Utah’s Ski History
During the 1990-91 season Utah ski areas were host to more than 2.75 million skiers. These skiers enjoyed Utah’s magnificent powder snow, the convenience of dozens of lifts, and the freedom of thousands of acres of skiable terrain, all set within the breathtaking beauty of Utah’s mountains. But it wasn’t always so. The story of how Utah skiing became what it is today is a story of trial, perseverance, and individuals with a passion for the mountains, a sport, and a way of life.
Long before Utah’s skiing became an industry there were individuals who used skis as a means of travel in Utah’s mountains. Those who first used skis include trappers, miners, and other inhabitants of the mountains, for whom mobility in the mountains meant survival. During these times, skis were sometimes referred to as Norwegian snowshoes, because Norwegian immigrants first brought skis to this country. Accurate accounts of these first skiers are scarce, but some date back to well before the turn of the twentieth century.
Harold Seeholzer, who made his first skis about 1915 and later pioneered the Beaver Mountain ski area near Logan, recalled some of his early ski adventures in the nearby mountains. On one occasion he and some friends were called upon to check on a trapper who was spending the winter in the Tony Grove area. “We packed our rucksacks with food, . . . put a can of wax in our pockets and left on March 17 at 4:00 a.m. for the Logan Canyon.” The next day they found the trapper well but low on food. “We offered him the rest of our food so he could stay longer. We stayed at the Tony Grove Ranger Station, got up early the next morning, and started the 25 mile journey back to Logan.”
It wasn’t long before skiing became a recreational activity for those who enjoyed the adventure and splendor of the mountain winters. The establishment of the Wasatch Mountain Club in 1912 was the beginning of organized touring groups that explored Utah’s mountains for recreation. During the late 1910s and into the 1920s the Wasatch Mountain Club began sponsoring winter outings into the surrounding canyons.
By the late 1920s short trips lasting from two to four days into the Brighton area were popular among members of the Wasatch Mountain Club and others who had discovered the pleasures of ski touring. Paul Dinwoodie recalled meeting his wife in the early twenties when she got off work on Saturday evening. They would ski through the night to make the trip from Park City to Brighton. “We would get up there in the evening, leave the car at Coffee Joe’s, and hike into Brighton over Scott’s Pass. We would sleep for three or four hours, then get up and ski because we wanted to get in as much skiing as possible.”
K. Smith, an early ski pioneer who put a cable tow in the Brighton area, and later directed the Brighton Ski School for over twenty years, recalled the excitement of traveling from the Brighton area back to Park City via Thaynes Canyon. “Going down Thaynes Canyon was a hairy ride, because we really didn’t know how to stop. We’d get up there at the top of Scott’s Pass and give the first skier a head start because you couldn’t see him around the first bend. We’d just hope that he didn’t fall, because you were right behind him. The wind was usually blowing snow across the ditch, and the ditch banks were up about as high as your shoulders, so you just sat in there and away you went.”
During the era of ski touring in Utah, skiing as a spectator sport was delighting many residents of the Wasatch Front. Even before the 1920s, ski-jumping meets held in the foothills of Salt Lake City were attracting large groups of spectators, crowds numbering in the hundreds and later the thousands. It wasn’t long before youngsters were building small jumps all along the foothills and trying to imitate the feats of their Scandinavian heroes.
By 1930 professional jumping meets were being promoted enthusiastically. In Ogden, promoters were just putting the finishing touches on a new jumping hill. Becker Hill just east of Ogden Canyon was soon host to professional jumping meets that thrilled thousands of spectators.
It was during this period that Utahns were first introduced to the Engen brothers. Alf and his brother Sverre jumped at Becker Hill in the very first contest held there. They were later joined by their younger brother Corey in 1933, and the three delighted spectators during the 1930s and 1940s with their daring and skill.
Soon after the first competitions at Becker Hill, ski promoters M.A. Strand and Pete Ecker were encouraging jumpers to try a new hill built at Rasmussen’s Ranch in Parley’s Canyon. The new hill, named after Ecker, was the site of many jumping tournaments where dozens of records were set and broken. During the Depression years of the 1930s jumping meets at Ecker Hill attracted thousands of spectators. The facility existed for decades until it sent its last jumper skyward in the early 1960s.
The latter part of the 1930s also marked the beginning of uphill transportation in Utah skiing. Many Utah skiers remember their first experiences with rope tows that at first seemed as difficult to master as downhill technique. There were many rope and cable tows from Logan to Provo that soon disappeared. However, there were a few that survived to become the beginnings of what we now call ski areas.
The Brighton area had been a well-known summer resort area for affluent residents of the Salt Lake Valley since before the turn of the century. Hotels, restaurants, and riding stables served the many visitors to the area. As skiing activity increased in the area during the thirties, a few skiers started to think about a way other than hiking to get up the hills.
In 1937 and 1938, the county commission was persuaded to plow the road in Big Cottonwood canyon to allow for year-round traffic. In the summer of 1937 a group of men formed the Alpine Ski Club and, using an elevator drum, created a rough cable tow in the Brighton area and operated it during the 1937 and 1938 seasons. But there were many problems with the tow. The next year, as K. Smith recalls, they came up with the idea of a handmade T-bar. Smith operated the T-bar until the war, when he served in the armed forces and was sent to Europe.
In 1943 Smith sold the T-bar to Zane Doyle. Friends remember that Zane and his family worked hard to make the place go.
About the same time that things were developing in the Brighton area, a group of ski enthusiasts in Alta were building Utah’s first lift and arguably Utah’s most well-known ski area. Alta, formerly an active mining town, was nearly a ghost town when it was reborn on skis. In 1937 a group of businessmen headed by Joe Quinney formed the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association, whose primary purpose was to develop a ski area for local skiers. In the fall of 1938 construction began on the lift up the face of Collins. The first year the lift was plagued with problems and operated sporadically during the 1938-39 season. However, in November 1939 Alta opened for its second season of operation and began a long and continuous run as one of Utah’s most successful ski areas.
It wasn’t long before Utah skiers already familiar with the Engen name associated it with Alta. In the early 1940s Sverre Engen became Alta’s first ski patrolman and had the distinction of becoming the first employee of the Forest Service with the job title of Snow Ranger. Sverre’s older brother Alf took over the ski school in the mid-1940s and directed it for over 40 years. Probably more than any other name, Engen is synonymous with Utah skiing. Today Alan Engen directs the ski school that bears his father’s name. However, the Salt Lake area was not the only place where the passion for skiing was great.
In the Cache Valley, the Mount Logan ski club held a meeting in the spring of 1939 and decided to put in a cable tow in the area known as Beaver Mountain. Because of the long hike from the road, however, the tow was moved to the summit area known as the sinks the following year. But the sinks also proved not to be the ideal place to build a ski area. The tow was owned and operated by Logan City and the Winter Sports Council; in 1945 it was taken over by Harry and Luella Seeholzer. It was subsequently moved back to Beaver Mountain when a road was made into the area. The successful family-owned business has provided a great service to skiers in the northern part of the state. Harry Seeholzer died in 1968, but the area is still owned and operated by the Seeholzer family.
Ogden City began to operate a tow at Snow Basin in the late 1930s as well. The area went into private hands in 1955. Earl and Gladdis Miller owned and operated the ski school permit there for thirty-five years. A little farther south, in an area known as the north fork of Provo Canyon, another ski pioneer named Ray Stewart built a T-bar tow and named the area Timphaven. It was developed during the 1950s and 60s, and in 1969 was sold to Robert Redford and renamed Sundance.
During the 1950s, Utah’s ski areas saw significant growth as skiing became more popular. The next entry into the Utah ski scene was Solitude ski area in Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1958, initiated by Bob Barret. After more than a decade of ups and downs, by 1970 Solitude was a successful member of Utah’s ski community. In 1963 an enterprising man by the name of Burt Nichols founded Brian Head ski area in the mountaintops above Cedar City.
Park City, another mining community that had fallen on hard times, also received new life based on skiing. Actually, Park City had an already established reputation for winter sports. During the 1920s and 1930s it was the home of Creole Hill, a well-known jumping hill. Also, for years Park City was the primary access point for skiers going to Brighton. It also accessed a small ski area in Deer Valley named Snow Park. In the 1930s Park City received ski trains loaded with residents of the Salt Lake Valley. However, in the 1960s the mines were played out and the Park City area was economically depressed. In 1962, with low interest loans from a federal redevelopment agency, United Park Mines announced that funding had been obtained for a new ski area. In 1963 Park City ski area opened and has become Utah’s largest ski area.
The early 1970s also saw the Utah skiing picture become more rich and diverse with the addition of Powder Mountain near the Ogden area, and Mount Holly-Elk Meadows near Beaver, Utah. In 1971 Snowbird, which was the dream of Ted Johnson, was able to open with financial backing from Dick Bass. Snowbird, Alta’s neighbor in Little Cottonwood Canyon, has added significant vertical advanced terrain and has developed into a major world-class resort.
Utah skiers and skiing have made contributions to skiing nationally. The state has been well represented in competition by Olympians Jack Reddish, Dev Jennings, Dick Movitz, Suzy Harris Rytting, Marv Mellville, and Margo Walters, and by NCAA All-Americans Alan Engen and Jim Gaddis, as well.
Utah ski instructors also have made great contributions. People like Professional Ski Instructor Association (PSIA) founder Bill Lash, and ski school directors Earl Miller, Junior Bounous, and K. Smith are all members of the PSIA Hall of Fame. Utah also boasts many members of the National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Michigan.
The latest member of Utah’s ski area community is Deer Valley, founded in 1981. Deer Valley is the dream of part-owner Edgar Stern to create an upscale ski area complete with world-class service and cuisine.
Utah’s great skiing diversity provides a variety of experiences for all types of skiers. Regardless of which of Utah’s fourteen ski areas skiers choose, and whether they are locals or are world travelers, they will be treated to great snow and spectacular scenery, and they will be part of a rich skiing heritage.
A. Joseph Arave