The area around Ketchum, Idaho, was first explored by beaver trappers in about 1824. It was not until the gold rush of the 1860s that the town began to grow. Sheep followed precious metals as the area’s leading industry after the collapse of the silver market in 1893. The town might have remained a sleepy sheep town without the vision of W. Averill Harriman, chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, to develop a destination ski resort in the West. Ketchum was transformed with the development of neighboring Sun Valley. After gold was discovered in Idaho in 1860, prospectors poured into the mountainous areas of Idaho, and by 1880, a small “Tent City” had been established and named Galena, about 25 miles north of what is now Ketchum. Among the early prospectors was David Ketchum, who operated a pack train for prospectors and merchants, and built a cabin along the banks of the Wood River in 1879. Soon, Issac Lewis, one of the area’s founders, arrived, bringing an entire assay laboratory from Butte, Montana. By the end of 1889, the town of Ketchum had more than 2,000 residents, 13 saloons, four restaurants, two hotels, several bordellos, two banks, a drug store, bookstore, brewery, lumberyard, weekly newspaper, three blacksmiths, six livery stables and seven stages per day. When the silver market collapsed, most of Ketchum’s residents left in search of greener pastures. In the late 1860s, not long after gold was discovered, John Hailey brought the first sheep into the Wood River Valley and Idaho recorded a sheep population of 14,000. By 1890, there were approximately 614,000. Following the silver market collapse, sheep became the area’s leading industry. By 1918, the sheep population reached 2.65 million. During that time, thousands of lambs were shipped by rail to markets around the West, and the Idaho market was second only to Sydney, Australia. Today as in the early days, sheep migrate north each spring from the Snake River Plain of southern Idaho to summer mountain pasture in the Wood River Valley. The route takes them up Hwy 75 through the towns of Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum. Since October 1997, an annual “Trailing of the Sheep” weekend celebration has brought thousands of visitors as the sheep return south to winter on the plains. Author Ernest Hemingway lived and died in Ketchum. His first trip to Sun Valley was in 1939 as one of the many celebrities invited to the new resort. He made many trips to Idaho before establishing residence there with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, in 1958. An avid hunter, it is said that he wrote in the mornings and hunted in the afternoons. In 1961, Hemingway took his own life at his Ketchum home. He is buried in the Ketchum cemetery next to Mary. In his honor, a memorial with a bronze bust of the author overlooks Trail Creek with an inscription:
Best of all, he loved the fall the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods leaves floating on trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies . . . Now he will be a part of them forever. The message was written by Hemingway as a eulogy for his friend, Gene Van Guilder who was killed in a hunting accident.
Ketchum is still a western town, and one of its major celebrations is Wagon Days on Labor Day weekend. However, like neighboring Sun Valley, it has become an international resort community. The little town in the beautiful Wood River Valley is populated by art galleries, upscale eateries and boutiques. It attracts numerous events and is a year-round tourist destination. The entire Wood River Valley continues to grow. The Sun Valley Chamber and Visitors Bureau’s most recent figures for home sales through September, 2005, list the average sales price of a single family home in Sun Valley at $2,231,875; in Ketchum at $1,295,041; in the Mid Valley (between Ketchum and Hailey) at $1,275,304; in Hailey at $464,231; in Bellevue at $364,065.