Category Archives: Museum Musings

These articles have also appeared in the Whistler Question or Pique Newsmagazine in the Whistler Museum’s weekly column.

Blackcomb’s DIY Wiring

Today we take the ability to receive or make a call for granted, but for those preparing to open Blackcomb Mountain in 1980 it would not have been as easy as picking up the phone.

It appears that months before the mountain was set to begin operations their phone system was already under quite a bit of stress.  In the first week of March, the Whistler Question reported that “Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises were growling a lot on Saturday, when their only overworked telephone was out of action for the eighth time this year!”  For the small team working out of the Blackcomb offices in construction trailers on the Town Centre site, the phone system was operational for the summer, though Blackcomb was still having some telephone woes.

Big office… small desk! Blackcomb’s accountant Larry Osborne sits behind his temporary desk in a deserted Blackcomb trailer before moving to permanent offices.  Whistler Question Collection.

On July 17, 1980, all union work on the Town Centre site (including the operation of the liquor store) stopped as the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) set up picket lines for two days.  The dispute was over telephone lines and a power line being installed from the valley to the buildings at the top of the first lift by Blackcomb workers.  Blackcomb wanted the lines installed on a weekend, as they had to cross eleven different road crossings on their way up the mountain, which would have stalled or stopped other construction work happening during the week.  BC Tel claimed that they couldn’t supply workers to install the lines on the weekend due to a ban on overtime by the union, while the TWU claimed they were willing but that BC Tel refused to schedule overtime.  Relations between BC Tel and the TWU had remained tense since a lockout and labour dispute a few years earlier.

In 1979 BC Tel and the TWU had failed to reach an agreement on the 1980 contract and by July the TWU had begun a “Super Service” campaign where they provided customer service while working to every rule and regulation, including ones that were usually deemed non-essential, and thereby slowing down productivity.  On September 22 the TWU began selective strikes, where construction and other workers would report to work but refuse all assignments except emergency repairs.  This included the pre-wiring of communication lines in new buildings, creating a backlog of construction jobs.

Technicians at work inside the new BC Telephone Whistler office earlier in the year – the wiring looks far neater than what transpired at the Blackcomb offices.  Whistler Question Collection.

For Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises, who were meant to move to their permanent offices at the top of Lift 1 in December, this presented a problem.  They had managed to get lines laid to the building, but the ongoing labour dispute meant that they could not get TWU workers in to set up the individual office lines.  Instead, Lorne Borgal, Blackcomb’s Administrative Manager, got to take a crash course in phone installation.

According to Borgal, the TWU was able to install phone blocks, but they could not do the wiring.  A local phone company employee showed Borgal how it worked and he was left to wire phones for each of the offices, most of which had three separate lines.  The building had a room where all of the cables came up from the main line and then split up to the various offices and, by the time he was done, Borgal described the contents of the room as a “big mass of wire” coming out from the wall by almost a metre.  Protection was built around the mass to prevent anyone from accidentally touching it and shutting down all the phones, as the wire were thought to be liable to falling out.  Despite his inexperience (as Borgal put it, he was “not a phone guy, at all”) the phones were operational for Blackcomb Mountain’s opening.

Lorne Borgal poses outside the Blackcomb “offices” soon after his arrival in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Eventually the TWU workers were able to return to the building and install the phone lines properly, putting an end to Blackcomb’s phone problems.  When shown the room of wires, their reaction was to howl with laughter and, according to Borgal, he was laughing right along with them.

Eldon Beck Comes to Whistler

It is a commonly held belief that Whistler would be very different today if it were not for the influence of Eldon Beck.  Beck, a trained landscape architect from California, is often credited as the visionary behind the Whistler Village, which he began working on in 1978.

In 1972, Beck’s firm was hired by Vail, Colorado, to consult on a community master plan.  The plan aimed to resolve some of the community’s traffic issues and create a pedestrian-centred village.  From 1972 to 1978, Beck worked with Vail as their primary consultant, a time he described as forming the bulk of his early mountain planning experience.

Eldon Beck stands in the centre, discussing the Whistler Village with an unidentified group. Eldon Beck Collection.

By 1978, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) had spent three years discussing, consulting, planning, and working hard on a town centre to be built on what had been the dump.  The site and funding, from both the provincial and federal governments, were secured; the RMOW, however, did not yet have a final plan for the site.

Terry Minger, who had been the general manager of Vail and would become the president of the Whistler Village Land Company, introduced Beck and Al Raine, the provincial appointee to the Whistler municipal council.  Though Beck described the existing plans for the town centre as a grid plan “like a little city” which “felt like a mini-Vancouver,” there were parts of the council’s plans that excited him.  They wanted to build a pedestrian village (the early plans included a pedestrian spine that was intersected with vehicle crossings) with lots small enough that they could be bought and developed by local developers.  Beck was asked to come take a look and modify the plans, which he felt imposed a building plan on the natural environment rather than letting the land guide the plan.

The Whistler Village under construction, under Beck’s watchful eye. Eldon Beck Collection.

Beck first arrived in Whistler in September 1978.  According to him, his first impression of the area was not of the mountains but of being overwhelmed by the fragrance of the forest.  It was cloudy, as can often by the case in September, and Beck had to trust Raine when he “swore up and down there were mountains.”

The weather did clear up and Beck was able to gain an idea of the site’s natural surroundings, though the site was somewhat overgrown and some of the sightlines were hard to make out.  To get a good view of Fissile Peak, Beck decided to “elevate” himself, or climb as high up a tree as he could (he later claimed this blew Raine away and ensured he got the job).  As he remembered it, he was then taken to someone’s garage where he was introduced to the council and asked to come up with something for their next meeting.

Eldon Beck and Drew Meredith speak at the event on the development of Whistler Village in 2019.  Whistler Museum Collection.

In the foreward to Beck’s book Edges, Raine claimed that the Village Stroll and some of the buildings of the Whistler Village began to appear on Beck’s sketch book within the next 24 hours.  His plans were presented to council three days later and quickly endorsed.  What was supposed to have been a modification of the existing plans had become a wholly new design.

Beck’s visit to Whistler in 1978 was the first of many (he was most recently here last October, when he participated in a speaker event on the development of the Whistler Village) and the beginning of a longstanding relationship with a town he describes as “a happy place.”

Burning Down the House

To many, the photograph of a group posed around and on a rustic house is a familiar image of a different era in Whistler, when the nearest grocery store was often found in Squamish and only one mountain had any lifts operating.  In 2011, Sarah Drewery, then the Collections Manager at the Whistler Museum, conducted an oral history with Andy and Bonnie Munster, and asked about the history of the house in the picture, which Andy called home for about five years in the 1970s.

The house before its demolition and eventual burning. Greg Griffith Collection.

Andy first came to Whistler in 1971 to ski.  He had been expecting something bigger and drove straight through to Green Lake before realizing he had passed it.  According to him, in his first four years in the area he ran into problems finding a place to rent and so in 1975 he and two friends, Randy and Dave, decided to squat and build their own cabin.  Randy, who came from California, chose the site near Fitzsimmons Creek and decided that they didn’t want anything plastic in the house, preferring wood and natural materials.  With little money to spare amongst them, the cabin was built almost entirely out of recycled materials.

Construction began in the spring or summer of 1975, often relying on what they could find in the dump.  They found lumber that had been thrown away after another construction project finished their foundations, old fashioned windows that somebody no longer needed, and couches in pristine condition.  Other items were donated by people they knew or sold to them cheaply, such as a cast iron cook stove and wood heater that Seppo Makinen sold to them for $20.  Andy estimated that by the time they finished the house it cost a total of $50 and included an upstairs, a sunroom, a large woodshed, and an outhouse.

The house just before it was set alight. Whistler Question Collection.

The house was comfortable but keeping it running was a lot of work.  All of the heating came from wood and each fall they would have to cut at least eight cords of firewood.  Water had to be hauled from Fitzsimmons Creek in buckets, though in summer they could use a water wheel, and heated on the stove for showers and washing.  Andy recalled that there were a few times when they decided not to have the wood stove on and then woke up with frost in their mustaches and beards.  Luckily, the house was quick to warm up and stayed warm for quite a while.

In late 1978, most of the squatters on Crown land in Whistler were served with eviction notices.  According to Andy they were shocked and seeing the notice “your heart kind of sinks down,” but they were able to meet with the provincial and municipal governments and negotiate a year’s extension.  When it came time to leave the house, they have away furniture, took out the windows and any reusable materials, and talked to the fire department about what to do with the shell.

In a speaker event last fall, Jim Moodie mentioned that, as part of the team managing the village construction, he was partly responsible for burning down Andy Munster’s home.  The eviction notices were served around the time that the first ground was broken on the village site and, as Andy put it, “We were actually just moving out when the pile drivers and everything were starting in the village.”  The shell of their house was used by the fire department for fire practice and, after trying a few different things, they let it burn to the ground.

The fire department controls the burning of the house while its inhabitants and friends look on. Whistler Question Collection.

The fire was documented in another series of photographs, depicting what many felt to be the end of an era.  The next few years saw the construction of Whistler Village and the opening of Blackcomb Mountain not far from the site of that house, where Andy said if you were to walk past today “you’d never know it was there.”

Getting Ready for Blackcomb’s First Season

This December Blackcomb Mountain will mark an impressive milestone as they open for their 40th winter of operations.  Before the mountain could welcome guests on December 4, 1980, there was a lot of work to be done, from hiring and training staff to constructing restaurants, installing lifts, and building runs.

In June 1980, the Whistler Question announced the addition of two new members to Blackcomb Skiing Enterprise.  Boyd Stuwe, who had previously worked in Squaw Valley, CA and Soda Spring, CO, joined Blackcomb Mountain as the Operations Manager while Lorne Borgal joined as its Administrative Manager fresh out of Stanford.

Lorne Borgal poses outside the Blackcomb “offices” soon after his arrival in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Borgal spent his teenage years in North Vancouver.  On weekends he volunteered as part of the Whistler Mountain volunteer ski patrol and through his years at university he taught skiing under Ornulf Johnsen at Grouse Mountain.  He spend five years in Ontario working in marketing and sales for a computer-based accounting system before deciding to pursue his MBA at Stanford.

In 1980, Borgal reached out to Aspen Ski Company, then the owners of Blackcomb, and told them who he was and that he would love to come to Whistler.  This led to a meeting that spring with Hugh Smythe, whom he had met previously through the ski patrol on Whistler Mountain.  The day after his graduation, Borgal drove up from California and started working at Blackcomb.

The Town Centre as it was in last week of October, 1980, from the north looking south. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The Whistler Village was still under construction, as were the facilities on Blackcomb Mountain, so the small Blackcomb team worked out of offices housed in construction trailers on the village site.  According to an oral history interview with Borgal from 2015, eighteen hour days, seven days a week were normal leading up to the first season.  As he put it, “it was just a crushing, overwhelming amount of stuff to do.”

This work was not made easier in September when Aspen supplied them with a brand new IBM computer and custom accounting system.  The first challenge was to find a space for the new hardware, which Borgal described as “just giant,” as the Blackcomb team was still working out of construction trailers.  They found a space to rent above the pharmacy in Village Square but then discovered some issues with the software.  The accounting system had been designed specially for Aspen Ski Company by a person living in Denver, CO.  This meant that, according to Borgal, “payroll taxes, sales taxes, you name it, anything that was unique to Canada, they’d never heard of before.”  For a company operating in Canada, the system was not very helpful.  Borgal even claimed that, “A pencil on paper would have been better.”

Blackcomb’s President and General Manager Hugh Smythe shows Whistler Mayor Pat Carleton the new ski runs from the base of Lift 2 during a tour by the mayor of the Blackcomb facilities.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Despite some setbacks (there are also stories about telephone wires and a delivery of rental skis that drove into a ditch by Brohm Lake) the hard work of the Blackcomb team paid off.  Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing on Thursday, December 4, 1980.  We will be sharing more tales from the 1980s, the Whistler Village, and Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains over the next while and we would love to hear your own stories from this time of dramatic change in the valley.

Baking Mountains at the Fall Fair

If you’ve every tried to make a cake that looks like something other than a cake, you’ve probably discovered that it’s not always that easy to do.  The idea of creating a cake that looks like a specific geological form may seem intimidating, but in 1980 that was just what contestants in the Fall Fair Mountain Cake Bake contest were asked to do.

The Alta Lake Community Club’s (ALCC) Fall Fair was first held in the Myrtle Philip School gym in 1977.  The ALCC had “reactivated” itself in 1976 after a four year hiatus and began supporting adult education classes, a Brownies group, dances and children’s parties.  In May of 1977 they began planning a Fall Fair to be held in November in partnership with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club’s Ski Swap.  The Fair was a fundraiser for the ALCC and featured a cafe in the lunchroom, handmade crafts, a white elephant gift exchange, a raffle, and even a ski demonstration.  This first Fair made a profit and the ALCC began planning a slightly larger fair for the following year.

First Alta Lake Community Club picnic on the point at Rainbow in 1923.  The ALCC had various periods of inactivity, including in the 1970s.  Philip Collection.

The Fall Fair continued to be held in the school gym and over time additions were made.  The ALCC began appointing members to organize the event, one of the club’s main fundraisers.  The 1980 Fall Fair would appear to have been a particularly successful year.

On November 22, 1980, Myrtle Philip School might have the most bustling place in Whistler.  In addition to the Mountain Cake Bake contest, that year’s Fair included stalls selling various crafts, a bale sale stall contributed to by various community members, a rummage sale coordinated by Viv Jennings, and the Port Moody High School Stage band, featuring Whistler regular Mark MacLaurin on trumpet.  For $1 attendees could also buy a raffle ticket and be entered to win prizes including a Whistler Mountain Season Pass, a Blackcomb Mountain Season Pass, and two children’s passes for Ski Rainbow on Rainbow Mountain.

About 1,300 people passed through Myrtle Philip School gym and lunchroom for the 8th annual Fall Fair organized by Heather Gamache and Catherine Wiens from the Alta Lake Community Club. Gamache estimates the club raised close to $1,800 from the fair that featured clothing, jewellery, photography and art and other hand-made crafts. Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

A month before the Fall Fair, an article was published in the Whistler Question outlining the rules and regulations of the Mountain Cake Bake competition.  Written by Cathy Jewett, it included a (unsubstantiated) history of mountain cake baking in the area, supposedly begun by none other than Myrtle Philip who was said to have created a cherry-flavoured replica of Rainbow Mountain, inspiring the formation of the Mountain Cake Baking Society.  The rules of the competition were fairly simple: cakes had to be at the Fall Fair no later than 10:30 am and had to taste good while resembling a local mountain.  That evening the winning cake would be consumed while the runners-up were to be auctioned off.  Though there is no mention of what first prize consisted of, all entrants were eligible for dinner at Beau’s.  To get potential entrants thinking, Jewett offered suggestions such as “a Mount Brew Beer Cake, Sproat Mountain carved out of alfalfa cake, a licorice flavoured Black Tusk,” and more.

The products of the Mountain Cake Bake. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The 1980 Fall Fair was described in the ALCC minutes as a “financial success.”  The prize for the Mountain Cake Bake was awarded to Debbie Cook and her sister Karen, who submitted a model of Diamond Head that was said to be “pleasing both to the eye and the palate.”  It was also a success for Norman Dedeluk, Sid Young, Ross Cameron and Moira Biggin-Pound who all won various seasons passes in the raffle.

1980 appears to be the only year the Mountain Cake Bake competition took place, as there is no other mention of it in the ALCC meetings, but if you would like to share your own experiences trying to recreate Whistler’s landscape out of cake, let us know at the Whistler Museum.

Photographs and the WCA

Throughout 2018, the Whistler Museum’s blog, Whistorical, published a weekly feature called “This Week in Photos” (find all the posts here).  We had recently finished scanning the Whistler Question collection of photos from 1978 to 1985 and used the photos (which were helpfully arranged by their week of publication) to illustrate what was happening in Whistler in a particular week for each year the collection covered.  Most photos that had been published in the paper were catalogued with captions that helped provide context but for some photos you need to go to copies of the Question to understand what’s pictured.  One such photo can be seen here:

Crowds begin to mass for the Town Centre rally organized by the Whistler Contractors Association. Over 300 people took part in the rally and march through Town Centre.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The image of a protest in front of a partially constructed Town Centre was published in the week of September 11, 1980 but the story behind it can be found in the Question throughout that year.  The first report of tensions around Town Centre construction projects in found in an editorial from June 5, 1980.  The dispute was mainly over whether the Town Centre was considered an integrated site, allowing both union and non-union workers to work on the different parcels, or a common site, allowing the Town Centre developers to employ only union workers.  There were four parcels being built by non-union contractors at the time.

The Labour Relations Board (LRB) had been asked to make a decision on the matter.  On June 11, the Whistler Contractors Association (WCA), headed by Doug O’Mara, attended the talks with a letter from Mayor Pat Carleton and the rest of Council expressing a desire to keep the Town Centre as an integrated site, allowing the independent contractors of the WCA to continue working there.

This seemed to be the main question in Whistler that summer. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The LRB chose not to make a ruling at that time and construction of the Town Centre by both union and non-union workers continued over the summer, though there was still tension.

Over the August long weekend the unions did stop work for a day, leading to what the Question described as “an extra long weekend.”  However, the Question editorial staff were confident enough that the construction season would end without a major disruption that they published an editorial on August 21 thanking those who had kept the Town Centre moving and claiming “we’re fairly confident that the relative harmony that has existed over the area for the summer will extend into the fall.”  One week later, on August 28, approximately 200 union workers walked off the Town Centre site.  This action began another hearing of the LRB beginning September 3.

The rally pictured was quickly organized by the WCA and took place on September 4.  Over 300 people turned out to support the WCA and signed a petition to be taken to the LRB.  The rally also attracted media attention and interviews with O’Mara, Nancy Greene, and other contractors were aired on CBC and CKVU and featured on the front page of the Province.

The WCA led media and supporters on a walk through the Town Centre showing just how much work was still to be completed. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The talks with the LRB continued for almost two weeks while the remaining construction season got shorter.  On September 15, the LRB announced that they needed to investigate the issue further and would send two officials to Whistler.  In the meantime, the Town Centre was to be treated as an integrated site.

Work resumed on the Town Centre over the next week, just in time for the Premier and Cabinet to visit, but the dispute did not end there.  The LRB announced on December 2 that, effective January 1, 1981, the Town Centre would be considered a common site, excluding the Whistler Golf Course and work on Blackcomb Mountain, which opened just two days later.  The WCA stated that they would appeal the decision, but Mayor Carleton was not hopeful the decision would be reversed.

Though looking through the Question doesn’t always provide the whole story behind a photograph, it often helps provide some context.

Teaching at Alta Lake

With the beginning of a new (though uncertain) school year, we thought we’d take a look back at the first school built in the Whistler valley and one of its teachers.  The Alta Lake School was built in 1931 and operated until 1946, when it closed due to an insufficient number of students.  It reopened in a new building in 1956 but continued to struggle with enrolment.

Mel Carrico was born in Alberta and after the war he and his wife Dagmar decided to raise their family in British Columbia.  Though trained as a teacher, Carrico worked for Alcan in Kitimat and the Department of Labour in Smithers through the late 1940s and 1950s.  In 1958 he returned to the classroom, teaching first in the one room schoolhouse in Garibaldi and then becoming the teacher at the one room schoolhouse at Alta Lake.

The entire Alta Lake School student body, 1933. Back row (l to r): Wilfred Law, Tom Neiland, Helen Woods, Kay Thompson, Bob Jardine, Howard Gebhart; front row: Doreen Tapley, George Woods, Jack Woods.  Most years the school required ten students to open, so Jack Jardine was also counted as a student although he did not attend.  R Jardine Collection.

According to an oral history interview with Rob Carrico, Mel’s son, his father was asked during his interview with Don Ross, then the head of the school board, how many school aged children he had, as four were needed to reopen the Alta Lake School.  There were technically three potential Carrico students, but Rob’s younger sister was put into Grade One at the age of five to make up the numbers and Mel Carrico was hired.

The family spent two years living near the school at Alta Lake.  Looking back, Rob said his only regret about his time there was that there were no other boys around his age and he had wanted to be a Cub Scout.  Most of the students came from families employed by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway.  No matter their age, all students learned in the same classroom.  Rob remembered that, “It was always interesting because you could listen in on all the lessons.”  If the Grade Three lesson was not too exciting, the Grade Five lesson might have been more intriguing.

According to Rob, Alta Lake was “a good place to go to school,” partly because of the nearby creek where one could go at recess to catch Kokanee.  Each year his father ensured that the school put on a big Christmas concert, usually including a puppet show.  The students would help to make marionettes and a stage would be constructed at the school.  The concert was a big event for the small Alta Lake community.

The original Alta Lake School building, which was replaced by a similar building in the 1940s and 50s.  Philip Collection.

Rob remembered the community as close-knit, where neighbours would look after each other, visiting often and coming together for bingo and other events, such as the Ice-Break Raffle and the summer fish derby (which he thought might have just been an excuse to gather a lot of fish and have a big community fish fry).

The Carricos left Alta Lake in 1961 when Rob’s elder sister reached high school.  The Alta Lake School did not teach higher grades and so she would have had to leave her family and attend school in Squamish while being boarded.  Instead, the entire family moved to Squamish and Mel Carrico continued to teach in the school district.  He eventually retired as the principal of Mamquam Elementary School.