The first discoveries of precious metals in the mountains around Salt Lake City appeared in the early 1860s. Colonel Patrick E. Connor of Fort Douglas instigated the search, encouraging his men to prospect with the purpose of bringing non-Mormons into the Utah Territory. The first recorded claim of the Park City Mining District was the Young American lode in December 1869. Clearly by the 1870s, production in that area had begun, perpetuated by the discovery of a large vein of silver ore in what would become the Ontario Mine. In its heyday, it was considered the greatest silver mine in the world.
In May 1872, George Snyder and his family arrived in the mountain valley. Awed by the lush grasses and blazing wildflowers he christened the area, “…Park City, for it is a veritable park.” In 1884, Park City incorporated. Prospectors found that silver proved to be abundant and dozens of mines in the Park City Mining District actively made shipments by the 1880s. The Daly Mining Company and Anchor Mining Company were two of the first major producers doing so well that even the national financial panic of 1893 had a marginal impact.
The mining boom of Park City brought hundreds of prospectors into the area. They set up camps along the hillsides near the mines, bringing with them diverse religions and ethnic traditions. Between 1870 and 1900, Park City’s population increased by 40 percent. Originally, the town consisted of boarding houses, mills, stores, saloons, prostitute “cribs,” theaters, and mine buildings. But by the 1880s, many prospectors had either sent for their families or were bringing them along, building houses and establishing schools. The first school in Park City was St. Mary’s School operated by the Sisters of the Parish of St. Mary of the Assumption. City officials also organized sanitary committees and established a water system, telephone service, and chartered a fire company.
A number of spectacular fires mark Park City’s history. Built primarily of wooden structures, the town experienced its worst destruction in June 1898. Canyon winds fanned the flames of an early morning fire. Within seven hours three-quarters of the town had burned causing over one million dollars in damage. The blaze was the greatest in Utah history. It left Main Street in ruins with only a few gaunt walls remaining of the 200 businesses, houses, and dwellings. Front-page newspaper headings put the fire alongside stories of the Spanish-American War. In the residents’ haste to rebuild their town, they again built wooden structures in very close proximity, leaving the town vulnerable to future fires.
By the turn of the century, Park City mines had made such men as David Keith, Thomas Kearns, John Daly, John Judge, and Ezra Thompson, very wealthy. Class differences in Park City were instant and complex. Miners came from such places as the depleted mines in Nevada, Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. Many of the Chinese who had worked on the transcontinental railroad came only to suffer severe bigotry. Societal status depended on one’s economic holdings, occupation, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and membership in fraternal organizations. In Park City, success was enjoyed by a few, but produced by many; fortunes were made and lost, ultimately making millionaires of twenty-three men and women.
The mining industry had a large impact on the economy of Utah, accounting for 78 percent of the state’s total exports in 1882. Mines stayed healthy initially by merging or buying out weaker competitors. In 1925 the Park Consolidated Mining Company formed by merging Park City Mining and Smelting Company with the Park Utah and the Ontario Silver Mining Company. The new company discovered a gigantic body of ore and by 1928 emerged as the largest single silver producer in the United States.
Shortly after World War I the mines experienced serious labor unrest. The only strike in Utah led by International Workers of the World (IWW) was in 1919, but lasted only one month. Other strikes persisted and the economy faced further crippling by the Great Depression. Oddly, the great demand for metals during World War II actually caused Park City mines to experience further suffering. By the 1950s, fewer than 200 men worked in the mines and Park City became distinguished as a “ghost town.”
The late 20th century Park City transformed into a recreational facility. The Park City Ski Area was opened and the old mines were open to tourists. In a 1990 poll, it ranked second among North American ski resorts, leaving a legacy that had produced by the early 1960s, a total value of $500 million in silver, gold, lead, and zinc.
Sources: David Hampshire, Martha Sonntag Bradley and Allen Roberts, The History of Summit County