Alta History Questions and Answers

Questions are answered by these Alta experts: 

        Alan Engen (history)      Sid Jensen (history)      Brian Jones (geology)      Nic Nichol (history)

       Charles Keller (history)  

Tom's question: I saw on your website that there is an Alta History group, and I was wondering if a member of this group might be able to help me learn the date that this Alta ski poster was issued.


Alan's answer:  A couple of years ago, I asked Richard Allen, owner of Vintage Ski World (and the primary source for this poster) when the "Ski Alta" poster image was first published.  He told me that legendary skier Dick Durrance was the key person responsible for its creation in 1941.  Dick was the ski school director at Alta at that time and also helped manage the Alta Lodge when it first opened to the public in the early 1940s.  So told, Dick and other Alta personalities used the poster artwork, featuring the Alta Lodge, in various advertising promotions.  He also had a special Dick Durrance Ski School pin made which he gave to those who took lessons from him at Alta during that time period.
Many years later, when the image was again re-activated and made into a poster, Dick Durrance autographed a number of them before he passed away.  These very limited "Ski Alta" posters have since become genuine collector's items.

Charlotte's question: I noticed in the Winter 2008-09 historical edition of the Alta Powder News that a leading article highlighted Alta's chair lift history.  However, there was no mention of the "Never Sweat" lift in the article.  Since my family owns a cabin in the Albion basin, we are aware that a lift carrying that name existed back in the late 1950s or early '60s.  Please provide information on this lift, if possible.

Alan's answer: What we now call the Albion Lift at Alta was initially given the name "Never Sweat." The lift was completed in late 1962 and opened to the public in early 1963.  The "unofficial" name remained for one ski season after which the lift was renamed.  The reason for this was that Alta management did not feel the name "Never Sweat" conveyed a proper image for such a beautiful alpine setting.

Jackson's questions: Which lodging came first in Little Cottonwood Canyon?  Was it the Snowpine, and if so, in what form was it originally?  Where did visitors stay between the area's opening in 1938 and the Rustler opening in 1947?  What information do you have on Rustler's founders, Howard Stillwell and Sverre Engen?  When did Sverre and Alf emigrate to the US and when did they arrive in Alta?  Was Sverre the engine behind the creation of the Rustler Lodge?  Was the Rustler built with Stillwell's money and Sverre's sweat?  Who was the first chef at the lodge?  Who were the five lodge owners when the town of Alta was created in 1970?  Who was the governor who dedicated the Rustler heli-pad in 1963?

Alan's answers:  The Snowpine was the first lodge in Little Cottonwood Canyon.  It was built in 1938 and was initially called the Rock Shelter.  Its first purpose was as a warming shelter for day skiers and was not fully completed until the following summer.  The Alta Lodge was constructed in late summer of 1940; the Rustler opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1947; and the Peruvian Lodge opened in 1948.

The Rustler Lodge was initially started by Howard Stillwell.  Stillwell's father was an early Alta mining pioneer and owned the land which was passed on to Howard.  Howard opened the partially completed lodge in November, 1947.  In early 1948, Sverre took a financial interest in the Rustler Lodge as a partner with Howard and helped finish the initial construction.  In addition, Sverre and his wife, Lois, were the first managers of the lodge operation and ran it for several years.

Both Alf and Sverre emigrated to the United States in 1929.  Alf came first, arriving in July, and Sverre followed later in the fall of that year.  Alf first entered Alta in 1935 when he was hired by the Forest Service to select areas conducive to ski development.  However, he did not work at Alta until 1948, after coaching the U.S. Olympic Ski Team in the '48 Olympic Winter Games. Sverre began his career at Alta in the late '30s or early '40s when he was hired by the Forest Service to be the first snow ranger.  In 1945, Sverre became the seventh Alta Ski School director.  More details about all the ski school directors can be found in the Spring 2009 edition of the Alta Powder News at   Alf took over the ski school from Sverre in 1948.

The first chef at the Rustler Lodge was Finn Gurholt, a Norwegian who emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s.  Finn became a well-known chef in the Salt Lake area, eventually creating a highly respected restaurant called "Finn's."  He died in 1991 at the age of 70.

The owners of the five Alta Lodges in 1970 were:  Bill Levitt (Alta Lodge), Lee Bronson (Rustler Lodge), Edwin Gibbs (Peruvian Lodge, sold to John Cahill in late 1970), Jim & Elfrieda Shane (Goldminer's Daughter), and Al Kapp (Snowpine Lodge).

Utah's governor in 1963 was George Dewey Clyde who was in office during the years 1957-1965.

Linda's question:  It is well-known that the miners and Mormon pioneers devastated the forests along the Wasatch Front.  I heard recently that Boy Scouts were responsible for re-planting the trees more than 100 years ago.  This was supposed to be well before the CCC helped to re-forest Alta in the 1930s.  Can you tell me if this is true and where to find documentation of tihs early re-foresting effort?

Alan's answer:  Conservation efforts provided by Boy Scout tree planting activities probably did play a contributing role over the years and their efforts need to be applauded.  However, in terms of significant impact to reforestation in the Wasatch mountains, the signing of Executive Order 6106 in 1933 by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs), started a program which had a profound impact on Utah over the following decade.  CCC workers performed hundreds of jobs in Utah, working on roads and perhaps most important, forest replantation projects in the Cottonwood Canyons.  A major CCC camp was located at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon which accommodated approximately 200 personnel.  My father, Alf Engen, was a CCC foreman at that camp in the mid to late 1930s.  There is little question that the CCC tree planting at Alta had a significant positive effect on the area's development as a ski resort.

Bob's question: I recently ran across a deed in the Salt Lake County Records Book 230 Deeds, page 34 that conveys the mining claims at Alta to the USA from Salt Lake County, claiming title by virture of tax sale.  This seems different from the lore which says Watson/Alta United donated the surface to the US and reserved the minerals, represented by another deed about the same time, but recorded years later.  What is your sense of the history there?

Alan's answer:  I currently have in my possession a copy of a 1938 document signed by George H. Watson, President & Secretary of the Alta United Mines Company, and Edgar S. Hill.  The document states that the agreement is between Alta United Mines Company (grantor) and the United States of America (grantee) dated September 14, 1938.  It was recorded on December 3, 1941 in Salt Lake County.  The five-page document outlines the specific properties given up by Watson for a price of one dollar. I am not sure the deed you mentioned is the same as mine but it would be interesting to compare the two documents.

Tom's question:  It's long been family lore that my grandfather,H.E. Sanders, was one of the original founders/promoters of the Alta Ski area.  He lived and worked in SLC for a few years during the Depression.  I think he ran the downtown Salt Lake Florsheim shoe store for a time.  Do you know of any photos of him, or have any record at all of his involvement with Alta? 

Alan's answer:  Thank you for your inquiry regarding your grandfather.  Unfortunately, with the records currently retained by the Alta Historical Society, we can find no mention of H.E. Sanders.  Those whose names are recorded as part of the Alta group who initially formed the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association in the late 1930s include: S. Joe Quinney, Stewart Cosgriff, E.D. Nordquist, W.J. O'Connor, V.R. Parkinson, L.R. Ure, Paul F. Keyser, E. Bartlett Wicks, and P.H. Kittle.  This particular group of Salt Lake community organizers, along with George H. Watson and the Forest Service, are specifically recognized for playing the lead role of starting the process of basically changing Alta from a mining center to the beginnings of a skiing mecca.  However, this does not mean that there were not other individuals who played important roles behind the scenes but whose names are not noted in Alta's recorded history.  Your grandfather could have very easily been an early Alta contributor, but we cannot confirm that at this time.  Should you come across any supporting information about your grandfather's connection to Alta, we would be most interested in reviewing it.

If interested, a suggested reference book on Alta's early beginnings as a ski area is Alta: A People's Story by the late Duane Shrontz.  

Craig's question:  Does anyone know the names of the breweries in the 1870s?

Alan's answer:  While general descriptions of the buildings in the town of Alta during the 1870s are limited, one specific reference about the breweries in Alta can be found in Charles L. Keller's book, The Lady in the Ore Bucket, published in 2001.  In his book, Mr. Keller references a writer by the name of Standish Rood who wrote for the Herald newspaper under the pen name of "Archibald."  Keller states that in April 1873, "Archibald penned one of the best surviving descriptions of the town.  he started at the corner of Third West and Walker Street, walked up the north side of Walker Street to the end of town, then crossed and walked back down the south side, describing every business along the way."

There was one brewery mentiond by Archibald...the "California Brewery" owned by a William Nischwitz.  The brewery specialized in lager beer.  While other historical records do indicate that several breweries operated in Alta during the early mining period, this is the only named brewery specifically mentioned in the records retained by the Alta Historical Society.

Wade's question: I just found out that one ofmy favorite ski movies, Better Off Dead, was filmed at Alta in the 1980s.  I looked at Alta's ski map and could not find the famous K12 ski run.  Would you have any idea which ski run was used in the movie as the K12? 

Alan's answer: I'm not familiar with the film you mentioned; however, there are a number of films that have been done at Alta over the years.  One of the more dramatic ski locations for action shots is the main Baldy Chute.  It is very steep and narrows to steep cliffs on both sides as you exit the run.  This could possibly be the location you are inquiring about.  There is really no way to know for certain without seeing the image you reference in the film.

Eric's question: I am teaching a class on western US History 1870-1900, and we are studying the myths and realities of life in the West. We have read in several places online that, in the 1870s, Alta had 20 saloons and that 500 murders occurred in one year. As budding western scholars, my students find that last figure hard to believe, especially after studying violence and murder rates in Aurora, Nevada and Bodie, California during those towns' mining heyday years.  Are there any sources on murders and deaths that occurred at Alta and where might we find them?  We would like to try to verify or disprove that 500 murders figure and come up with a correct fugure.

Alan's answer: From our records, in the middle 1880s, the population of Alta was estimated to be well over 1,000.  This was probably at its "high point" with regard to the numbers living year round in the Alta Basin.  The town had a city hall, complete with a jail in the basement, several stores, six breweries, and 26 saloons, of which the "Bucket of Blood" and "Gold Miner's Daughter" were the most notorious.  There were also a couple of boarding houses, a brothel, several Chinese laundries, a school, two assay offices, and a shooting gallery.  The town also operated two stage lines.  Joseph Burkinshaw ran a stagecoach line from Sandy, Utah to Alta and the Pony Express and Telegraph also made periodic runs to Alta.

It is true that during the years Alta was a mining town, a number of individuals lost their life...some in various altercations, mostly involving claim disputes, and in a number in avalances that ran during the winter months and hit many old cabins in the town.  While no exact figure has been published as far as our records are concerned, it is estimated that approximately 150 people died during the mining days at Alta from the late 1870s through the early 1900s.

You might be interested in the following books that provide interesting insight into Alta's early years as a mining town:

The Lady in the Ore Bucket by Charles L. Keller, published by the University of Utah Press (2001)

A Hole in the Ground with a Liar at the Top
by Dan Plazak, published by the University of Utah Press (2006)

This is Alta by Ruth Winder Robertson, booklet published in 1972.

Dale's question:  Could you tell me what a plausible route of travel would be for a poor Irish immigrant coming from New York City to Alta, Utah in 1864?  Can you recommend any first-person accounts from miners in Alta from 1864 on especially that include details of their travels there? 

Charles' response: I would start by asking why the poor Irish immigrant was coming to Utah.  I suspect he was a Mormon convert, in which cse he would have been traveling with one of the emigrant trains.  The usual means of travel would have been trains and/or river boats into Iowa, then by wagon train the rest of the way.  In 1864 the construcwagon tion of the Union Pacific railroad was barely starting, so he wcould not have depended upon that mode of travel.  There are numerous documents describing the rigors of crossing the plains.  I might suggest the following as a start:

Greeley, Horace An Overland Journey From New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859; New Yourk 1964 sm 8vo 332p
Crofutt, George A. Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide; New York, 1872 sm8vo, 224p, illus, maps
Ware, Joseph E. The Emigrant's Guide to California (1849)

Searching the Web for "mormon immigration" 1863 will give many hits that suggest what travel across the plains was like at that time.  For instance:

An alternative route for those who did not wish to face the rigors of overland travel was to take ocean vessels to the east coast of Panama, the Panama railroad across to the Pacific Ocean, then another vessel to California.  For this route you might try:

As for travel to Alta, I can tell you that no one traveled to Alta in 1864 because Alta didn't exist until 1871.  The year 1866 saw the first mining camp in Little Cottonwood Canyon at a site that was later known as Central City, located at the lower end of Alta as we know it today.  But, even that little community didn't appear until 1970.

You also asked, "Can you recommend any first-person accounts from miners in Alta...that include details of their travels there?  In a word, "No."  Many of those who traveled across the country to Utah kept journals that give us details of their travels.  But they traveled for long periods of time to reach their destination.  Once in Utah, in the Salt Lake Valley, a trip up a local canyon was trivial in comparison and hardly worth a detailed description in their journal, if they kept one.  Most miners didn't. But for those who did, as for instance the Woolley brothers who ran sawmills in Little Cottonwood Canyon, their journal comments would be that they went to the canyon, or went back to the city.  Nothing more detailed than that.