Feature January 6, 2022

Sun Valley Through the Years

How a sleepy ranching town became one of the world’s most famous ski resorts

In a word … marketing. Sun Valley Resort was the brainchild of Union Pacific Railroad Chairman, Averell Harriman, who thought that creating a ski resort that rivaled those in Europe—St. Moritz, Chamonix—might help reinvigorate passenger service for the railroad. An Austrian count was hired to find the perfect mountain and, once discovered in the midst of remote central Idaho, Harriman immediately began work on creating a destination ski resort worthy of his vision. Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was commissioned to build a lodge to equal, or best, his previous projects in America’s National Parks (the original Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge, Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone, and many others) and Harriman sought out the marketing genius of the times—Steve Hannagan—to complete his vision. And the rest is history. Here is the rest of the story, as told by Van Gordon Sauter in the award-winning coffee table book, The Sun Valley Story (2011):

Lauren Gooding during a publicity shoot for the Sun Valley Lodge in the summer of 1955.


Hannagan abhorred snow and cold. He correctly presumed that many potential visitors had no real knowledge of skiing, at that time an esoteric winter sporting activity. Given his preference for spending winter afternoons on sunny beaches with a covey of models in two-piece bathing suits, Hannagan knew that there would be significant resistance by guests to trudging through knee-deep snow up a hill only to turn around and slide–if not uncontrollably tumble–back down on two long pieces of insanely polished kindling. So Hannagan told Harriman the resort required a comfortable conveyance for lifting people up the hill. Harriman agreed and cogs began to turn. A people conveyance became just another item on the corporate “to do” list.

Harriman and Hannagan oversee construction of the Sun Valley Lodge.

The railroad would, within a year, from scratch, assemble a large, full-service hotel in the middle of nowhere. It delivered to the backwoods of Idaho construction equipment, workers and housing, dinner plates and sheets and oranges and cement and steaks and windows and a swimming pool and musical instruments and potato peelers. Everything found in a normal upscale hotel was hauled to Ketchum, Idaho. Including a people lifter.


For Harriman, the wily PR man, Steve Hannagan, took a no-name valley in the shadow of the remote Sawtooth Mountains and spun forth a story of fun, elegance, and exclusivity.  He even gave the valley a name: Sun Valley, though in later years others unsuccessfully laid claim to that distinction. Hannagan created the magic for the premiere American ski resort.

Looking across the Challenger Inn Swimming Pool at the Ski Meeting place, with the Sun Valley Lodge and Bald Mountain in background.

This article appears in the Winter 2021 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.