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A Brief History of Alta, Utah

Alta’s former existence was as a mining town. In the relatively quick boom the population exceeded 5000.

In the early 1850′s Mormon settlers began mining granite lower in the canyon for material to build a temple. Word filtered down canyon that there was evidence of silver ore up the road. The pioneers weren’t much interested as they were struggling to settle. A Col. Patrick Connor had been dispatched to the area from the army to help protect the overland mail route newly opened across the U.S. He shrewdly sensed the great wealth which lay underground high in the hills. He attracted a number of prospectors into the canyon. Individuals made millions and lost them, but the town of Alta got a start.

By 1869, with the completion of the east-west railway link from Nebraska to California, mining reached a new peak. An economic depression in the late 1890′s slowed things down, but there was a resurgence in 1904. A narrow gauge railway was built in 1916 up to Tanner’s Flats. From there an aerial tram joined the rail system to Alta. By 1919 the railway extended all the way up the canyon. Production of silver ore peaked, then steadily declined by the late 1920′s, to be met with the fate of the great crash on Wall Street.

In the meantime, a young entrepreneur named George Watson had started a sightseeing venture up the canyon called the Alta Scenic Railway. This was the first known promotion of tourism in the canyon. He bought up old mining claims as things declined, voted himself mayor, and eventually turned over all of his holdings to the US Forest Service.

An attorney in Salt Lake named Joe Quinney, the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association, the Salt Lake Chamber, the USFS, the WPA’S, the State Road Commission, and some local county officials began negotiations to set up a ski hill in the Alta Town area. A contract was signed on September 27, 1938. The first recorded lift operation was on January 15, 1939.

The following summer trail work was done, preparing the way for a busy season to come with some 86,000 skier lift rides. The decades that followed have provided the ski world with a steady and gradual growth of Alta Ski Lifts based on conservative thinking and careful planning.