Ski migration

I think migration to the far away, snow-covered mountains of the West really began in a railroad yard in Omaha, Neb., during the summer of 1936. It began immediately after Averill Harriman, whose father owned the Union Pacific Railroad, financed the construction of America’s first destination ski resort, Sun Valley, Idaho.

Steve Hannagan, Averill’s public relations genius told him, “no one would travel half way across America to freeze to death hanging onto a wet or frozen rope tow, so you have to come up with a better way to get up a hill so the guests may ski down without all the work of climbing up,” as most skiers had had to do. At that time, there were only a few rope tows in America so Hannagan’s suggestion was visionary.

Almost immediately, the railroad engineers went to work to invent the world’s first chairlift. It would be erected in the remote Wood River Valley in Idaho. Hannagan also decided that this resort should be called Sun Valley, Idaho, instead of Ketchum, Idaho.

While construction on the lodge and the new invention they decided to call a chairlift was proceeding rapidly, it was realized that there were not enough people in that part of the world with the necessary skills to service the Lodge guests, run the chairlift, teach skiing and the hundreds of other skills necessary to keep the guests happy.

Since the new resort was owned by the Union Pacific railroad, Hannagan decided to offer people a free, roundtrip train ticket from the railroad headquarters in Omaha to Sun Valley. A promise was made, offering a job that would include room and board and $125 a month to work and stay there for the winter. Some of those early immigrants arrived in Sun Valley with their worldly possessions in a cardboard suitcase and never left. Should they be called ski bums? I don’t think so because they worked hard at whatever job they settled into when they arrived. That type of migration continues to this day, but without the free transportation to the ski resort of someone’s choice.

In addition to the migratory workers from Omaha, most of the ski instructors arrived from St. Anton, Austria, where Harriman had learned to ski. A dozen or more skilled waiters, cooks and hospitality personnel also arrived from Europe. Looking back on their immigration dates, I think they were smart enough to round up the money to escape just before Hitler invaded Austria and World War II was under way. When America was brought into the war, most of those Austrian ski instructors at Sun Valley became members of the famous Tenth Mountain Division ski troops, helping teach many of our troops to become proficient skiers and survive in the mountains.

In 1936, when the first Omaha volunteers accepted those Sun Valley jobs at $125 a month plus room and board, minimum wages in America were 25 cents an hour. That’s $20 a month, so this was a really good deal.

Why wouldn’t anyone who heard about these high wages and room and board immediately migrate to Sun Valley to work hard only to be called a ski bum? In my opinion, anyone who still uses the words ski bum only uses them because they wish they could live, ski and work in a ski resort 50 weeks a year and, in reverse, visit a city two weeks a year. Most people work in the city to earn the money for a one- or two-week-a-year ski vacation.

I was lucky, I lived on the beach when I was producing most of my ski movies and as my business grew I was able to spend my winters with my camera and skis anywhere in the world that I wanted to film, and return to my home either on the beach or the ski resort where my wife, Laurie, and I choose to live.

Most of my friends resisted running away from the cities. The rare few who migrated to the resorts, stayed there while they learned a trade and settled down. Did any of the migrants to the ski resorts ever make a gazillion dollars as some of their college friends who stayed in the cities did? Probably not, but when you have a season ski pass for you and your family, you don’t need to earn all of that money for airplane tickets, rental cars and stuff necessary to fly off to Mount Paradise for two weeks every year and hope for good snow while you are there.

It’s great when that blue sky day with a foot of untracked powder is yours, because you have in your work rules that you can take powder snow days off (because you wrote the rules). It makes you realize that you have been doing everything right since your grandfather made the right decision when he got on that train in Omaha in the summer of 1936, settled in the Wood River Valley and never went back.