Hit the Road: Famous Utah ski town has surprising roots

Hit the Road: Famous Utah ski town has surprising roots
Karri Dell Hays, longtime Park City resident and guide at White Pine Touring, shares the history of the mountain town, which includes mining for 80 years. This is one of the many closed mine entrances in the area. Photo by Jerry Ondash

This jail was in operation in Park City until 1966. It is in the basement of a beautifully restored building on Main Street that now houses the small-but-excellent Park City Museum. Its exhibits focus on the history of mining and the ski industry, the big economic drivers of the region. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Mormons and miners.

These are the two distinct cultures that have shaped the history of Utah, explains hiking guide Karri Dell Hays of White Pine Touring in Park City. The longtime resident is leading us on a three-hour walk up, down and around her mountainous hometown of 8,000. We are a mere 32 miles southeast of downtown Salt Lake City but a world away.

While most people know about the history and contributions of the Mormons in the Beehive State (so-named because “the beehive represents hard work and industry”), fewer know about the miners. 

Now a world-famous ski resort — Park City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics — the surrounding pristine scenery once was obscured by black smoke and debris belching from numerous mining operations that worked round-the-clock to extract silver, lead, zinc and a bit of gold.

“Everything was coated,” Hays tells us as we examine the entry to one of the old mines, “and miners often died of black lung disease within a few months.”

Park City’s mining history begins in the 1860s when Colonel Patrick Connor was sent to Utah to guard the U.S. Mail and assure that Mormons did not side with the Confederacy. He sent his soldiers in search of precious metals, hoping a discovery would bring prospectors in to “dilute” the Mormon population. Silver was discovered in 1868, and the first of many mines opened in 1872. Silver made multi-millionaires of those who took the chance and invested. 

The extraction of precious metals continued until 1949 when nearly all mines closed because of economics and other factors. Fast forward to the early ‘60s when Park City used a federal loan to install a gondola, a chairlift and two J-bars.

Today the mines are only points of interest on hiking and biking trails, and it’s hard to imagine a greater transformation than that of Park City and nearby ski resort Deer Valley.

Chokecherry blossoms are in full bloom in the Park City, Utah, area in mid-June. Photo by Jerry Ondash

It’s mid-June, and we are seated in the Silver Star Café at the base of the Silver Star chairlift, enjoying the panoramic view of the mountains and the Park City Golf Club. Live music drifts in from the patio and owner Lisa Ward says with a bit of exasperation that she’s heard that it could snow this weekend.

As much as residents love winter and all-things-skiing, they are clearly ready for spring, which at the moment, seems to have a foothold. During our hike the next day, we see the fresh, verdant growth on trees, abundant wildflowers and the teaming waters, all signals that it’s time to hike, bike, fish, golf, horseback ride, zipline, stroll the outdoor art shows, dine al fresco and bar-hop.

Regarding that last thing … our post-hike lunchtime finds us at High West Distillery enjoying mixed drinks made with their own brand of whiskey with colorful names like Yippee-Ki-Yay, Valley Tan and A Midwinter Night’s Dream. The High West Lemonade and smoked salmon is a top-notch combo. (High West gladly accommodates those who need gluten-free choices.)

Another award-winning local spirits concern is Alpine Distilling, whose owner Rob Sergent traded corporate life for mountain living. He managed to find the perfect blend of ingredients to create the award-winning Preserve Liqueur, a beautifully smooth concoction that hints of black tea, blood orange, ginger, raspberry and lemon. Sipping it is pure pleasure.

A bit later, I’m sitting before a blank canvas at The Paint Mixer, which offers an indoor creative experience for amateur artists and those who’ve never even considered picking up a paintbrush. Art instructor Libby Peterkort assures me that my work in acrylics will be a masterpiece. For those who need a little more courage, there is wine.

Later, we prop my creation against the post that abuts our table at Riverhorse on Main, an award-winning restaurant done in a smart, soft-industrial motif, which includes huge (and real) paintings and sketches of galloping horses. Our excellent cuisine is delivered by tolerant servers who make polite comments about my painting. They can’t possibly mean it, but for a couple of hours, it’s fun to be an artist in residence.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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