Whistler Before the Sea-to-Sky

Whistler’s steep, mountainous terrain is what makes it so attractive as a tourist destination. It’s perfect for skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, and hiking. However, those same rocky hills have been one of it’s greatest challenges, providing a frustrating barrier for tourists and residents alike.  For the first non-indigenous settlers, the area was only accessible by a narrow path known as the Pemberton Trail, constructed in 1877. This trail, which ran from Burrard Inlet, around the far side of Alta Lake, and up to Lillooet, was intended to provide access to the Gold Rush.

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The Pemberton Trail would have ran around Alta Lake’s far shores. Photo: Philip Collection

Unfortunately, by the time the trail was constructed the rush was basically over. An attempt was made to take cattle down it, but most of them died, due to the lack of grazing and the difficult terrain. With no other use for it, the Pemberton Trail functioned as an occasional route for travelers. The trail took three days, by steamship and by foot, assisted by a packhorse. In those days, horses were an important asset. Travelers carried supplies on packhorses, as did Myrtle and Alex Philip, founders of the area’s first resort. They also used a series of workhorses to construct Rainbow Lodge- to simplify things, all the horses were called “Bob”.

The train tracks also provided a ready-made sidewalk for Alta Lake and Parkhurst residents. Photo: Philip Collection

Many of the area’s inhabitants hoped the construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway would make access easier. The PGE had multiple false starts- a company was incorporated to build it in 1891, and by 1909 twelve miles of track were completed, when they ran short of funds and had to stop.

By the time construction began in earnest in 1912 the railway had acquired a number of despairing nicknames, among them  “Province’s Great Expense”, “Past God’s Endurance”, and “Prince George Eventually”.  Finally, in 1914, the railway was up and running from Squamish to Quesnel, and soon resorts, logging, and other industries began to spring up in the area. Transit was still anything but easy. The journey involved four to six hours on steamship from Vancouver to Squamish, and a further three to four hours to Alta Lake, as the train only went from 25 to 40 km/h and often had to stop to refuel. The train ride was upgraded through the years, including the addition of open-topped observation cars and a dinner service. Though the journey was long, it wasn’t unpleasant- travelers often enjoyed ice cream, or beer if they were older, as they waited in Squamish. There were also stops for afternoon tea at Rainbow Lodge, costing 35 cents.

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The creation of the PGE made it easy to travel in style. Photo; Philip Collection

Despite these improvements, the journey was still a long one. In the sixties, the Garibaldi Lift Company, hoping to set up skiing in the area, realized that something more convenient would be necessary in order to draw in tourists. A “road” was built from Whistler to Squamish in 1962, although it was. Initially the track was mostly fist-sized rocks and dirt, and driving across streams was sometimes required. 

The trail was plowed infrequently, making winter journeys treacherous. Tire punctures were common, and the first trips from Vancouver took five hours. Thankfully, the road was paved in 1966, and improvement has continued up to the present. The most recent upgrades were for the 2010 Olympics, cutting the travel time down to the two hours we enjoy today.  Although travel time has ranged from multiple days to a matter of hours, people have always felt Whistler was worth the trip.

Highway 99, shortly after it’s creation- still not paved! Photo: Gord Leidal

 

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