Situated at the upper end of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Alta is a community that has had two lives. Silver was discovered in the area in 1864, and by the following year the first verified mining claim was filed. The first settlement in the area – Central City – consisted of a sawmill along with several small boarding houses and businesses. The town soon boasted a population of 216.
In the fall of 1871, Alta was established only 850 yards east of Central City on what was the widest flat area of the canyon. Starting with the Alta Hotel, Central City merchants began relocating their log buildings. The borders of the two communities soon merged, the name Central City was dropped, and its residents were absorbed into Alta. Though alta is a Spanish word meaning “upper or higher,” the actual origin of the name has remained unclear. By 1872, the town’s population had boomed to 3,000 and there were 180 buildings.
Alta was embroiled in speculation almost from its birth. Its first settlers neglected to obtain claims for the land upon which they built their businesses and homes. It was soon learned that Walker Brothers and Company had applied for and received claims for the Alta townsite; the company offered the land to the settlers at $50 to $250 a lot. Most of the “squatters” eventually settled accounts although some simply moved.
The Alta townsite was finally platted and recorded with the Salt Lake County Recorder on 23 July 1873. The townsite plat consisted of thirty rectangular blocks, each containing twenty-five lots measuring 75 by 25 feet.
By 1873, Alta’s decline had begun with decline in the value of silver through demonetization as well as widespread severe economic problems which were compounded by the local problems of inaccessible ore, expensive smelting processes, and extensive water in the mines. By 1880, the population of the town had fallen to only 300, and production fell from a peak of $13.5 million in the 1870s to 1.3 million.
Alta experienced a boom in 1904 with new discoveries being made by the Jacobsen Brothers in the Columbus Mine. While the old townsite was never reoccupied, the miners were housed in bunkhouses built and maintained by each separate mining company at the center of their operations. The production of silver ore peaked in 1917 and declined steadily thereafter. By 1930 Alta was virtually a ghost town with only six registered voters.
In the late 1930s Alta began its second life. With Sun Valley, Idaho, as a model, a group of interested businessmen and skiers organized the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association, which negotiated with the U.S. Forest Service and raised $10,000 for construction of a ski lift at Alta.
On 13 November 1938 Alta’s first ski lift was officially dedicated; but the lift did not become operational until 15 January 1939. Its second season saw the purchase of 86,000 ski lift rides; and its first international downhill and slalom competition was held in March 1940. The Alta Ski School opened soon after and the Alta Lodge was dedicated on 29 November 1940. During World War II Alta became involved in the war effort when paratroopers from the 10th Mountain Regiment trained on its ski slopes. The postwar period saw the addition of two more ski lifts, two new lodges, and several rope tows.
The resort was enlarged in 1960, to accommodate the growing popularity of skiing in general and the attraction of the resort with its spectacular beauty and, according to some, even more spectacular snow. It was soon considered one of the premier ski resorts in America. By 1970 Alta recorded 92 full-time residents and was incorporated as a town in order to become eligible for federal government funds for water and sewer facilities. The incorporation brought with it the formulation of an overall master plan for the future development of all surrounding private lands. Alta has continued to develop under a slow steady growth plan into a year-round recreational community. The 1990 census indicates a population of 397 year-round residents. Yet, with all of its changes and developments, Alta has never lost sight of its foremost purpose: to provide a place for locals and visitors to ski what has been called by many the “greatest snow on earth.”
Patricia Lyn Scott