As we prepare for the annual Christmas festivities here in the Valley, there is no better time to reflect on the beginning of the Sun Valley Resort, which included triumphs, toils, and a Christmas extravaganza packed with so many Hollywood celebrities and socialites, it would have made the Golden Globes look like your office Christmas party. So put on some cozy socks, put another log on the fire, and take a trip down memory lane to Christmas of 1936, and the grand opening of the Sun Valley Resort.

In the early days of the 20th century, the sport of skiing hadn’t quite caught on in the Western Hemisphere, as the majority of the skiable terrain in the world was found in the central European Alps. Germany, Switzerland, and Austria boasted what was, at the time, the best conditions for snow sports in the world. Most Americans viewed skiing as a luxurious endeavor that only the affluent could enjoy—one that required you to travel the length of the Atlantic Ocean, camp in extremely remote alpine areas for weeks at a time and then learn how to properly ski, all with very little guidance from the German-speaking locals. For most Americans, it was simply out of the question.

Averell Harriman, though, had foreseen a tremendous boom in snow sports—if only a ski resort in the U.S. were to be built on par with the great resorts of Europe. The chairman of the mighty Union Pacific Railroad Company, Harriman developed plans to build a new, exclusive snow resort; he just had to figure out where to put it. Harriman hired an Austrian nobleman, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, widely regarded as a charming man and a supposed skiing expert, to set out on a journey in 1935 to find an area with conditions that would provide ideal for a steep, powdery, and, most importantly, sunny place to set up a winter paradise in the United States. After searching all over the Northwest, Herr Schaffgotsch had found himself and his entourage in a little town called Ketchum, Idaho. The Count was pleased to find ample sunshine, along with dry, light snow, according to Van Gordon Sauter’s history, “The Sun Valley Story.” He had found his spot. Harriman decided to purchase a chunk of land for the Union Pacific Railroad Co., nearly 4,000 acres. Seven months later, the company had announced that work was under way for a ski resort on a scale never before seen in the U.S., Sauter wrote, with a planned $1,500,000 ($29,847,733 in today’s dollars) lodge that would rival any of the great European chalet.

A look back at Sun Valley's first Christmas, 1936 skiers

Some of Sun Valley's first skiers and instructors take to the snow in 1936.

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