A miner's shack gets a facelift.

Image: Kurtis White

Hard rock miners never expected their settlements to last. A cheap, hastily built shack kept the snow off their heads (and beds) until the next discovery sent them off once again chasing fortune. And yet here Park City stands, more prosperous than ever, with those miners’ shacks strung out above Main Street. Woodside, Norfolk, Marsac, Daly, Sampson, and Empire are now prized addresses for those with a love of history, fine living, and the ability to pay millions for a reimagined miner’s abode packed with modern conveniences.

Contractor Jim Clifford

Image: Steven Vargo

“The miners’ houses were just a step above a tent,” contractor Jim Clifford says while standing outside 839 Woodside, his latest “remodeling” project. “Originally, the foundation was just a miner’s hand-stacked rock wall,” he explains. Clifford arrived in town nearly 40 years ago as a ski coach. He began working construction in 1969 and started his own company in 1988, with a subspecialty of turning century-old “temporary” shacks into modern ski homes.

“We’ve found newspapers in the walls dated 1880,” Clifford says. Newspapers, old wallpaper, and even pine cones were stuffed into the gaps of houses to keep out winter’s chill. And there were plenty of gaps. Miners laid out wide planks side by side, covered them with newspapers, and then overlapped and nailed more planks over the first layer. The plank walls were tilted up and tied together with cross beams and a lot more nails. An uninsulated roof covered the flimsy walls. “They weren’t stud walls,” Clifford says. “Structurally, they were nothing that came close to holding up under the snow loads we had in Park City. As long as they had that wood-burning stove going, it kept the snow melted.” When owners abandoned shacks and the embers cooled, snow would build to the point of collapse. Today’s remaining originals are survivors.

Restoration begins below ground with a new foundation. For that, Clifford and other contractors call John William “JW” Whiteley. “I’ve probably done 75 of these,” he says. “I’ve been doing them since 1983.” Whiteley arrived fresh out of a Long Beach high school in 1973 to live the ski bum life. “It was pretty irresistible in the ’70s and ’80s!” In 1983 his company, JWW Excavating, and his partner, house mover Bob Wells, began perfecting the delicate art of lifting wobbly shacks and resting them on steel beams held up by railroad tie–size “cribs” so he could excavate beneath them to build foundations.  

“No one wants to live in an 800-square-foot miner’s shack, especially for two million dollars.”

—JW Whiteley, JWW Excavating

The space beneath also allows Old Town remodels on the uphill side to have garages. In his digging around Old Town, Whiteley has turned up thousands of bottles, mostly in the bottoms of the old outhouses behind every house. “That must have been the only place a guy could go to drink!” he laughs.  He also has a big collection of marbles and has found a safe (with one penny in it), and even a human skull. “It turned out to be grandpa, buried in the backyard.” But the most talked-about find was one he didn’t bring home. “I found 160 sticks of dynamite under a nice family home. We shut the town down for two blocks while the bomb squad removed it!”

Before a house goes onto the cribs, Clifford strips as much out of the house as possible to reduce the weight and adds structural cross braces. Once the foundation is set, pneumatic jacks lower the house onto the foundation, the cribs are removed, and remodeling begins.

“It’s not cost effective,” Whiteley notes. “But no one wants to live in an 800-square-foot miner’s shack, especially for two million dollars.” Even when a house is radically upgraded with elevators, garages, and hot tub decks, he can still walk down the street and remember the original house and its occupants from 1973 when he became an Old Town resident. “I love Old Town—there’s a lot of nostalgia here.”   

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