With Christmas closely behind us, ‘tis the season to recall one of Whistler’s most curious Christmastime mysteries – an event that took place over seventy years ago on a cold December night in 1938. I’m referring to the disappearance of Ernie Archibald. Aside from the mystery of Ernie’s disappearance, the story itself is somewhat inconclusive due to its varying accounts.
Ernie Archibald came to Whistler in 1912 and lived on the east side of Alta Lake. What we know for certain of this story is that on the night of his disappearance, Ernie had a guest, George Trites, staying with him at his home. As Florence Petersen distinguishes in her book First Tracks: Whistler’s Early History, Ernie and George were heading to Fred Woods’ home located across the lake from the Archibald residence. However, in an interview in 2012, Glen Smith (Ernie’s grandson) recalls his mother telling him the story and stating that Ernie and George were actually on their way to catch a train to Vancouver. The two men – whether it be to catch a train or to visit a friend’s house for dinner – left Ernie’s house and attempted to cross Alta Lake. Prior to visiting Ernie, George had injured his leg and therefore, in order to cross the lake, Ernie had to pull George in a sleigh. The two men never made it to their destination.
As days wore on, friends began to notice Ernie’s absence. As one story goes, Fred Woods noticed a lamp burning in the front window of Ernie’s home – at this time it was the custom to leave a gas lamp burning in your window before leaving your home so that you could find your way back after dark. Eddie Droll, a young man visiting Fred, offered to walk across the iced-over lake to find out if George and Ernie were home. The two men, of course, were not.
George’s sleigh was later found on top of the frozen lake, while George’s body was found in the lake. Ernie Archibald, however, was never found. This is where the story takes an interesting turn. First, some people thought it was strange that the sleigh had not also fallen through the ice with the two men. Secondly, George Trites had sustained a serious wound to his forehead.
Despite the strange plot twists, many believe that Ernie Archibald is still in Alta Lake. Of course, it is all speculation and hearsay. But it makes you wonder what really happened on that cold December night in 1938.