Alta today is known throughout the sports world as a premiere resort destination for serious skiers, with its high altitude and fine, paper-dry powder that drifts down over the Wasatch. But in the 1930s, it was just an idea. Bringing that transformation about took the vision and dedication of a large number of people. The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club played its own role in this, and in helping Utah skiing become world famous.
As early as 1931, a visiting officer from Fort Douglas suggested to the Chamber’s board of governors that it should interest itself in winter sports, such as a ski run or toboggan slide, “as there is no reason why Salt Lake City should not be the winter headquarters of all the Western States.” At that, a member politely pointed out that the Chamber was already involved, and had sponsored two ski tournaments with the Utah Ski Club.
As told by skier and ski historian Alan Engen, in 1936 Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian, was retained by Union Pacific principal Averell Harriman to find a site for a future winter sports recreation area. S. J. (Joe) Quinney, a Salt Lake attorney, civic leader, and ski enthusiast, showed him several sites in Utah, but ultimately Sun Valley, Idaho, was chosen.
Disappointed, Quinney helped organize the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association in 1937 with the goal of establishing a modestly priced ski area in Utah. Previously, in 1935, Alf Engen had been hired by the U.S. Forest Service to scout out winter sports sites in Utah and found Alta, where George H. Watson, the self-appointed mayor of one, had been buying up old mines and claims. For one dollar, he gave his deeds to the Forest Service for recreational use, and the Forest Service then gave its approval to the Winter Sports Association.
They raised $10,000 (or about $128,000 in 2002 dollars) to build the nation’s second chair lift (after Sun Valley) by selling four shares of stock at $25 a share to 100 investors. Work got underway in 1938 and it was ready for use in January 1939. “Skiers paid 15 cents a ride, or $1.50 a day to sit down and be carried 2,630 feet up the mountain. That first year only 265 skiers took the adventure,” reported the Deseret News.
The Chamber already had its own Winter Sports Committee, which had been cooperating closely with the Winter Sports Association in its goal of promoting skiing. In 1939, the Chamber announced that the Denver
& Rio Grande Railroad would invest $25,000 to help Alta develop as a ski resort (or about $325,000 in 2002 dollars). Years later, Gus P. Backman, executive secretary of the Chamber, looked back on those days when members like Stewart Cosgriff were deeply involved in both the Winter Sports Association and the Chamber’s committee work. “He, together with a small group, obtained a grant from the D&RG when Wilson McCarthey was president… . We immediately proceeded and built the first unit of the Alta Lodge (which opened in 1940). Then we built the Watson Shelter (named after “Mayor” George Watson) at the top of the lift.
“Later on, in conjunction with Mr. Herb Landes, we built the ski jump up at Alta, and in addition to that, we did a material amount of work in the development of parking areas,” recalled Backman. H.D. Landes gave $10,000 to build the ski jump as a memorial to his son, Robert J. Landes, who was killed in action aboard a naval destroyer.
Backman added, “On top of all of that, each year we have given to the University of Utah $450 to $500…to provide a ski scholarship.”
And, he concluded with apparent satisfaction, “How much of the $25,000 do you think we still have? We have every red cent of it.” That was in 1970, when Alta was already well on its way to world renown.
The Chamber’s interest wasn’t confined to Alta. The Salt Lake Tribune commented on the Chamber’s fiftieth anniversary that the Chamber of Commerce, “through the activity of its winter sports committee, obtained the cooperation of the National Forest Service in the expansion and development of all of the winter sports areas throughout the state.”
And one day, the Chamber would dream of bringing the Winter Olympic games to Utah. But that’s another story entirely.
Sources: Alan K. Engen, For the Love of Skiing, (Gibbs-Smith, Layton, 1998) 27, 73, 98. “Alta: Mining and Skiing Center” and “Skiing in Utah” in Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press: 1999), 7, 500. Deseret News, 18, 19 January 1989. The Salt Lake Tribune, 17 February 1952. Gus Backman typescript, 1 July 1970, and Board of Governors minutes, 1931, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.