Every winter thousands of powder-seeking skiers make the trek up Little Cottonwood Canyon to ski at the acclaimed Alta Resort. Their journey mirrors a similar one taken one hundred years prior by miners who rushed up the canyon to mine silver. During this bonanza, miners created the City of Alta while working at the Emma Silver Mine.
Only a few miles southeast of Salt Lake City on the Wasatch Front stands Little Cottonwood Canyon, forged by a giant alpine glacier. Soon after arriving at the Salt Lake Valley, the pioneers quickly sought to explore their new home, including the canyon. Up until the 1860s, there had been very little mining done in the Salt Lake Valley apart from the quarrying near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. However, the 1863 discovery of ore in Bingham Canyon, directly west from Little Cottonwood Canyon, led to an increase in mining and prospecting throughout Utah. The discovery piqued interest in prospecting and led to the subsequent discovery of silver in 1864 in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The details surrounding the first silver strike are vague, but the stunning reaction to the ore is not.
After the discovery, miners quickly petitioned for a new mining district, which eventually led to the creation of the Little Cottonwood Mining District. With a proper mining district in place, the miners of Salt Lake City began frantically searching for deposits all along the Wasatch Range. Eventually, the miners struck a lode brimming with silver about nine miles up the canyon. The continual influx of miners led to the creation of a small mining city in 1865 that they named Alta, due to the high elevation of the city. The miners also named the mine itself the Emma Mine.
Miners continued to profit from the Emma Silver Mine during the end of the 1860s but still required financing from investors to support the operation. Owners of the Emma Mine looked to sell ownership to British investors in accordance with common practice of the time. In 1871, Senator William M. Stewart and James E. Lyon attempted to sell the mine for an estimated $1.5 million. To portray the mine as profitable, Stewart and Lyon sent falsified estimates and production numbers that hid the reality of the declining profitability of the mine. They even went as far as to have Robert C. Schenck, a U.S. ambassador, promote the quality and profitability of the Emma Mine to English investors. Eventually the mine sold for $5 million to English investors, and even after an investigation, Congress did not charge any individual with criminal offense.
The obvious lack of ore within the region led to a decrease in production and relevance of the mine. Additionally, a massive fire destroyed the mine and most of the City of Alta in 1878. Then in 1885, an avalanche leveled the town once again during one of Utah’s intense winters. By the turn of the century, the already small mining town of Alta had greatly diminished and by the 1930s, only one resident remained, George Watson. Watson eventually sold his land in the canyon to the U.S. Forest Service who had plans to develop the area into a ski resort with the help of skiing legend Alf Engen. By 1938, they built the first ski lift, and the city began to grow once again, this time as a resort city instead of a mining town.