Category Archives: From the Archives

Behind-the-scenes insights into the inner workings of a community museum and archives.

An Oasis in the Bushes

A couple of weeks ago (Wednesday, November 17), the Whistler Museum opened Parkhurst: Logging Community to Ghost Town, a temporary exhibition about the Parkhurst Mill site. Though the Parkhurst Mill (or Northern Mills, as it was later called) closed in 1956, the site continued to be inhabited and cared for by various people squatting on the privately owned land into the 1990s.

While preparing for this exhibit, we were able to speak with one of the last (as far as we know) full-time residents of Parkhurst. Eric (also known to some as the Sheriff of Parkhurst) lived at Parkhurst from 1995 to July 1996. He first came to Whistler in 1989 and lived in various small cabins before hearing that Parkhurst had become available. He and a friend went over to talk to the previous occupant, who is believed to have lived there for twelve years, and look around the area. At that time, a two-bedroom house and a smaller cabin down the road were still habitable and the pair decided to move in. A few things needed a little bit of fixing up and the structures had no power, but there was an outhouse, gravity-fed running water, a woodshed, and a large garden. Eric and his friend invested a lot of time into the garden by keeping it up, adding a moss garden, collecting wrought iron and decorative ornaments, and making it “a little bit showy for people that were mountain biking in there.” The garden was meant to be shared with those who came by the area.

Part of the buildings and garden that were still present in 1999. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jackson.

This garden is also part of a bit of a mystery at the museum. In 2007, guestbooks from the Parkhurst garden ranging from 1995 to 1999 were mailed to the Whistler Public Library and then given to the museum to add to our archives in 2016. We don’t have any information about who sent the books to the library, who removed them from Parkhurst, or where they were kept at the garden. (If you have more information about the books, please let us know.)

Along with messages, visitors would leave drawings in the guestbooks, such as this one left in 1998.

Though some of the earlier entries are addressed to Eric, most of the entries in the books are addressed to a mysterious caretaker named “John.” Friends left messages to let John or Eric know they had been by to water the garden or take out some garbage, and two former Parkhurst residents from the 1970s wrote that they had stopped by. Anyone was welcome to write in the books and many people who hiked, biked, or paddled over to Parkhurst recorded their impressions. In July 1995, a group of Swedish physicists came across the garden and left a note to say hello and, in 1997, a hiker asked how John put up with all the mosquitoes. Occasionally, John would respond, such as when Rachel left gifts including a candle and picture for his walls.

The overarching message through the entries is gratitude for what one person described as a “nice oasis in the bushes.” The garden meant something different to each visitor but was appreciated as a peaceful, beautiful space open to all. In 1996, Christine wrote of the garden, “It has been a haven for me ever since I discovered it,” a sentiment that was expressed by many others as well.

As far as we know, this was the only wedding held in the Parkhurst garden area. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jackson.

In September 1999, a wedding was held in the garden and gazebo when Jen and Rob paddled 75 guests over for their ceremony. By that time, it appears no one was maintaining the garden full-time and the pair did some work to the area before their wedding took place. Today, there are few traces of the garden left and the surrounding buildings have become more dilapidated.

Parkhurst: Logging Camp to Ghost Town will run through January 17, 2022 at the Whistler Museum. If you have a story about the Parkhurst area you would like to share, please let us know!

The times they are a-changing in Whistler’s historical collections

Time are changing in the world of archival and artefact collections, and it’s definitely hard to keep up with the resulting backlog. This is a good problem to have, because it means the community trusts the museum to preserve its past. We have had a significant increase in the number and size of donations to the Whistler Museum and Archives over the past two years (thanks to those who donated!), and we hope we will continue to be on the minds of locals when older things are looking for a new home. We have a few theories as to what led to the increase of donations, the main one being that the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns and business closures allowed some locals the time to do a bit of cleaning and clearing of their homes.

Some of the materials donated as part of the Whistler Pride collection.

While the influx of donations is a particular challenge for us in terms of having enough storage space, it’s also very exciting for the Collections Department here, as there have been items donated on more varied subjects, which can help us fill gaps in our collections. For instance, we have welcomed more documents on the origins of Blackcomb Mountain, more artefacts and photographs relating to the history of snowboarding in the area, a large collection of Whistler Pride documents and artefacts, and even some of the COVID-19 signs which were put up in Whistler Village during 2020. It is very important to us that our collections reflect the community we serve, and this can be a difficult task at times due to donations being a voluntary and charitable act. We always encourage donations, and for locals to remind others that donating items to the Whistler Museum is a much-appreciated option before sending older items and documents to the trash.

Digital files could be stored on many different devices, and are donated to the archives in various forms.

It’s not just our own collections at the museum that are changing, but also the types of media being donated to archives in general. Photographs, videos, and documents that were born in a digital environment are now being donated to archives, and we are no exception here. USB sticks, hard drives, and .jpg files have been donated to the Whistler Museum and Archives this year, heralding the Age of Information which will surely make the process of archiving more complex over time. If a donor were to donate the entire contents of their email account, it would make for some very grueling description work for entering into the archival catalogue, which connects researchers to our collections, and this is just one part of that growing complexity for archivists. In this day and age, data, photos, and files are being created at ever-increasing speeds as technology smooths the path. While this may help future generations learn about ours due to the wealth of evidence we’ve created, it also makes it very difficult to weed through our data to decide what is of value and worth keeping. Endless information is only useful if it is mapped in some way to allow us to access the information that is meaningful to us.

For the time being, the Whistler Museum and Archives has still been able to keep up with the amount of born-digital donations, but the future of preserving the history of Whistler through digital means may become more complicated in the coming decades!

The village that ceased to exist, part two

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

After a May 1980 Order in Council (OIC) called for the evacuation of their village, the residents of the Garibaldi Townsite faced a stressful and uncertain future. At first, many of the residents refused to accept the fate of their community, and fought the OIC with everything they had. With every day that passed, their situation seemed to become more complicated and controversial.

After the OIC was issued, the evacuation process progressed quickly. Property assessments for the area were to be completed by the coming September. Following that, residents would have until December 31st to accept their purchase offer. The residents were given the option to buy back their buildings at auction (so long as they could meet the highest bid), but at the time there were no plans for a relocation site, so the residents had nowhere to move their houses.

A Garibaldi Townsite home being relocated. Whistler Question Collection.

The situation seemed bleak in the summer of 1980, but by the fall there was a little more hope. The deadline to accept offers was extended to June 1981, which gave residents a little more time to get their affairs in order. An interdepartmental committee between the Ministry of the Environment (who were handling the evacuation) and the Ministry of Housing (who were handling the relocation) was established, and residents who chose to buy back their homes were given permission to leave them on the land until a relocation site was completed.

Despite these concessions, the evacuation order remained in place, and residents remained unwilling to give up on their town. The matter was brought to Ombudsman Karl Freidman in October 1980. While reviewing the case, he found several causes for concern. Among them was a lack of open communication between the government and the residents, the terms of sale being stacked in the government’s favour, and the lack of official commitment to a relocation plan. A few months later, likely in response to Freidman’s report, the provincial government sent letters to the residents that included the complete OIC and plans for a relocation site 7km north of the Townsite.

Just as the plight of the residents was starting to improve, disaster struck the Townsite on December 26th 1980. After days of heave rain, B.C. Hydro was forced to open the gates of the Daisy Lake Dam to prevent it from overflowing. The resulting flood wrought havoc on the village. One home was swept away into the Cheakamus River, many were undermined, and the Garibaldi Townsite infrastructure was severely damaged. The destruction shook many of the resident’s resolve to continue fighting for their community, and some decided to leave entirely.

In September 1981, the remaining residents launched a final attempt to save their town, or at the very least to spread awareness about the mismanagement and perceived unfairness of their situation.

A Garibaldi resident stands beside some of the signs for the September 1981 protest. Whistler Question Collection.

Fifteen signs were placed along Highway 99, and drivers were asked to pull over to be handed copies of “The Great Barrier Grief”, a circular that detailed their situation, the OIC, and their theories and questions about the matter. “The Great Barrier Grief” was put together by Ian Barnet, who owned the Garibaldi Lodge. It included everything from editorials on the issue, stories of longtime residents, political cartoons, and summaries of some of the theories about the cause of the evacuation.

The circular suggested four theories behind the evacuation. The first (“Pure Government Bungling”), suggested that it was miscommunication within the government that caused the situation to escalate as it had. The second (“Over-Reaction to Tenuous Report”), suggested the government’s seemingly sudden action had been caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens (it erupted on May 18, 1980, shortly before the OIC was issued). Perhaps, it suggested, since the government had been aware of the potential risk of the Barrier, they could be held accountable for any damage it did. The third (“The Conspiracy Theory”) suggested that due to all of the development happening in the valley, the government had a vested interest in owning the land, and were therefore forcing the residents out by any means necessary. Similarly, the fourth (“The Land Grab Theory”) suggested that because land values in Whistler had recently sky-rocketed, the Crown stood to profit should they take back the village’s land, hold onto it for a few years, and to then redistribute it at Whistler prices.

Below are some examples of illustrations from the publication.

Illustration from “The Great Barrier Grief” that shows the path a landslide would have to take to damage the Townsite but none of its surroundings.
Illustration from “The Great Barrier Grief”

In the end, their resistance was not enough to save their village, but it did result in a guaranteed relocation site and provincial commitment to better and more transparent communication. In 1982, residents were offered lots in a new development called Black Tusk. Residents were welcomed to the new community in September 1984, though some fought to stay until as late as 1986. In the end, only twenty-six Townsite families chose to relocate to Black Tusk, and the remaining lots were sold to the general public.

Today, all that is left of the Garibaldi Townsite is a small collection of ageing cabins tucked away off Highway 99 across from Daisy Lake.

The village that ceased to exist (part 1)

Since the day of the mandatory evacuation order in 1980, the removal of the Garibaldi Townsite has been shrouded in controversy. A small but growing community was urgently ordered to leave their town, and the fight that ensued made headlines for years. During the evacuation, tensions ran high, motives were questioned, and a variety of theories (some more feasible than others) were put forward.

At the center of the controversy is the Barrier, a 500 meter rockface that dams the Garibaldi lakes. As early as the 1850’s there were concerns about its stability. Indigenous oral histories document a destructive landslide in 1855 that resulted from a slab of rock falling from the Barrier. Later that decade William Downie, a surveyor sent to the region by the Hudson’s Bay Company, noted in his diary that the land beneath the Barrier had been ruined, and voiced concern over its stability. It took over a century for something to come of these accounts, and in the meantime the area continued to be developed.

In the 1970s, the Department of Highways commissioned a study to determine the stability of the Barrier. The subsequent report by the Garibaldi Advisory Panel (also known as the Barrier Report) was completed in May 1978. It claimed the risk of another slide was relatively low, but, if one were to happen the results could be catastrophic. It recommended that “concentrated development” be limited in certain regions, but said nothing about evacuating existing communities.

Even after the risk had been established, the report lay dormant in Victoria for two years. During those years, the residents of Garibaldi built a new firehall, repaired the schoolhouse, and cleared space for a playground. What happened next came as a complete shock to the growing community.

In May 1980, an Order in Council was issued that declared Garibaldi a civil-defense zone and prohibited “development, construction, excavation, or alteration” of any land in the implicated area. This meant that residents became tenants on their property, and that they had to choose between selling to the government and living on land that they could no longer alter.

Sign posted outside Garibaldi Townsite. Whistler Question Collection.

There are many theories about why the evacuation happened when it did, and in order to begin to understand those theories, it is helpful to know what was there before the evacuation. Garibaldi Townsite began as the Garibaldi Station, and was one of the many communities that owed its origins to the expansion of the railroad.

Built in 1922, Alpine Lodge was the second lodge built at the Townsite. Whistler Question Collection.

At first, it followed a similar trajectory to Alta Lake. Development began in the early twentieth century and picked up in the late 1940s when families who were unable to find accommodation in Vancouver were drawn to the valley (back then Vancouverites often lined up outside newspaper offices to get an early look at rental listings). For some time, Garibaldi had a larger year-round population than Alta Lake, and one Garibaldi resident, after having spent the winter of 1946 working in Alta Lake, described it as a “terrible place” that was “ten times as desolate as Garibaldi.” By 1960, there were just over 60 full time residents (with up to twice as many on weekends), and the town had its own campground, post office, firehall, and store. By 1980, when the order was issued, Garibaldi was well on its way to being an established community and tourist destination.

Members of the “Alive Club” pose outside the Alpine Lodge for a photo in 1979. Forbes Collection.

Next week’s article will cover the many conflicting theories about why the evacuation happened when it did, and will detail what happened to the residents after they were forced to leave.

Keely Collins is one of two summer students working at the Whistler Museum this year through the Young Canada Works Program. She will be returning to the University of Victoria in the fall.