Tag Archives: parkhurst

Exploring Parkhurst, Whistler’s “ghost town”

If you hike into the former site of Parkhurst on Green Lake today, you will find a few falling-down log cabins, and some rusted pieces of machinery that barely hint at its past as a booming logging community. There are also some more recent relics, including a once-white corvette with red leather seats, left behind by those that squatted at the site in the 1970s.

In November, Sarah Drewery, the Museum Collection Manager, interviewed Norm Barr, whose parents owned Parkhurst Mill from 1926-1930 and then stayed on to manage it until 1938. Although he was born in 1932, and was just six years old when they moved on to Brackendale, he was able to provide some interesting pieces of information to help fill out the story of the mill and settlement at Parkhurst.

Norm Barr and neighbor Jack Findlay in 1936

Alison and Ross Barr were married in 1923, and lived in Mission, where Ross and his brothers William and Malcolm were running the Barr Brothers’ Logging Company. When they ran out of available timber, they began looking for suitable property elsewhere. Initially, they went to Vancouver Island, but ultimately found there was more potential in the area around Green Lake.

As luck would have it, there was a prime piece of land available right on Green Lake – the property had a point jutting out into the water, making it a perfect location for a steam-operated mill. This land belonged to the Parkhursts, who pre-empted the property in 1902. When Mr. Parkhurst passed away, Mrs. Parkhurst put it up for sale, along with the small log house they had built on the point. In 1926, it was purchased by the Barrs, who got to work building a mill and a camp for workers (including both bunkhouses and a few family homes).

When the mill opened, they named it after the former landowners. It had three crews, with the total number of workers fluctuating between 60 and 70. Due to the snow, the mill had to close from two to five months of the year, resulting in seasonal work for the crews. Workers came from Vancouver and elsewhere, but most stayed only temporarily.

Logging operation at Parkhurst, late 1920s. This photograph shows a railcar, a spar tree and the steam donkey. The man standing on a log in the foreground is Ross Barr.

The Barr’s Parkhurst Mill was a very successful business, shipping lumber as far away as Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. However, when the Great Depression hit, the price of lumber plummeted, making it impossible to cover the cost of transport. In 1930, the business went into receivership. According to Norm, the receiver hired Ross and Alison to remain on as watchmen while he worked to get the property sold. They were able to stay living in the house, but all they got for their work was $50 a month and a barrel of coal oil to burn for their lamps.

They were the only ones that stayed. All of the crew members left immediately, hoping to secure other work at a time when jobs were extremely scarce. As for the Barr brothers, Malcolm had met an unfortunate end in 1928 when he fell off of the boat they used to pull logs around into Green Lake and drowned. William moved to Vancouver when the business went under, worked some odd jobs, and got married.

In 1932, the operation was sold to Byron Smith and B.C. Keeley, and it was renamed Northern Mills. The Barrs remained on as managers of the thriving company until a spectacular fire burnt the mill to the ground in June of 1938. Although the mill was rebuilt and eventually reopened, the Barrs had moved south to Squamish by November of that year.

Immediately following the fire, what remained of the mill itself was moved to a site at the north end of Lost Lake. This was a somewhat shortsighted maneuver, and after 1939 it was moved back to Parkhurst, since the location next to the railway was significantly more convenient. The new mill was as big as the original one, and the settlement grew with more family homes added, a small store, and eventually a school. The mill operated until the 1950s.

If you want to get a glimpse of the past, we recommend paddling a canoe across Green Lake and spending some time exploring – while you’re there, imagine what it was like when the mill was operational. For more details on the later years of the mill, see the article “Family Life at Parkhurst Mill” here.

Family Life at Parkhurst Mill

One of the greatest criticisms of mainstream and academic history is that it focuses on, and thus legitimizes  “dominant” narratives from the perspective of societies most powerful figures such as politicians, business leaders, and so on. A lot of this has to do with the materials that historians have traditionally used to craft their stories: written and printed documents.

To correct this imbalance social historians began employing different sources and methods, most notably oral history, to help preserve and interpret the perspectives of society’s more marginalized and oft-forgotten members such as ethnic minorities, working-class families, and women.

The Whistler Museum is fortunate to hold in its archives dozens of oral history interviews and written correspondence conducted since the early 1980s that tell important and insightful aspects of our valley’s history that would have otherwise been lost with the passage of time.

Between 1948 and 1956 Olie and Eleanor Kitteringham, along with their children Ron, Jim, and Linda (born Valentine’s Day, 1949), called Parkhurst their home. Thanks to a 1989 letter written to the Whistler Museum by Eleanor entitled “Our Family Life at Parkhurst” we have insights into the tight-knit community.

Eleanor’s recollections are full of details about the seemingly endless work it took to raise a family in this remote mountain outpost, but she clearly looked back fondly upon those trying years.

Surviving three changes in ownership and one full-fledged fire, a lumber mill operated more or less continuously from 1923 to 1966 at the Parkhurst site (named after the original landowners) on the north-east shore of Green Lake. Afterwards, the remaining structures were occupied by ski bums during Whistler’s squatting heyday, and the collapsed remains of a dozen or so houses (along with a few decaying vehicles and the squatters’ garbage heap of broken bottles, rusty tin cans and the like) can still be found on the largely grown-over site.

Of the roughly 30 men who ran the mill from May to November, (up to fifty had worked at the older, less efficient mill), only about one third were family men, and at first, the Kitteringham’s were the only ones who lived at Parkhurst year round. While daily life entailed constant labour, even more challenging was dealing with the inevitable illnesses that come with raising three young children. Unconventional healthcare strategies became essential, as Eleanor recounted:

I always said to the family, if you are going to get sick it has to be on Wednesday, Friday or Sunday, that’s the days the passenger train went on through from Lillooet to Squamish… (Once) Ron was delirious for 3 days with a very high temperature. My doctor book said it might be bronchial pneumonia, so I phoned the doctor [there was a hand-dial phone in the mill office] and asked that I have some Penicillin thrown off by the next freight train at our station – it worked.

Winters were isolated, but not completely alone. Their nearest neighbours were the Greens, 2 miles to the north, and the MacKinnons, roughly the same distance to the south. Along with the Greens the Kitteringhams formed a band called the Valley Ramblers, often playing benefit dances around the country to raise money for the Squamish Hospital. Musical get-togethers with their neighbours were a weekly highlight on the Kitterringham’s social calendar:

We walked the tracks in the winter with [baby] Linda in a clothes basket tied onto a sled … We played canasta, drank homebrew. Pretty hard to have to wake the kids and walk the two miles back. Those nights were quite beautiful though, when you can touch the stars and everything sparkles and glistens and that “crunch” of dry snow.

Schooling for the children was a makeshift affair. Only in 1956, their last year at the mill, were there the requisite 11 children for a proper school to run at the mill. In other years the children were home-schooled by Eleanor, while for a few years the boys made the daily trek to the trek to the Alta Lake schoolhouse. The day started with a 6am ride on the Queen Mary tugboat down to the end of Green Lake – often driven and docked by the eldest brother Ron! After moving back to Vancouver, Eleanor proudly reported that all three children graduated high shool with “high standards” despite ” a somewhat sketchy education.”

Middle child Jim later settled in Emerald Estates – the only original Parkhurst resident to live in Whistler. He took his mother for a tour of the old mill site three decades after they lived there. By then most of the site had been flattened by neglect and and persistent winter snowpacks, but she could still identify the remains of the family chicken coop, rabbit pen, children’s playhouse and the single-log wharf they swam from in the summers.

Despite the hard work and the obvious lack of modern creature comforts (Eleanor singled out disposable Pamper’s diapers and a TV for the children to watch Sesame Street as wished-for items), Eleanor sums up her 8 years on the quiet shores of Green Lake fondly: “Life was very peaceful, no traffic, crowds, etc., beautiful country all around us. [We had no idea} that anything like Whistler and Blackcomb would develop.”