Power Up!

Throughout BC we are blessed with an abundance of mighty rivers from which we get almost 90% of our electricity. Here in Whistler we’re surrounded by hydro-generating stations of all sizes, notably the IPP on Fitzsimmons Creek which provides for all of Whistler-Blackcomb’s electricity needs. [Correction – it produces the equivalent of all W-B’s electricity needs, but the power is sent to the province’s main power grid.]

A helpful little diagram of W-B’s Fitzsimmons Creek hydro-electricity plant.

Considering this natural bounty, it’s hard to believe that a mere 50 years ago Alta Lake residents had still not entered the modern electric era.

As Whistlerites have always been wont to do, a few residents took matters into their own hands. Bob Williamson installed a small wind-powered turbine at the south end of Alta Lake but it could only power a few lights when the wind picked up. Dick Fairhurst was more successful with the water-wheel and generator he installed on Scotia Creek in 1954, providing steady, reliable power for his Cypress Lodge (the old hostel building next to Rainbow Park). In later years the Philips had also purchased a gas-powered generator for Rainbow Lodge. But aside from these few enterprising DIY-ers, Alta Lake residents continued on with pre-electric living.

Alta Lake resident Bob Williamson working on a power line, circa 1940s.

Heating was mostly from firewood (some residents had oil or coal-burning furnaces) and bed-time reading was done by candlelight or gas lantern. Refrigeration was accomplished in sheds full of thick ice blocks cut from Alta Lake in winter and insulated through the summer with sawdust from local mills.

This lack of hydro service must have been especially frustrating since high-voltage transmission lines ran through the valley as early as the 1930s, linking the Bridge River Hydro dam to Vancouver. At the same time there were plenty of plans for more hydro-development closer to home, including dams at Garibaldi Lake, Cheakamus Lake, on the Soo River and elsewhere, but that’s another story altogether.

Then in the late 1950s, BC Hydro built the Cheakamus Dam at Daisy Lake and another set of transmission lines linking Seton Portage to Squamish was constructed. Ironically, work crews for the power lines (which included a young Peter Alder, the influential ski area manager/developer who continues to call Whistler home) were even housed at the still-unserviced Rainbow Lodge for some time. Still, no infrastructure was provided to convert the 230,000 volts running through the valley into something a little more manageable for the residents of Alta Lake.

It wasn’t until November 1965, a few months before ski operations on Whistler Mountain began, that the Rainbow Substation was finally completed. It was only fitting that Alex and Myrtle Philip were the honourary guests at the opening ceremonies. In typically stylish fashion the Philips were a little late for the event, but as Alex noted, “after 54 years without hydro, what’s five minutes?”

The Philips attend the Rainbow Substation opening ceremony in typically stylish fashion, 18 November, 1965. Left to right: unidentified, Alex Philip, long-time Whistler resident and BC Hydro employe Rolley Horsey, Myrtle Philip.

Alex was granted the honour of actually flipping the switch that finally energized the valley. Unable to conceal the thrill of the moment, Alex let out an excited “I did it!” and a new era dawned upon the Whistler Valley. For the now-retired Philips this meant they could spend the winter at Alta Lake, instead of with friends in the city as they had in previous years.

The Philips tour the new Rainbow substation with an unidentified BC Hydro employee, November 18, 1965.

And so a new era dawned for the Whistler Valley, albeit a little late. According to Wladek “Walter” Zebrowski‘s biography In Search of Freedom, the arrival of electricity almost prevented Whistler’s development into the massive resort it is today. While clearing his land near what would soon become Creekside in July 1964, Zebrowski was suddenly drawn from his work by the deafening roar of a helicopter setting down nearby:

A man got out–it was Bob Brown, a surveyor for the B.C. Hydro Corporation–and he informed Wladek that a power line was going to be put through his land.The forty meter wide line with transmission towers… was to cut through the whole valley (today the centre of town with the town and and four large residential areas). The plans had been already made, the land had been prepared and many tress had been cut out. He was here just to take the last measurements as the construction was to start very soon.

The book continues to recount how Zebrowski immediately halted working and drove to Vancouver to inform Franz Wilhelmson at the GLC offices. The next day they met with B.C. Hydro Chairman Dr. Gordon Shrum and convinced them to relocate the transmission line so as not to interfere with the planned ski area and adjoining residential developments. Instead, the high transmission lines run along the west side of the valley–the more populated side during the Alta Lake era–leaving room for Whistler to develop into its current state.

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