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George Watson

Hall of Fame Class of 1969

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A true character in the heritage of American skiing, George Watson, prospector turned skiing enthusiast, donated 1800 acres of land to the Federal Government – enabling the development of the historic Utah ski area and resort of Alta.

George Watson would certainly qualify as one of those colorful characters whose story enriches our appreciation for America’s skiing heritage. Born in Michigan in 1883, he went out to the silver fields around Park City, Utah in 1902 to seek his fortune. Snow has always been bountiful in that part of the west and skiing in the winter months was a natural and necessary activity taken up by the miners, many of whom were of Scandinavian descent. So too began George’s 50 year career in skiing.

As the silver started to play out George took the opportunity to buy up many of the abandoned mining claims. By 1930 he found himself in possession of approximately 80 claims, compromising hundreds of acres of land to which he held both the mineral and surface rights. He also found himself virtually alone in the Little Cottonwood Canyon and the ghost town of Alta. Always a terrific promoter of just about anything, George had himself elected of what he called “romantic Alta”. Reading through a sports magazine gave him the idea that his properties might be just the sort of place(s) that would be attractive to the growing numbers of skiing enthusiasts and he sent out over 200 letters throughout the United States and Europe to verify his dream.

George had other problems. He owed money to creditors who had backed his efforts to purchase the mining claims and he had a mounting tax obligation. At the same time there was an opportunity as people in the Intermountain Region were becoming more interested in skiing as participants rather than as spectators at the traditional jumping contests. The U.S. Forest Service was interested as well but was concerned about protecting people from the snow avalanches that were very much a common occurrence in the Cottonwood Canyon area. They retained the services of the legendary Alf Engen to scout it out, a project that most certainly would have been encouraged by Watson. Engen, along with other skiing pioneers like Bud Keyser and Mike O’Neil, in 1934 made strong recommendations that the Alta area had all the qualifications for an outstanding ski resort. There were two potential obstacles: the Forest Service did not control the land, George Watson did and a strong organization with funding would be needed to start a ski operation that far up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The organizational problem was resolved by the founding of the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association headed up by S. Joe Quinney, a highly successful businessman in the area. On May 4, 1937 Watson, representing his Alta United Mining Company, conveyed the title to some 80 mining claims representing 1800 acres of land to the U.S. Forestry Service. To do this he had spent thousands of dollars of his own money to clear the titles. In return he was able to recover from his morass of delinquent tax payments and non-payment of claim mortgages to his creditors. Work to develop a new ski area could proceed. Such was the start of creating a series of ski resorts in an area that would eventually host the world as part of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Watson’s involvement did not end there. His ‘Mayor’s Cabin’ there became a famous and unique institution. Officially his residence during his visits to the ski area, it was also a gathering place for the ski clan and the faithful members of the Great American Prospectors’ Association. The register of visitor that he kept included all the famous skiers of the world. To this day, many remember his famous “skiball” cocktail – designed to provide inner and outer warmth to his guests. His famous hat with its unique assembly of pins and medals topped by a colorful feather will long be remembered by his countless friends wherever skier are and will be. The half century he spent at Alta, 1st searching for underground riches, then building on the surface an enduring monument for himself so the thousands of skiers who would come in years ahead will not forget.

Watson died in 1952. In his eulogy George Felix Koziol wrote: “Winters will come and go, storm will swirl around the great peaks and smooth alpine slopes of Alta; countless graceful ski tracks will show on Collins, Wildcat, Rustler and the skiers will know that the spirit of George H. Watson still hovers over his domain. It is as he liked it, as he wanted it.”

George H. Watson was elected to the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1969.

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