Imagine what Park City must have been like in the early days- rowdy prospectors, courageous settlers, and the bustling dawn of a new township. This captivating place has grown from a lawless mining town to a world-renowned destination, attracting famous athletes, artists, and filmmakers alike.
In order to learn more about the heritage of the town we love, we decided to stop by Park City Museum. We’re so glad we did! Park City has undergone countless seasons of change and development, but it has always been a truly extraordinary place. Here’s what we learned on our historical outing.
Park City was officially founded in 1884, but its history began long before that. Dating all the way back to 1600 A.D, this area was home to Native American bands that traveled the high alpine valleys in search of game. The first European settlers were a ragtag bunch of miners prospecting for silver. Unlike the rest of Utah, which was settled by Mormons seeking religious freedom, Park City was founded by these early prospectors.
Brigham Young arrived at his “City by the Salt Lake” decades earlier in 1847. By 1862, Salt Lake City was a booming establishment built on Mormon doctrine. Civil War Union General Patrick Connor was wary of the Mormon populous. He feared they would side with the Confederate Army. He sent Union Troops out to monitor the Mormons and to prospect. He hoped that if the soldiers discovered valuable minerals, a flood of prospecting outsiders would dilute the Mormon majority.
Just as Connor had hoped, in late October of 1869, after seven years of prospecting, the soldiers ascended the mountains of Big Cottonwood Canyon and discovered silver in what is now Park City. They marked the outcropping with a bandanna and resolved to return in the more temperate spring. They later named this first mine Flagstaff.
That same year, railroad workers completed The Transcontinental Railroad in Promontory, Utah. They marked the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads with a golden spike that can still be visited today. With the railroad complete, some of these laid off workers, many of whom were Chinese, made their way to Park City. By 1870, the population was a mere 164 people, and it would be be another decade before the town officially became incorporated.
With the discovery of exceedingly rich silver ore, Ontario Mine opened, and Park City developed into a mining boomtown. George Hearst, the father of William Randolph Hearst, and partners bought the Ontario for $27,000 dollars. Over the course of its lifetime, Ontario would produce $50 million dollars worth of silver.
By 1875, Park City had its own public schoolhouse. Five years later, it had a newspaper. The Park Record printed it’s first issue in 1880, making it the oldest continuously published newspaper in Utah. By 1881, Park City acquired a telephone service. Telephone operator girls had the most glamorous job in town! As Park City grew, so did the booming silver industry.
Finally in 1884, Park City officially became incorporated, and they began constructing a City Hall. The town’s population reached 5,000 by 1889. Backed by the successful mines, residents of this bustling silver town enjoyed the modern luxury of electric lights. Parkites loved reading Park Record gossip columns detailing the lives of socialites who made their millions on the mines. One such resident, Susanna Bransford Emery Holmes, was better known as the “Silver Queen.” In 1892, she was making $1,000 a day from her interest in the Silver King Mine.
Within a decade, the population doubled. By 1898, 10,000 residents called Park City home. In June of that year, the worst fire Park City has ever seen destroyed 200 of the town's 350 structures. It left 500 homeless and caused $1 million dollars in property damage. The resilient residents completely rebuilt Park City within a year and a half.
In the early 1900s, miners rallied together to build Park City’s first hospital. It was much needed given the harsh mining conditions workers faced every day. Cave-ins, floods, and rickety infrastructures made mining a very dangerous trade. Minors were a rowdy bunch who frequented the twenty-seven local bars. With Prohibition in 1917, bootlegging became very popular. Prohibition was frustrating, but real hardships plagued residents leading into the 1930s- a great influenza epidemic, labor unrest, and a terrible stock market crash in 1929. Silver King stock plummeted, and the miner’s livelihoods were in jeopardy. With WWII and plunging mineral prices in the 1940s, silver mining dwindled. By 1949, all the mines shut down.
Park City in the 1950’s became increasingly known as a ghost town with a bad reputation for drinking, gambling and “giddy girls.” The town needed a big change if it was going to survive and prosper. Over the decades, many locals had enjoyed skiing and ski jumping, but it wasn’t until the late fifties that the notion of skiing as a viable industry seemed possible.
In 1963, Park City qualified for a federal loan that allowed them to start developing a ski area. That first year, the resort accommodated almost 50,000 skiers a day, and so it began! With this new sustainable industry in place, Park City has grown and flourished into the ski destination we know today, but those early mining days will forever be a part of Park City’s adventurous past.
Thank you to The Park City Historical Society and Museum for doing such a beautiful job of preserving Park City’s historic heritage. Their exceptional museum and easily accessible records make learning about Park City easy and fun.
To experience the museum for yourself, stop by 528 Main Street, call (435) 649-7457 or visit the website.