the west. Impressed with the Swiss ski resorts of St. Moritz and Gstaad, Harriman struck on the idea of developing America’s first grand destination ski resort, which tourists would visit using the Union Pacific Railroad.
In 1935, Harriman sent Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch off on an odyssey to investigate potential sites throughout the west and northwest, but the Count found nothing with the proper ingredients. Just as he was about to abandon the search and head back to the east, Schaffgotsch learned of the beauty of the area around Ketchum. It was the middle of January when the Count arrived in Ketchum, guided by a local lad. The Count fell under the area’s enchantment of wide open slopes, sunny blue skies, and dry powder snow at his favored altitude, with the benefit of the Smoky and Sawtooth mountain ranges to help shield from the cold west winds. He wired Harriman exhilarated and within days Harriman purchased the 4,300 acre Brass Ranch located one mile east of Ketchum.
With the land secured and the physical infrastructure starting to be developed, Harriman began to publicize the area with the help of Steve Hannigan, a famed New York city public relations whiz. Hannigan coined the phrase “Sun Valley” and agreed with Harriman that it should be elegantly outfitted with haute cuisine, impeccable service, sophisticated culture and outstanding recreation. He invited the top celebrities of the day to Sun Valley, prompting Ernest Hemingway to nickname the Sun Valley Lodge "Glamour House." Sun Valley remains a celebrity hangout to this day.
THE FIRST DESTINATION SKI RESORT
To build the lavish resort, Harriman recruited the finest architects to ensure the grandeur which he sought. When Sun Valley opened, Harriman remarked, “It is not enough to build a hotel and mark it with flags and signs the things that you propose to do in time to come. When you get to Sun Valley, your eyes should pop open. There is not a single thing that I could wish for that has not been provided.”
Harriman’s quest for excellence, though, did not end with luxurious accommodations, heavenly cuisine and the swinging entertainment. He set the railroad’s engineering department in motion to produce the world’s first chairlift. Based on a hoist used to haul bananas into ship holds, the chairlift made its debut in Sun Valley. On December 23, 1936 the Sun Valley Lodge opened for its first winter season.
In 1964, Union Pacific sold the Sun Valley Resort to the Janss Corporation after its board decided that the time had come to run the railroad not the resort. Like his predecessor, Bill Janss aimed to make Sun Valley the country’s foremost destination resort, only he would do so within the demographic trends of his time. At this time, the most significant changes done to the area were the 575 condominiums that were built during 1965 and 1977. Janss also expanded the shopping village and restaurants to ensure the needs of young sports-minded families.
THE “RENAISSANCE” ERA
In 1977, the Janss corporation sold Sun Valley Resort to the Little America family, under the ownership of R. Earl Holding.
Since then, Mr. Holding has embarked on furthering the standard of elegance and excellence, investing over $125 million into the resort in the last 20 years. For the golden anniversary in 1986, Mr. Holding undertook lavish refurbishment of the Sun Valley Lodge, Duchin Bar, Gretchen’s Restaurant and the hotel rooms in the lodge. In 1992, and again in 2004, every guestroom in the Sun Valley Lodge and Inn was redecorated. For the 1992 ski season, the 16,360 square foot log and stone Warm Springs Day Lodge opened offering gourmet dining with a relaxing atmosphere. December of 1993 brought the opening of the Seattle Ridge Lodge atop Baldy, a 17,000 square foot structure of logs and glass perched on a mountain top ridge at 9,100 ft. The River Run Day Lodge;a 30,000 square foot day lodge of log, river rock, and marble opened for the 1995-96 ski season on the River Run side of Bald Mountain. The newest and grandest one of them all is Carol's Dollar Mountain Lodge, which opened at the base of Dollar Mountain in 2004.
Throughout this time of intensive capital improvements, Mr. Holding upgraded not only the facilities on the mountains but also the skiing experience at Sun Valley itself. In addition to having a total of seven high-speed quads, making lift lines a rarity, and a first-rate grooming operation, Sun Valley has the world’s largest computer-controlled snowmaking system, guaranteeing fresh powder each morning.