By Chris von Imhof
Special to the Turnagain Times
Photo courtesy of The Anchorage Times
Francois de Gunzburg
Francois de Gunzburg was a Baron, member of the Rothschild banking family, lived in a Paris mansion and owned a beautiful chalet in Chamonix, where he grew up skiing.
Alaskan's called him Frenchy, and he was jovial, unpretentious, young and optimistic man. He was the “ Catch of a lifetime” for the Girdwood residents who had passed the hat to raise money for land to build a ski resort.
He purchased the fledgling Alyeska Ski Corporation and invested enough money to expand the local ski hill with one rope tow into the beginnings of an International Ski Resort.
Bob Atwood, the publisher of the Anchorage Daily Times emphasized the importance of this large private investment as a major milestone for the economic development of Girdwood and Anchorage.
In 1959, Francois hired Jim Branch as ski area manager just in time for the inaugural opening of his $200,000 investment with a 1,200 foot Poma Platter lift, ski trails, day lodge and parking area for 50 Cars.
It had snowed 10 feet of snow in 36 hours and just to plow the mile-long winding gravel road with a homemade bridge across Glacier creek was a major challenge. So much snow fell that winter season that the road wad reduced to a single lane where cars and moose competed for right-of way.
Jim Branch was a former Dartmouth ski racer, whose passion was skiing and when he arrived in Girdwood he recognized the ski area and mountain potential, maybe more than it's challenges.
Money was tight but Francois had connections with some big money people, such as Laurence Rockefeller, Seagram's board chairman Samuel Bronfman and Texas hotel magnate T.L. Wynne Jr. and the Murchison Brothers to raise enough investment for the next phase of Alyeska's development.
On March 7, 1960 he sent a letter to French lift maker Jean Pomagalski ordering chairlift #1, a 5,700 feet double chairlift that would rise 2000 vertical feet.
Chair 1 opened on Christmas Day under the most miserable conditions. Freezing rain turned the area into a skating ring. Cars were sliding down the parking lot and skiers wore garbage bags over their skiwear.
Alyeska offered it's first season ticket for $125 for adults, but Alaskan's were not used to pay for ski lift tickets and the lines were so short, that the chairlift was known as Millionaires lift.
With the limited population of Alaska and the periodic weather challenges the financial situation was not good. Francois felt he needed to promote Alyeska on a National and International level. He persuaded The US Ski Association to hold the 1963 US National Championships and Olympic trials at Alyeska Resort.
Alyeska was also the host for the annual International Airlines Ski Races, but that's another story.
Correction: In the last column of Peaks and Valleys in the Dec. 17 issue, it was incorrectly printed that Alyeska Ski Corporation submitted a winning bid of $3.325 million for 160 acres of land at the base of Mt. Alyeska. The amount was actually $3,325.