A jackass, a big hill, and the community that loves them

This is the story of the lucrative jackass that started it all (up on a hill), the memory and embodiment of that jackass (and that hill), and the story of survival of a beloved ski area that was far from lucrative.

All ski areas have many ups and downs in their history, not just in relation to lift operations up and down the mountain. But the Jackass Ski Resort has had more downs than ups in its lifetime. It is safe to say that it has only survived because of the communities that love it, both the local ones and from a distance.

Originally named “Jackass Ski Bowl” in honor of Bill the $12,000,000 burro who accidentally assisted in the founding of the Bunker Hill Mine near Kellogg. The ski area is located on lands leased from the Bunker Hill Mining Company, and is directly above some of the underground work areas. The original discovery site is not far from the bottom terminal of the ski lift. It was the brain child of the “Fabulous Valley Development Corporation” who sold shares of stock in the corporation to fund the building of the area. Many valley residents excitedly purchased stock with cash or traded work for shares of stock in the company to support the effort. The original ski area consisted of one Riblet chairlift serving 2 mountain ski bowls (Wardner Peak and Kellogg Peak), with a capacity of 900 skiers per hour, and the Tamarack Lodge was designed by local Coeur d’Alene architect Robert Nelson. The striking design of the lodge includes a roof that slants in almost every direction, designed to channel falling snow away from areas used by skiers. Opening day was December 16th, 1967 and many local big names attended the festivities. Due to a delay in the arrival of parts the lift was not in operation until December 23rd, along with plans for two rope tows near the lodge for beginner skiers.

The first few seasons were promising, with some plans for ski lift expansion. But following the poor fifth and sixth seasons, the area was liquidated in a foreclosure sale in 1973 and acquired by the Bunker Hill Mining Company for $100,100. The Shoshone Recreation Company, the subsidiary of Bunker Hill that was set to run the ski area, changed the name to Silverhorn as a nod to the Silberhorn ski area in the Bernese Alps. They built the cat shop that can still be seen from midway chair 4 today. But with the turbulent early history of labor disputes and the collapse of the mining economy in the late 70s/early 80s, they were forced to close the ski area in 1981.

Bunker Hill Limited, formed by Jack Simplot, Duane Hagadone, Harry F. Magnason and Jack Kendrick, bought the faltering ski area. It became quickly apparent that the cost of operation was more than the income generated, and in 1983 they began looking for another buyer for the ski area.

Silverhorn was accessed by a difficult and dangerous twisting mountain road, which climbed over 2,700 feet in just seven miles with an average grade of over seven percent. The road begins on the main street of Wardner, then follows the old Sierra Nevada road which was used by ore wagons in the early days, then winds around the mountain to the three-story, 10,000 square foot lodge. Bunker Hill Ltd paid $35,000 a year just for plowing to keep the road accessible for visitors. The Silver Valley cannot afford to lose another business, both for monetary reasons and local morale. So, in 1984 an arrangement was made between Bunker Hill Ltd and the city of Kellogg that allowed the city to operate the ski area in exchange for the payment of all property taxes levied against the ski area land. With the city managing road maintenance it would not make the ski area profitable, but it would reduce the yearly losses to a more manageable rate. The cost of an adult lift ticket increased from $12 to $14 for the first time since the ski area opened, but this was a happy exchange, allowing the operation cost to slow its rise while still affording the ability to keep the ski area open.

If the ski area was to attract more tourism affordably, a better way of reaching the mountain was sorely necessary. City Councilman Wayne Ross introduced a profound new idea: constructing a gondola from the valley floor up to an expanded ski and summer resort. This change could breathe new life into the area and stimulate a staggering economy, recently devastated by the loss of local mining and logging jobs. The Gondola Board applied for a grant from Congress to assist in the construction of the gondola, and in December 1987 they were awarded a $6.4 million dollar grant for the area. September of 1988, the city of Kellogg voted to tax itself $2 million ($100,000 per year for 20 years) to help fund the new endeavor. The state government of Idaho and Washington Water Power Company also assisted with funding. The Von Roll Tramways, a Swiss lift manufacturing company, then agreed to guarantee the remaining funds needed for gondola construction.

April 25, 1989, construction on the “new” Silverhorn began. The original Jackass chair was renamed to Chair 4, plus the addition of 4 new chair lines and an assortment of other new expansions. The resort reopened with a brand new name of Silver Mountain in July 1989. In he city of Kellogg decided to redecorate and mimic the Bavarian alpine feel of Leavenworth, Washington. They added in murals, gingerbread trim and other design elements to the buildings and businesses around town. The new decoration was a heartfelt effort, but did not end up providing much benefit for tourism.

The world’s longest single-stage gondola opened on June 30th, 1990. It runs for 3.1 miles and climbs over 1000 meters (3400 feet) for nearly twenty minutes. There are longer gondolas in the world, but those either use “angle stations” or aren’t solely for carrying people. Unfortunately, there was significant spending beyond the original budget for the construction phase of the project and it lead to an insurmountable debt load for the city of Kellogg. The city council decided to search for a new owner and in June 1996 sold the assets to Eagle Crest, Inc (a subsidiary of Jen-Weld Corp).

Eagle Crest had some new and exciting ideas for the area and rushed to begin planning and construction. They envisioned a ski-in, ski-out resort village, and set out to construct the Morning Star Lodge condominiums, the Galena Golf Course, and the Silver Rapids Waterpark. Over the next decade they were met with success on all of their projects except for the ski-in, ski-out village. However, the financial crisis of 2008 took its toll on the resort and it was officially listed for sale. They budgeted to keep it open and operating year-round for a short term until a sale was made, still leaving room for improvements like revamping the bike park and reopening to the public in 2013. In October 2016 Silver Mountain was purchased for $5 million by Tryg Fortun, a Seattle-area businessman and Silver Mountain season pass holder. In total, Silver Mountain currently has 73 named trails covering 1,600 acres of skiable terrain, five chairlifts and 2,200 feet of vertical served by seven lifts. Will the resort finally be able to operate in the black? That history has not yet unfolded.