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From barracks to bedrooms,
Alta lodge had wartime start

The Salt Lake Tribune THE ARTS

September 27, 1992

Jack Goodman


Forty-five years ago, the biggest trucks of that postwar era strained and snorted as they slowly hauled their loads on multiwheeled lowboys up the steep Little Cottonwood highway from the Salt Lake Valley. Their journey on the old, rutted road to the semighost of a once-rich mining town came at the end of a lengthy journey from Brigham City. The trucks were laboriously hauling a pair of wooden, three-story barracks buildings to Alta from the shuttered Bushnell Hospital at Brigham, usable buildings selected from a sizable group of structures that would later become the Intermountain Indian School.

The two wartime structures had each been sliced into four parts – cut into pieces small enough, it was hoped, to make the journey up the narrow, curving, dusty Alta road without undue peril. The unlikely looking eight segments of the barracks buildings had an equally unlikely future. Members of a Salt Lake family headed by Ed Gibbs thought the gray and white painted wooden structures could be fused into a single building, to be converted into a ski lodge. Alta, with its silver lodes “played out,” had new possibilities.

Even though Alta already had two ski lodges – the Alta Lodge and Snow Pine – Gibbs planned a new one. A big lodge of half a hundred rooms to be built by melding the twin barracks structures together and installing electric lighting, plumbing, proper heating, dining facilities and other ski lodge amenities. Workmen had already poured the concrete foundations for the Bushnell Hospital buildings before they arrived, and by the snow season of 1948, Ed Gibbs was able to open his Peruvian Lodge. Gradually improved and fleshed out through the years, the Peruvian Lodge has survived and even prospered. Nowadays, especially when seen from the rear, the glassed in, multi windowed side shown in today’s sketch, it is difficult for visitors to realize the major portions of the lodge once served wartime servicemen and patients at Brigham City.

When the Gibbs family opened their Peruvian Lodge in 1948, it was especially visible due to its silvery aluminum roof shining in the sunlight below Mt. Superior. That roof was doomed when Alta’s ultra heavy snowfalls built up deep ridges high above the third story of the lodge, sliding down with sometimes disastrous effect on skiers and cars below. But the lodge interior was as comfortable as any in the West. On most floors, three small barracks rooms were linked up to provide two lodge rooms, many of them with baths.

Heating, as at all snow country lodges, was a problem. But Gibbs installed a huge boiler, and the furnace used No. 6 fuel oil. In those bygone days Fritz Speyer ran the Alta lifts, and Peruvian’s guests could be “towed” to the lift lines by a tractor. Food in the big dining room was more than adequate, and the lodge, with its display of Swiss, Norwegian and other ski-country banners flying outside the log-covered entry, fit the Alta scene nicely. There were fireplaces, recreation acres, a big dining room and lounges – amenities different from the old rugged barracks days.

The Peruvian Lodge you see from the Alta road, or visit for weekend brunch or wintertime skiing, was again changed in appearance when the Gibbs family sold it to John Cahill and his family some two decades ago. While the barracks buildings had initially been converted into a ski lodge without benefit of an architect, the Cahill clan, led by father John and his son Dennis, brought Salt Lake architect Max Smith into the picture to give Peruvian the more sophisticated touches now its hallmark.

By about 1979, the lodge had its front entry doorways enhanced by twin rectangular pillars made of rough hewn native stone. Building walls were log faced, while another major change was the decoration of window shutters and the area beneath the mansard roof with Alpine style stenciling. But the chief efforts of architect Max Smith are visible at the back side of the lodge, away from the road. Today a three-storey expanse of glass faces toward the swimming pools and ski runs.

The pool itself is something of a story since, while the town of Alta frowned on pools, reservoirs can be built for fire-fighting purposes. Lodge employee Wayne Nichols is said to have modeled the “reservoir” upon the famous pools at Sun Valley.

All in all, the few old-timers who remember seeing eight sections of twin barracks building move up the Alta Road find few visible traces of the Bushnell structures when they view the lawns, garage, barbecue equipment and other amenities inside or outside the glassed-in additions. There are 80 guest rooms now, an Alf Engen lounge, sunny dining and drinking spots – and even a heating system that can burn No. 2 oil or gas.

There’s one semi-mystery remaining at Peruvian Lodge, and not even Dennis Cahill is sure of the answer. Why “Peruvian”? There’s a Peruvian Gulch nearby, of course. Was there a Peruvian Mine as well? If so, who was the Peruvian?

Jack Goodman is a journalist and free-lance writer whose Cityview column has appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune for a number of Years.