No more clowning around in this ski town: Park City has gone from ghost town to exclusive enclave |

No more clowning around in this ski town: Park City has gone from ghost town to exclusive enclave

Jeremy Evans
Photo courtesy Park City Chamber / Visitors Bureau / A beautiful winter view from above Park City shows some prime real estate at the base of the mountain.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series about mountain ski towns in the west, focusing on the issues they face regarding culture, affordable housing and schools. Reporter Jeremy Evans traveled to these towns in February to study how they deal with these issues, and compare their experiences to the South Shore.

PARK CITY, Utah – Of all the great powder days Glenn Artist has had, the day he still remembers most is April 1.

Pick a year. It doesn’t matter.

Artist remembers April 1 because it is Clown Day, an unofficial holiday that, among many things, serves as a litmus test for locals.

If a Parkite has never participated in Clown Day, chances are they moved to Park City after 1990. If they have participated, chances are they don’t remember specific details.

“Clown Day was a day when a lot of vices came out and were really encouraged,” said Park City Mayor Dana Williams, a former ski bum and alfalfa farmer who moved to Utah in the 1970s. “It kind of died out in the late 1980s. The resort just couldn’t allow it anymore. People were so intoxicated that it really created a dangerous situation. But it sure was a lot of fun.”

A colorful past

In a state branded by conservative minds, Park City has always been a throw back. Along with its colorful mining past, hippies and ski bums are important pieces of the town’s history.

Now because of soaring real estate values, similar to those found in South Shore, those subcultures are disappearing. But they sure started an interesting tradition when they were widespread.

Wear a costume and ski for free at Park City Mountain Resort. That was Clown Day’s only official rule.

One unofficial rule was stopping at a store owned by Artist. With bottles in hand, he poured virgin Bloody Mary’s and somehow spilled vodka into everyone’s cups.

A band would set up near Artist’s store, where now a multi-million dollar development complete with condominiums and shops sits at the resort’s base. When the lifts stopped turning at 4 p.m., humans dressed as gorillas and dragons and butterflies danced into the night.

Now if someone wears a costume on Clown Day, they can’t ski. The resort won’t sell them a lift ticket. But it was a different era when Artist spilled vodka, when homes could be purchased for $5,000 and cops didn’t care if people drank booze in the streets.

“All of us grew up,” said Artist, now the mountain host manager for Park City Mountain Resort. “What’s funny is the people we used to party with all have kids now and are responsible. It’s really funny the evolution of people who have stayed here for so long. A lot of the locals now have been driven out because they can’t afford to live here.”

It was the same situation 40 years ago, but people couldn’t afford to live for different reasons.

In the 1960s, roughly a decade before Clown Day originated, Park City had been boarded up and forgotten. It was an interesting history lesson for weekend tourists from Salt Lake City.

Hearst’s influence

Long before it was a site for the 2002 Winter Olympics and $1 million starter castles, Park City was a silver mining town, established in the late 1800s. When the price of silver was high, times were good and the town grew to 10,000 residents.

More than $400 million worth of silver was extracted from the area. George Hearst owned the lucrative Ontario Mine, laying the foundation for the Hearst fortune. Hearst was the father of newspaper barron William Randolph Hearst, and the money made in Park City helped fund the world-famous Hearst Castle built on the central California coast.

When the price of silver dropped, people ran for cover.

Max Mawhinney, a business owner in nearby Heber City, was born in Park City in the 1920s at the Miner’s Hospital. His family fled not long after he was born because the town had dried up.

“I remember being there during the Depression, when it was a mining town and the mines had closed,” Mawhinney said. “People were starving. The town was starving. I remember my uncle saying he could buy all of Park City for $1,000. I said ‘Why in the hell would you want to do that? There is nothing there.'”

There’s something there now.

White gold discovered

Although Park City was included on a list of ghost towns as recently as the 1970s, its reversal began in 1963, when a new mineral – white gold – rejuvenated the depressed town. The last remaining mining company around was United Park City Mines, which secured a federal loan to start Treasure Mountain Ski Area.

The resort, which is now Park City Mountain Resort, was carved into the aspen-choked hills rising above the town’s miner shacks. By the late 1980s, Deer Valley and The Canyons ski resorts had also been built, offering three destination resorts for tourists wanting to sample the Wasatch Range’s legendary light, dry powder.

Another big shift in the town’s dynamic came in the mid-1980s, when Delta Airlines bought Western Airlines. Young airline workers with three-day on, four-day off and other flexible work schedules soon discovered Park City, a developing ski town 45 minutes from Salt Lake City International Airport.

Shifting with the times

The last major shift was when the 2002 Winter Olympics were awarded to Utah, a venue that had fallen four votes short to Nagano, Japan for the 1998 Games. Park City was then exposed to the world.

People who hadn’t even heard of Utah before learned about a once-dying mining town that had surprisingly affordable real estate for a ski town. Wealthy capitalists wanted a piece of the action. They started buying those miner shacks and also building larger homes in the county.

In 1980, when drivers exited for Park City at Kimball Junction along Interstate 80, there was a McDonald’s and a hotel. That was it. The next several miles then consisted of nothing but open farmland until drivers reached the town limits, signified by a white barn.

In 2006, there is a Wal-Mart, a TJ Maxx and other suburban subdivisions and commercial developments at the junction. That open farmland has since been subdivided and sold off to the highest bidder.

The white barn remains, but Summit County has effectively become a second-home enclave as well as a suburb of Salt Lake City, located about 30 miles to the west. With Park City cramped for space and the county growing uncontrollably, locals are again running for cover.

The downside of economics

So to tell the story of Park City in 2006 requires telling the story of Heber City, a rural town 20 miles away that houses many of Park City’s employees. Kamas, Oakdale and Coalville – hard-scrabble towns with weak economies of their own – also house many of the town’s priced-out locals.

“What it does is it hollows out your town,” said Myles Rademan, Park City’s director of public affairs and communications who moved to Utah in the 1980s. “It’s no longer an economic issue. It’s the soul of your town you’re fighting for because nobody lives here anymore. When people say to me now ‘I want to live in Park City and I can’t afford it,’ I don’t know what to say to them exactly.

“On the one hand, I want to say ‘Go find someplace that’s not famous and make something out of it. We worked hard to make this place nice. Don’t come crying to me now because you can’t afford to live here.’ On the other hand, if we don’t have any new people coming in, we’re dying. We’re going to be dead.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User