The Pacific Great Eastern Railroad

The construction of Rainbow Lodge in 1914 is recognized as a seminal moment in our valley’s history, and deservedly so. But something else happened that same year that is equally important to the creation of a tourism industry and Whistler’s early history.

When Alex & Myrtle Philip first visited Alta Lake in 1911, it famously took them three days to get here from Vancouver, by boat and on foot. That all changed with the completion of the first leg of the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) Railway in 1914.

philips on pemb trail

The route to Alta Lake, pre-PGE. Myrtle & Alex Philip coming up the Pemberton Trail on their first visit in August 1911.

Now, somebody leaving Vancouver early in the morning could ride a steamship to Squamish, transfer to the passenger car on the train right by the waterfront, and be at Rainbow Lodge in time for dinner. Not quite the speed of today’s Sea-to-Sky Highway, but a drastic improvement nonetheless.

This was not just a nice creature comfort; this was essential for the nascent tourist trade.

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The rugged Cheakamus Canyon, roughly halfway between Squamish and Alta Lake, was the main engineering challenge confronted by the new railway.

The railway was not built with tourism in mind. Linking Lillooet to Squamish (but not Vancouver), the PGE railway was built to service the heavier industries in the interior, particularly mining and forestry. Providing access to the coast was crucial for the development of a resource-based economy, as it allowed these heavy goods to be shipped overseas to market. Here in the valley, the railway led to an immediate increase in logging activity (think Parkhurst), and some mining operations (particularly iron and copper) got substantial enough to make use of the train as well.

Despite its seminal role in our valley, the PGE was mis-managed from the start. In 1915 the owner’s of the privately-held railway began missing bond payments, and the province of BC took over ownership a few years later.

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Riders were treated to a spectacular view of Brandywine Falls.

The original plan was for the railway to extend all the way to Prince George, the commercial centre of northern BC, where it could connect to the broader, nation-wide rail system. Even with provincial control however, this wan’t achieved until 1950, earning it tongue-in-cheek nicknames like “Province’s Great Expense” and “Prince George, Eventually.”

Regardless, it was a lifeblood of the early community of Alta Lake, not only bringing tourists, but provisions and supplies, transported locals to the city, and connected them to essential services that weren’t available here, like hospitals and (sometimes) schools.

And Rainbow Lodge was right in the centre of it all. There were several designated stops in the valley, but “Alta Lake,” adjacent to Rainbow Lodge’s front gate, was certainly the liveliest. You get a strong sense of the growth of the Philip’s retreat by simply comparing images of the train station over the years:

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Waiting for the train with a full load of passengers, circa 1915.

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Myrtle (waving, in black dress near centre) and Alex (plaid shirt, to her right) greeting visitors at the train station, circa late-1920s. 

 

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Coming or going? We’re not sure here, but either way, the Alta Lake train station was a welcoming place. Alex Philip at far left, in his trademark safari suit.

Even with the completion of the highway from Vancouver in 1965, passenger service continued on the PGE until 2002, by which point it had long been renamed as BC Rail.

Nowadays, there are frequent calls to restore and upgrade passenger rail service to Whistler and beyond, but there are a whole host of technical, logistical, and financial barriers making it an unlikely prospect.

 

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