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W. Averell Harriman

Hall of Fame Class of 1969

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Looking for a way to increase passenger loads for his Union Pacific Railway to the West, W. Averell Harriman came up with the idea of a first-class winter resort. From this idea, Sun Valley was born. It was a major achievement opening an era of major resort development in America’s west.

With a long list of services to his country and international relations, it seems the connection of Ambassador W. Averell Harriman with early-day alpine skiing may have been relegated to the background. However, those who helped in the transitional phase from Nordic to alpine and then recreational ski developments have not forgotten his impact. They remember that he had enough confidence in the future of skiing to build America’s – in fact, the world’s – first resort designed primarily for winter sports, that he founded the Harriman Cup Ski Tourney which was to gain the highest international reputation of any race in the country and that he gave unqualified backing to competitive skiing in the colleges by holding a four-way intercollegiate tourney at Sun Valley every Christmas for many years.

In 1936, Averell Harriman, then chairman of the board of the Union Pacific Railroad, built the first streamlined U.S. passenger trains. Looking to attract passenger traffic to his railroad business, he hit upon the idea of building a ski resort. Harriman sent an Austrian alpine expert, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, west to locate the spot for his resort. The Count had to choose a site that promised increased U.P. traffic. A six-week odyssey took him to Mt. Rainer, Mt. Hood, the San Bernardino Mountains, Yosemite, the area around Salt Lake City and the snow fields of Lake Tahoe in Nevada and California. He saw many places in Colorado and crossed the Teton Pass in winter for a view of Jackson Hole. At last he came to Ketchum, Idaho. Ketchum, a village one mile from where Sun Valley would be built, had been a boom town in the mining days of the 1880’s. In 1936, with many residents hit hard by the depression, the population declined to 170.

It was in a blizzard late in the afternoon of January, 1936 that the Count, escorted by a Union Pacific representative and the county supervisor of roads, reached this hamlet in the wake of the county plow. When one mile north of Ketchum the Count found the little windless basin surrounded by treeless, sun-drenched slopes with a great wooded Baldy Mountain towering at the end of the valley, he wrote Harriman: ‘It contains more delightful features than any other place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria for a winter sports center.”

Harriman arrived ten days later to site-see in his private railroad car. He approved the Count’s choice and the Union Pacific purchased 43,000 acres and on this vast, snow-covered area, like a blank piece of paper, the architects set out to write the name, Sun Valley, into ski history. They had perfect terrain and what was almost a blank check with which to work for everything was to be uncompromisingly “the best”. Almost three million dollars were spent, an incredible amount of money at the time.

Even more fortunately, the founders (notably Jim Curran – elected to the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 2001) could call on the brains of the Union Pacific engineers. These engineers had no previous experience with skiing but when asked to furnish some kind of uphill transportation, they designed the first chairlifts in the world. Harriman approved and along with the new resort, contributed immensely to the development of skiing with the new technology.

The Harriman Cup for downhill racing at Sun Valley was a most sought after trophy by the world’s best skiers. Averell Harriman presented the Harriman Cup to Dick Durrance in 1937 and again in 1940. The Dartmouth skier and Olympian retired it after winning it three times.

W. Averell Harriman was elected to the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1969.

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