January 25, 2002 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature - Dissecting Paradise 

Ketchum, Idaho works to involve community in Comprehensive Plan

Sun Valley Day Lodge
  • Sun Valley Day Lodge

Second in a series of articles on community issues in mountain resort towns.

"Seems like everybody is coming. We had our hundred years of solitude, and now the West is turning itself into a make-believe place where celebrities and tourists and retirees roam and find homes. Beverly Hills in the highlands… " — William Kittredge

The majority of western ski towns were first settled for mining or ranching, rather than for recreation or real estate pursuits. For these pioneers, life in the wilderness was extremely severe with no glamour or riches.

Ketchum, Idaho typified such western towns as from the 1820s to the 1930s it followed a cycle of boom and bust, first with silver and lead mining and later with livestock.

In 1935 the small, struggling town changed forever as W. Averell Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad created the first rail-accessed destination ski resort in the west. The wealthy entrepreneur sent Austrian Count Schaffgotsch to travel his rails in search of a perfect ski mountain valley and found Ketchum.

Harriman purchased the 4,000 acre Brass Ranch and then set out to create a resort that could rival St. Moritz and other great European mountain destinations. The success of Sun Valley was in part due to the beautiful Wood River Valley and the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains, but it also found its prosperity through an effective marketing campaign. The entire resort was intended to appeal to the movie star set. With the allure of the 250-room Sun Valley Lodge Hollywood celebrities filled the lodge for the inaugural 1936 New Year’s Eve gala.

"If you had the money to ski, you came here." (Dorice Taylor quoted in Hal K. Rothman’s Devil’s Bargain — Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West ).

Sun Valley was initially a popular winter resort for the wealthy, but by the late 1930s, with added summer amenities, Sun Valley became a year round destination. The legacy continued when Ernest Hemmingway arrived in 1939 and made the Wood River Valley his summer home, where it was said that he reviewed For Whom the Bell Tolls on the Lodge’s patio (Rothman).

By the 1940s there was the new and pretentious Sun Valley Resort neighbouring hard working, and hard living Ketchum. Although the two municipalities are just steps away from each other, their origins were miles apart. Ketchum has a historic downtown surrounded by neighbourhoods; Sun Valley has a luxury hotel surrounded by cul de sacs and condominiums. Despite the conflicting ideals of its younger and trendier sister, Ketchum has persevered and adapted to the community’s demographic changes. It has a diverse population with approximately 3,800 permanent residents comprised of generational families, ski bums, second homeowners, celebrities, entrepreneurs and service staff.

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