Category Archives: Museum Musings

Fire at The Keg

While cataloguing the Griffith Collection (a collection of roughly 50,000 images donated by photographer Greg Griffith), our Assistant Archivist Stephanie recently came across slides of a fire at The Keg building that we had previously only seen in black and white.

The first Keg in the Whistler valley was opened at Adventures West on Alta Lake in 1974, but when construction of the Whistler Village began in 1979 plans were made to open a new Keg restaurant in the Whistler Village Inn.

When the first Keg building was moved up Lorimer Rd. to become the new Municipal Hall in 1981, the new Keg building was still under construction.  The hotel and restaurant were expected to open by the end of January 1982, in time for the World Cup, and by the beginning of January restaurant staff had already been hired.

The Whistler Volunteer Fire Department works to contain the fire in The Keg and Whistler Village Inn building. Greg Griffith Collection.

Around 3:30 pm on Wednesday, January 13, 1982, a fire broke out in the building, caused by a leaking propane tank.  The fire started in the restaurant section, spread upwards into the roof and, aided by strong winds, spread across the entire building.

The Whistler Volunteer Fire Department (WVFD) worked well into the night.  According to the Whistler Question, they poured water on the building for over seven hours.  Luckily there were no injuries from the fire, but one firefighter was taken to hospital with chest pains and several others were treated for smoke inhalation.

The next week the WVFD sent a whole bundle of roses into the Whistler Question’s “Bricks & Roses” section to thank those who had helped.  The Whistler and Pemberton ambulance crews were present all night, Dr. Christine Rodgers spent the night on call, Terry Rodgers manned the radio, Carol Simmie, Kathy Hicks and Katie Rodgers helped coordinate the effort, and the RCMP provided crowd control.  Members of the Surrey Fire Department and Squamish Fire Department who were in Whistler also came out.

Crowds watch the fire from the Village Stroll. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

As it was January, dry clothing and hot food were greatly appreciated in the -20°C weather.  The Grocery Store opened late to provide food supplies, the Alta Lake Community Club, Stoney’s, the Brass Rail, Tapley’s and The Gourmet all brought coffee and food, and the Blackcomb Lodge offered the use of their dryers.

The fire was contained to the top floor of the hotel section, and most of the building was considered structurally sound on the lower levels, with some damage from water and smoke.  The damage was estimated at $2.5 million.

By mid-February demolition work had already begun.  Smith Brothers & Wilson Construction Ltd. got to work repairing and reconstructing the restaurant and hotel.  Because the Whistler Village Inn was designed in two separate buildings, they were able to open 44 rooms in 1982, but the hotel was missing planned amenities such as a pool, restaurant, and permanent lobby.

Brian Moran, Ken Till, Bob Elliott and John Grills outside the soon-to-be-opened Whistler Keg.  Whistler Question Collection, 1983.

January 1983 was a busy month, as finishing touches were put on the restaurant and over 100 staff were hired from over 500 applicants.

The Keg was finally able to open on Friday, February 4, with some familiar faces.  Herb Capozzi, a founder of the Keg restaurant chain, was one of the first to be served, and some staff members from The Keg at Adventures West came back, such as Scott Paxton.  Over the first three evenings, the restaurant served over 900 meals.

A face from yesteryear – Scott Paxton, who worked at The Keg at the Mountain many years ago when it was located in Whistler Cay has now resurfaced at the new Keg as the official “bunmaster”. Paxton and fellow employees geared up for the opening night at The Keg Friday, February 4 for another era of Keg lovers.  Whistler Question Collection, 1983.

Though the Whistler Village has expanded and prices may have changed (in 1983 an 8 oz sirloin would cost you $8.95 and highballs at Brandy’s were $1.85), The Keg and Brandy’s continue to occupy the space opened in 1983.

Bringing the First Television to Whistler

Bringing television access to Whistler was no easy feat before cable and satellite, but Walter Zebrowski can be credited with bringing it to the valley.

The Chamber of Commerce apparently began discussing television at its first meeting in 1966, and members wrote letters to the provincial government in Victoria asking for the installation of antennas or a TV cable.  But they heard nothing back from their queries.

Walter feeding the fish at Eva Lake Park.

Zebrowski eventually asked the Chamber members to give him free rein to attempt to bring television to the Whistler valley.  He was determined and eager, and the members approved.  In 1970, Zebrowski took a trip to Vancouver and with his own money purchased a TV antenna and a small battery-operated television set.

Next came the challenge of finding a location for the antenna where it would receive a TV signal.  Zebrowski spent months exploring the surrounding mountains be snowmobile and helicopter for the right location.  Between the two peaks of Mount Sproatt he found a signal.

Zebrowski ordered the rest of the equipment that was needed to put up the antenna and it was erected with the help of Jon Anderson.  Next to the antenna, Zebrowski proudly hung a flag of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.

A few days later, however, when a storm passed over the mountain, the masts were all destroyed.  Zebrowski described the main antenna as looking like “a swan with a broken neck,” so they started all over again with smaller masts that were more resistant to the wind.

At the annual December Ball of the Chamber of Commerce, Zebrowski put a TV set in the corner of the hall and covered it.  After the usual complaining about the lack of TV, he turned the set on and embraced the astonishment and joy of the other Chamber members.

The Sproatt antenna required regular snow clearing during the winters. George Benjamin Collection.

The antenna originally received three different stations.

Along with the TV antenna, Zebrowski also founded the Whistler Television Society, which helped maintain the site and collected a fee from members to help fund the service.

In the late 1990s, the antenna was struck by lightning and one of the devices stopped working.  From then, there were only two channels available.  By the time this happened, most people in the valley were using cable or satellite TV and no one was around who knew how to, or was willing to, repair the primitive technology.

Zebrowski passed away in 1996, leaving a lasting legacy in Whistler.

Whistler T.V. Society members Floyd Eclair, Richard Heine and Albert Bryjack went up to adjust the society’s channel 6 antenna atop Sproat Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

The television signal captured by Zebrowski eventually became redundant and by 1999, it was unknown if there was anyone still using the Sproatt signal.  The municipality decided to stop collecting taxes to fund the Whistler Television Society and when the CRTC licence expired in 2000, the signal was no longer usable.

The site of the Sproatt antenna was an ideal location, as it was later proposed, to build an internet connection structure.  Paul Burrows, who had acted as a caretaker for the society and helped shovel snow off of the repeater in the winter, claimed that “You can see clear all of Whistler from that site.”

Volunteers of 2010: The Weasel Workers

This past month, the Whistler Museum opened a temporary exhibit on the Sea to Sky volunteers of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The exhibit will run through March as Whistler continues to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Paralympic Games.  One of the groups included in this exhibit is a group that formed well before the Games ever came to Whistler.

The Weasel Workers formed in the 1970s when Bob Parsons bad his crew of six prepped the course for the first World Cup Downhill races in Whistler.  Most of the early volunteers were parents of Whistler Mountain Ski Club members, but membership grew over the years as Weasels continued to work on the courses for large races on Whistler and began sending volunteers to help build courses for World Cups, World Championships, and Winter Olympics on other mountains.  When the Games were awarded to Whistler and Vancouver in 2003, the Weasel Workers began recruiting and building their team well in advance of the alpine events held on Whistler Mountain.

Weasels on the course with no sign of the sun. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

During the 2010 Games, the number of Weasel Workers swelled to about 1,500 volunteers.  Volunteers came from across Canada and other nations to join a core group of 400 to 500 volunteers from Vancouver and the Sea to Sky area.  About 300 volunteers worked specifically for the Paralympics, and a couple hundred Weasel Workers volunteered to work for both the Olympics and Paralympics.  Weasel volunteers began their work for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) on Whistler Mountain as early as mid-November 2008 and continued to clean the courses well after the Games had left town.

Even during the Games, the Weasels continued to be a family affair.  Bunny Hume, who began volunteering the with Weasels with her husband Dick in the early 1980s when their grandsons began ski racing, volunteered alongside multiple family members.  She handed out and collected race bibs, her son Rick was the Chief of Course for the women’s course, and her grandsons Jeff and Scott worked on the dye crew.  Rick’s wife Lynne also worked as a Weasel during the Paralympics.

Weasel Workers working on the downhill course for the Olympics. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

Some of the Weasel Workers who began volunteering as ski club parents even had children competing in the Games.  Long-time Weasel Andrée Janyk, who could often be found working on a course with a smile, saw two of her children, Britt and Mike, race in the Olympics in their hometown.

Karl Ricker, also a long-time dedicated Weasel Worker, was on the mountain trying to prevent people from crossing where the winch-cats were working when he received the news that Maëlle Ricker, his daughter, had won a gold medal in snowboard-cross on Cypress Mountain and become the first Canadian woman to claim an Olympic gold on home soil.  He went down to Vancouver to attend her medal ceremony, but was back at work on the course early the next morning.

Despite rain, wet snow, and warm weather over the first few days of the Games, and the postponement of three races, the Weasel Workers created and maintained courses for the men’s, women’s, and Paralympic alpine races that were seen around the world in 2010, and those who came to Whistler to work with the Weasels became just as much a part of the team as the long-time volunteers.  Patrick Maloney, then the Weasel president, told The Whistler Question that, “Anybody that’s on that track is a Weasel Worker.”  This sentiment was echoed by Weasel Worker Colin Pitt-Taylor, who claimed that, “as soon as you started working on an alpine course, you became a Weasel Worker, whether you like it or not.”

“Ask Me! I’m a Local” and the 2010 Games

It is well established that Whistler residents have a strong history of volunteering, both for major events and more regularly within the community.

Perhaps the largest event put on in Whistler with the help of volunteers was the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which required hundreds of volunteers each day.  One specific volunteer program that was in place during the 2010 Games was Ask Me! I’m a Local.

The Ask Me! program was conceived by Whistler resident Janis McKenzie and her visiting friend Dan Perdue over a cup of coffee in January 2009.

The idea was simple: connect friendly, button-wearing locals to visitors who might need some help.  Local residents would sign up to wear an Ask Me! button while in the Whistler Village, and the button would identify them as someone visitors could approach to ask directions of, make recommendations, or even take a photo (though selfies were becoming increasingly popular, front-facing cameras on phones were not as common as they are today).

Ask Me! I’m a Local program creators stand with Sumi, the 2010 Paralympic Games mascot. Photo courtesy of Janis McKenzie.

McKenzie approached the RMOW, which agreed to fund the program, and got to work developing it so it would be in place by 2010.  According to the Ask Me! strategic plan, “[Whistler is] a community that prides itself on being friendly and reaching out to help our visitors in their native tongue.  We do this because we genuinely care and know that the experience our guests have will define our future.”  Unlike official Olympic volunteers with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (VANOC), this program did not require a set number of shifts often lasting eight to ten hours.  This meant that residents could volunteer and act as ambassadors for Whistler simply by walking through town wearing their button.

To recruit volunteers and raise awareness of the program, a launch party was planned for October 1, 2009.  While McKenzie said they hoped to have 80 to 100 people attend and sign up, over 200 people lined up to attend the party at the GLC.  Those who signed up for a button at the party were entered into a draw prize and were eligible to win a season pass donated by Whistler Blackcomb, who also covered all of the costs for the party.

According to McKenzie, over 600 people had registered for buttons by the time of the Games.  The buttons were available in five languages (English, French, German, Spanish, and Japanese), and businesses could also take part by displaying a decal in their window.

Joan Richoz poses proudly with her Ask Me! I’m a Local button during the 2010 Games. Photo courtesy of Claire Johnson.

Though organizers originally thought that few participants would want extra training, over 80 per cent of participants registered for in-person training and over 90 per cent registered to receive a monthly newsletter in order to learn more about Whistler.

The success of the simple grassroots program was recognized in the media and the idea spread, with Vancouver introducing its own version of the program for the Games, and Russian representatives asking about it ahead of their own Games.

Though the Ask Me! buttons can no longer be seen, many of its duties are now carried out by the Village Host program.  McKenzie described the program as “an incredible journey” that exceeded all expectations.  Throughout the Games locals could be found in Whistler proudly wearing their buttons, answering questions, and giving directions to the thousands of visitors and participants of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.  The main idea behind the program remains relevant in Whistler today: “It’s the smallest things we do that will make the biggest difference for our guests’ experience.”

Learning to Ski at Whistler

Whistler attracts skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels and it comes as no surprise that there are a great number of people who first learned to ski on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, or even on the nearby slopes of Rainbow Mountain.  On Whistler Mountain, formal instruction has been on offer since it opened in 1966.

Garibaldi Ski School was opened by Roy Ferris and Alan White, who persuaded Omulf Johnsen from Norway to manage the school.  After two years Johnson moved on to Grouse Mountain and Jim McConkey was asked to take over instruction at Whistler.  McConkey had taught skiing in Utah for ten years before moving to Todd Mountain in Kamloops.  He agreed to come manage the ski school in Whistler on the agreement that he would also handle equipment rentals and the ski shop.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

McConkey described the ski school as being in a class of its own due to there being limited beginner terrain.  The ski school grew to have a few salaried instructors and more than 25 regular instructors who worked on commission.  Joe Csizmazia and Hans Mozer had started using helicopters for skiing in 1966 and McConkey took over the helicopter operations in 1968 for six years.  He, along with a couple of his top instructors, acted as guides for heli-skiing off of the regular runs on Whistler Mountain.

Ski lessons were a bargain at $18 for six two-hour classes.  In 1969 the mountain introduced adult summer ski programs in addition to children’s camps.  The adult summer lessons combined skiing with apres and summer recreation.  After a few hours of skiing in the morning, the group would have lunch at the Roundhouse and then go swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, or McConkey, who was an avid golfer, would take groups to the Squamish Golf Course.  Each week’s camp ended with a slalom race and an evening barbecue.  McConkey also began holding instructor courses where weekend skiers could learn to become ski instructors.

This bell called a generation of skiers to their lessons on Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1978

Students at Whistler Mountain were called to their ski lessons by the ringing of a bell at the base of the gondola.  McConkey had heard that there was a bell in Pemberton that belonged to the Lil’wat Nation.  The bell had been installed in the steeple of a church in Mount Currie in 1904 but had been unused since the church caught fire in the late 1940s.  McConkey asked for permission to use the bell and had a picture drawn to show what it would look like at the base of Whistler.  The council was consulted and agreed to lend the bell to the ski school.  McConkey and Dick Fairhurst brought the bell to Whistler and installed it at the gondola base, with a plaque to tell the story of its origins.

A young Bob Dufour poses for his offficial Ski School portrait, early 1970s.

McConkey left the ski school in 1980, at which point Bob Dufour took over as its director.  When Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980 they made their own ski school called Ski-ed.  It was advertised as a chance to ski with a pro on Blackcomb.  In 1985 Ski Esprit was opened as a dual mountain ski school with six instructors.

Since the 1980s, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have combined more than just their ski schools, and thousands of skiers, and now snowboarders, continue to learn on the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Celebrating Whistler’s Olympic Milestones

Over the coming weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities in Whistler to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (including the Whistler Museum’s next temporary exhibit highlighting the volunteers of the Games, opening Friday, February 28!).  While many people may still be wondering how a decade has passed, this week we took a look even further back, to when the first Olympic bid was submitted by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) sixty years ago.

Following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, a group from Vancouver very quickly organized a committee to explore the idea of hosting the Games in the Garibaldi Park region.  The California Games ended on February 28, and in March GODA invited Sidney Dawes, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, to assist in the search for an Olympic venue. Cliff Fenner, the Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Park, also assisted in the search, which included reconnaissance flights, snowmobile explorations, and test skiers.  London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain) was chosen as “a highly desirable area”, and by November 1960 GODA had put together a bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games which would have seen all events take place within the Whistler valley.

A group heads out to explore Garibaldi Park in search of an Olympic site, 1960. Cliff Fenner Collection

Creating a bid for the chosen site meant planning to build an entire Olympic site from scratch.  Alta Lake, as the area was known at the time, was comprised of a few lodges, summer cabins, and logging operations.  The valley was accessible by rail and courageous drivers could make their way up via service roads in the summer.  According to the 1968 bid book, prior to exploring possible Olympic sites, the provincial government had already spoken publicly of extended the highway that ran from North Vancouver to Squamish further north to Pemberton.

Other services we often take for granted today had also not yet reached Alta Lake.  The list of venues and facilities to be built in the valley for 1968 included not just sporting venues, but also a water supply system, sewers, sewage disposal, a substation for power supply, a fire station, and a hospital.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

Though the prospect of building all of this was daunting, in the bid book GODA pointed out that it had been done before, for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games that were held in Vancouver in 1954.  As they put it, “Here, too, a project was begun with nothing more than an idea, a desire to hold the event here, and an enthusiasm that made the project become a reality… Given the go-ahead, work will begin to transform the Whistler Mountain area into one of the finest sites ever developed for the Olympic Winter Games.”

This site became the gondola base, today known as Creekside, but before 1965 it was pretty bare. Wilhelmsen Collection

As we know, the 1968 Olympic Winter Games were not held on Whistler Mountain (they were held in Grenoble, France), but that did not mean that all of the work of surveying, planning, and negotiating with provincial powers was for nought.  Instead, GODA formed a sister organization, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., to develop Whistler Mountain as a ski resort, Olympics or not.

Like the bid for 1968, a tremendous amount of work was done in a relatively short time in order to open Whistler Mountain for skiing in January 1966.  The ideas and enthusiasm of GODA were finally fulfilled in 2010 and, though it took muck longer and looked very different that they had first planned, it five decades the Whistler Mountain area had been significantly transformed.

Fire at Alta Lake

Prior to the formation of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department (ALVFD), the Alta Lake area had no official response to fires – they were put out by the small community.  But after two large fires in the early 1960s, some residents decided to form their own fire department.

The first fire is still a little mysterious.  One a reportedly beautiful morning in April, a single passenger got off the Budd car at the Alta Lake Station.  His outfit, a trench coat and dress shoes, drew the notice of everyone at the station as he asked Don Cruickshank, the station agent, how to get to the other side of the lake.

Waiting for the train at Alta Lake station, 1937. Left to right: Bill Bailiff, Mr and Mrs Racey, Ed Droll, Betty Woollard, Larry, Flo and Bob Williamson.

Later that same day, Dick Fairhurst received a call from Cruickshank to check on smoke coming from the area of an old empty lodge.  Fairhurst and Louis White grabbed a small fire extinguisher and a bucket each and ran to Fairhurst’s boat.  When they arrived at the lodge, they found that the fire had taken hold in some piles of lumber inside the three-storey building and that their buckets and extinguisher would be of no use.  They also found a piece of candle at the back of the lodge, and footprints from dress shoes in the soggy ground.

By the time the evening train arrived, two RCMP officers from Pemberton were aboard and waiting to arrest the stranger in the trench coat, who had been pacing in the station while waiting for the train.  Though we don’t know what happened to this mysterious man after his arrest, we do know that the date of the trial was set for June 6, 1962, the date of the second fire.

Cypress Lodge as seen from the lake. Fairhurst Collection.

This second fire appears to have been far more accidental than the first.  The provincial government was building a new highway to connect old logging roads, small community roads, and the Pemberton Trail.  The surveyors and their families were staying in cabins and lodges throughout Alta Lake.

One couple, Bruce and Anne Robinson, were staying in a cabin at Cypress Lodge, owned by Dick and Kelly Fairhurst.  Anne chose June 6, a warm day with no wind, to make bread in the old Kootenay Range in the cabin.  Dick was at the trial in Vancouver and Kelly had gone to vote at the Community Hall (it’s not entirely clear what the vote was for, but it is likely it was for the federal election).  She and her children had just arrived home when Bruce arrived at Cypress Lodge to discover the roof of his cabin on fire.  Kelly got on the party line, interrupting Alec Greenwood’s call to his mother-in-low to announce the fire.

Bert Harrop built cedar-bark furniture that was used in Harrop’s Tea Room, later the site of Cypress Lodge.  The museum has some of his creations in our collection, but most were destroyed in a fire.  Philip Collection.

Luckily, Bill and Joan Green and a group of loggers were hanging out at Rainbow Lodge after voting.  Bill radioed to the Van West logging operation to bring their fire pump, and Alex loaded his pump onto his tractor.  Soon everyone in the area know about the fire, and many of them came to help.

The fire, which had started from smouldering sparks in needles on the shake roof, had spread to a storage shed, but the lack of wind prevented it from spreading further.  Someone moved Dick’s truck onto the road, but other vehicles, piles of dry wood, and cans of gasoline, paint, diesel and propane were still around the property.

The two pumps were used to get the fire under control, and then to keep wetting everything down.  The Robinsons lost almost everything in the cabin, and many pieces of Bert Harrop’s cedar-bark furniture that were stored in the shed were lost, along with the two-rope for skiing on Mount Sproatt.

Alex Philip spent the night patrolling the area for sparks, but the fire was truly out by the time Dick arrived home the next day.  The community came together again to help with the clean up.

Dick Fairhurst, Stefan Ples and Doug Mansell rafting the fire shelter and its contents across the lake to Alta Vista, 1967. Petersen Collection

When the ALVFD was formed later in 1962, its members were Dick Fairhurst, Doug Mansell, Stefan Ples, and Glen Creelman.  They held regular practises and, until the formation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975, relied on fundraisers such as the Ice Break-Up Raffle and the Fireman’s Ball to buy supplies.  The residents of the valley relied on them in case of emergencies.