Amid Utah’s snow-covered Wasatch Mountains, tour guide Sandy Melville clips on his skis and hits the slopes—leading recreational skiers at Park City Mountain Resort past abandoned silver mining camps, World Cup ski runs, and an Olympic alpine race course.
Buried beneath all that snow, he points out, is a lot of history.
“Our guests mostly see the beautiful scenery, but 1,200 miles of mining tunnels run under our resort,” explains Melville, 62, who leads historic mountain tours daily during the winter. “It’s like Swiss cheese down there—a real honeycomb.”
Established as a mining town in 1868 after U.S. Army soldiers discovered rich silver veins in the nearby mountains, Park City has evolved into a bustling wintertime playground and home to cutting-edge Winter Olympics training facilities.
With three resorts and altitudes ranging from 6,270 feet to 8,460 feet, the town boasts 8,800 acres of skiable terrain, 337 trails and 51 lifts. When nearby Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, one-third of all medal events—including skiing, ski jumping, bobsledding and snowboarding—were held in Park City.
“Anytime you can bring an international event to an area, it sets you off as a special place,” says Alan Engen, 73, a local historian and son of pioneering ski jump champion Alf Engen. “Prior to the Olympics, people knew Park City had skiing, but had no idea what a beautiful place it is.”
Home to the U.S. Ski Team and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the town has become a magnet for athletes chasing gold medals. But silver was the main draw for eager prospectors digging beneath its powdery slopes beginning in the 1860s. With 200 mines operating in its heyday, the town produced 23 millionaires, including George Hearst, father of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
By 1898, nearly 10,000 people lived in the raucous mining town. When a fire that year destroyed 200 of its 350 structures, townspeople rebuilt in less than two years, beginning with a popular saloon. “These were mining towns in every sense of the word,” says Engen about Park City and nearby Alta. “There were lots of bars and gambling joints and prostitutes who served the miners living here. It was a whole culture.”
Miners were among the town’s earliest skiers, using barrel staves or other makeshift wooden skis for wintertime transportation to and from the mines. In the 1920s, Scandinavian miners began building ski jumps and holding recreational tournaments. In 1931, Norwegian-American skier Alf Engen made the first two of his four world record jumps on Ecker Hill, just north of town.
“Dad’s records put Utah on the map for skiing,” Alan says. “The news went worldwide.”
As winter recreational and competitive sports expanded, the price of silver waned. In 1949, a mine shutdown put 1,200 men out of work and left Park City with a population of just over a thousand. In 1951, the town was included in a book called “Ghost Towns of the West.”
Unable to make money with its underground operation, the owners of United Park City Mines Co. turned to its surface rights and obtained a $1.2 million federal loan to develop Treasure Mountain Resort, now Park City Mountain Resort. Opened in 1963, the development featured a 22-minute overhead gondola ride to transport skiers, as well as its famous Skier’s Subway, which moved people up the mountain on a 3-mile train trip through a dark mine shaft before taking a mining elevator to the surface.
“It was apparently quite a ride,” Melville says. “It was dark, wet, dirty. Most people only did it once.”
Discovering that skiers and tourists were the town’s new mother lode, two more resorts—known today as Deer Valley and the Canyons—opened in 1946 and 1968, respectively. Park City hosted its first World Cup ski race in 1985—proving itself worthy of world-class ski racing while inspiring a new generation of American athletes.
“I grew up literally watching World Cup events on my home mountain,” says Park City alpine skier Ted Ligety, 29, who lives and trains in his hometown. An Olympic and World Cup gold medalist, he’ll seek gold again in February during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. “It’s a legacy I’m proud to carry on,” he says.