Category Archives: Museum Musings

From Whistler to California: An Archival Mystery Solved

Working at a museum or archive can be a bit like being a detective.  Piecing together evidence to solve historical puzzles, you often uncover connections between people and places you’d never expect.  I’ve learned this well in my first two and a half months as Archival Assistant at the Whistler Museum and Archives.

One of the first collections I looked at in my new role was a donation of nearly 500 photographic slides from longtime Whistler resident Karen Blaylock.  Most of them provided a wonderful glimpse of the area in the late 1960s and 1970s.  Some of the photos, however, were taken well outside the valley.  As these slides don’t fit within our collections policy, they had to find new homes.

This was the case with about 70 slides depicting a very un-Whistler-ish scene: a theme park with orca whale shows, hoop-jumping tigers, elephant rides and more.  These were most likely from a family vacation to California.  But where exactly were they taken, and who should they be donated to?

This picture provided the clue needed to identify this California theme park. Courtesy of the San Mateo County Historical Association.

The answer came – as it usually does in these archival mysteries – in a well-hidden clue.  On closer examination, I noticed that one of the slides showed a water skiing jump with the words “Marine World/Africa, U.S.A.” on its side.  A quick Google search revealed that there was once a tourist attraction by this name in Redwood City, San Mateo County, California.  Bingo!

With a bit of further research, I found out that this park had a colourful past rivaling Whistler’s in its heyday.  Marine World opened in 1968 as a small zoo/aquarium on land reclaimed from San Francisco Bay.  It went bankrupt after only four years, but was purchased by Resorts International, owner of an animal-training facility known as Africa U.S.A.  It soon reopened under a joint name and the park wowed residents and guests of Silicon Valley throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.  Draws included water-skiing elephants, rock concerts, safari raft rides, a fake mountain with 50-foot-tall water slides, a dolphin named Mr. Spock and a one-horned goat marketed as a ‘unicorn’.  Possibly the craziest stunt took place after the park’s move to Vallejo in 1986 – Star Trek actor William Shatner rode a killer whale to raise money for wildlife conservation.  The relocated Marine World/Africa U.S.A. eventually became today’s Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.

Now that I knew where the slides were from, I could search for a museum that might want them.  This turned out to be the San Mateo County Historical Association (take a look here).  I contacted the Archival Collections Specialist and emailed her scans of the slides.  They were unanimously accepted at the Historical Association’s monthly collections committee meeting.

At the time of writing this article, the slides have completed their nearly 2,750 km journey from Whistler to California.

I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to connect this little piece of history with its wider context and I can’t wait to see what other discoveries await me at the Whistler Museum and Archives!

Holly Peterson is the Archival Assistant at the Whistler Museum and Archives.  She is here on a Young Canada Works contract after completing the Museum Management and Curatorship program at Fleming College (Peterborough, Ontario).

For more accounts of Marine World/Africa U.S.A. in its heyday, take a look here, here or here!

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Approaching the Last This Week In Photos

Every week for the past year we’ve shared a selection of photographs and captions from The Whistler Question each Thursday (you can find them all here).  The collection (1978 – 1985) is catalogued by week, which has been very helpful.  With only two Thursdays left in 2018, we’ve not only created the last posts of This Week In Photos but have now taken a look through every digitized photo in the Question Collection.

This will be one of the photos in our last This Week In Photos post on December 27.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

The photos in the collection cover a wide variety of happenings in a quickly growing town, ranging from ice stock sliding in January 1978 to a Brownies dinner in February 1985 (with quite a few photos of publisher Paul Burrow’s dog Simba in between).  The collection includes many significant events in Whistler’s history: the construction of Whistler Village, the building of lifts on Blackcomb Mountain, multiple years of the Great Snow, Earth, Water Race, and the openings of many Whistler businesses.  Some, such as Club 10 and Peter’s Underground, have been replaced, while others, including Tapley’s Pub and Whistler Hardware, still occupy the same space they originally tenanted in the 1980s.

Simba poses with Paul and Jane Burrows.  The collection includes photos of Simba from the time he was a puppy.  Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

While the captions originally printed in the paper provide context for many of the images, photos that weren’t published have little or no information about who is pictured or what is going on.  Even with a caption, for a few photos we still needed to look at the accompanying story in the original publication of the photos in The Whistler Question.

A series of photos found in the Week of January [16?], 1981 certainly raised a few questions when first stumbled upon.  One of the photos shows a large pile of boxes, tied together and set aflame with an ambulance waiting in the background.  As the photos progress, a leg can be seen emerging from the growing flames and then a person is extinguished and bandaged.  From the captions we learned that the person running through flaming boxes had the last name Bentham, but we still didn’t know why or where he was running.

Fuel-soaked cardboard ignites as Bentham (far right) readies to run. Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

The explanation for this literal stunt can be found in the January 15, 1981 edition of The Whistler Question.  John Bentham, a stuntman working at the Mountain House Cabaret, organized the stunt, partly to promote a stunt company he was planning to open in BC to serve the growing film industry.  Media and photographers were invited and and, because he had all his permits in order, an ambulance and fire truck were on hand in case of any emergency.

Bursting through the blaze as crewmen with fire extinguishers head towards Bentham.  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

The stunt involved Bentham running through a tunnel of flaming “diesoline” soaked cardboard boxes 10.6 m long and 2 m high.  He then burst through a wall of boxes at the end, landing in a roll on the old mattresses set out at the end.

Getting the treatment from four extinguishers including brother Harry Bentham (ski toque).  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Though one photo shows Bentham being hosed down with multiple fire extinguishers, he reportedly came out of the wall “not aflame” and undamaged.

The Mountain House hosted a “small get together” to celebrate the successful stunt.  Readers were told to drop by the Mountain House any evening to get a first hand account from John Bentham himself.

In the aftermath, Bentham is bandaged by his brother Harry.  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

There are over 30,000 images included in the collection and each of our posts has featured only a small selection.  If you’re looking to fill a few spare hours (or days) why not take a look through Whistler’s past here.  You never know what, or who, you’ll find.

Snow Way to Get Around

While we may not know how much snow Whistler will get each winter, one thing that can be relied upon is that snow makes travelling within the valley more interesting.  Historically, snow and ice greatly affected people’s mobility through the winter months.

While the snow could slow down the train (one year the railway snowplow reportedly got stuck in the snow near Pemberton for two weeks), the frozen lakes provided the early residents with another way to travel around the valley.

Myrtle Philip and Jean Tapley on their way to Tapley’s Farm over the snow. Philip Collection.

Bob and Florence Williamson moved to Alta Lake in 1930.  One year, Bob remembered, it snowed over two metres in just 48 hours at about -25°C.  According to him, “The snow was just like sugar.  When we got the roof shovelled off, the snow level was higher than the eaves and we had to shovel out the doors and windows.”  On occasion, the couple would skate to the end of Alta Lake, walk over to Green Lake, and skate over to visit with those living at the mill at Parkhurst.

By the late 1960s, when Trudy Alder arrived in the valley, the area had roads and automobiles weren’t such an uncommon sight.  In the winter, however, cars were still not an entirely reliable way to get around.  Trudy worked as a caretaker at the Tyrol Lodge on Alta Lake Road.  Because the road was not always cleared of snow, she would park the car at Alpine Village and walk home across Nita Lake.  To attend movie nights at the community hall, Trudy walked, often in the dark through deep snow (her first winter season at Alta Lake had 1.5 to 2.5 metres of snow in the valley) and accompanied by a pack of coyotes in the distance.

Ice skating across frozen Alta Lake was one way to get around the valley. Philip Collection.

For another group, the snow could be a bit of a burden.  Not too long after Whistler Mountain opened for skiing, Dorothy and Alex Bunbury purchased property almost a kilometre up the old Microwave Road (now known as Gondola Way) and built their ski cabin there.

The dirt road up to the cabin was used by BC Rail about once a week to access the microwave station.  In the winter, the Bunburys were fortunate if BC Rail’s trip had taken place on a Friday as that meant they got an easy walk up a packed-down road before their weekend of skiing.  If BC Rail hadn’t gone up recently, the skiers could be in for a long walk.

The development of Creekside and the surrounding areas as of 1970.   While there were roads, they weren’t alway plowed and some weren’t very drivable.  Whistler Mountain Collection.

On one memorable evening, the worst night Dorothy could remember, they arrived in Whistler to find 38 centimetres of powder with “an icy, breakable crust.”  Even snowshoes were no use on the icy surface.  Dorothy wrote, “There were four of us, all heavily burdened with packs, and we took turns breaking trait.  It took us about an hour and a half to walk into the cabin that night, and in the morning all awoke with bruised and painful shins.  That was one night when I would have gladly sold the whole mess for a train ride back to Vancouver.”

As we hope for more snow this season, consider your own favourite way of travelling through the cold, whether with skis, skates, snowshoes or very warm boots.

Everything is Connected

You never know when you’ll find a connection in Whistler’s history between two seemingly unrelated subjects.  A recent donation to the museum showed an unexpected connection between the Chateau Whistler Resort and the topic of last week’s post, Toad Hall.

While clearing out some offices, staff at the Chateau came across a large book full of press clippings dating from 1987 to 1993.  This book was donated to the museum and provides a pretty comprehensive picture of the proposal, development and opening of the Chateau Whistler Resort, as well as Blackcomb Mountain, Whistler Village and the resort in general (it even includes an article on the historical bus tours that used to run in Whistler).

From the contents, the book appears to have been compiled by Debbie Williamson, then the director of sales at the Chateau.

In 1987, when the clippings begin, Intrawest Properties Ltd. was actively developing the 254-acre (103-hectare) site at the base of Blackcomb, now known as the Benchlands.  As part of this larger development, Canadian Pacific Hotels had plans to build what would become Whistler’s biggest hotel.

The Chateau Whistler Resort in 1996, after the addition of 221 rooms and the well-known Macdonald Ballroom. Whistler Question Collection.

With a budget of $50 million, the Chateau Whistler Resort was to include a ballroom, banquet room, meeting rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, six tennis courts (including two covered courts), a dining room, restaurant and a 200-seat discotheque, all scheduled to be open for the 1989-90 ski season.  An 18-hole golf course was also to be built, though it was not expected to open until the summer of 1990.

The Chateau Whistler Resort was officially given council’s conceptual approval in August 1987.  Despite some problems with the asphalt tiles of the roof (John MacKenzie, in the Whistler Question, thought that “The roof looks like it was designed by Jimi Hendrix, with the mottled green and white”), the Chateau was ready to open on schedule in November 1989, with almost everything from the original plans (unfortunately there was no discotheque).

The Chateau’s opening on November 17 was well covered by The Province, and it is here that the connection between the grand hotel and Toad Hall appears.  The first guest to be presented a key by general manager Dave Roberts was a Mrs. Winnifred Mather Hillman, who was given the stay at the hotel as a surprise birthday gift by her husband Charles.  Charles Hillman (as mentioned in last week’s article) was the owner of the first Toad Hall, a house originally built by Alf Gebhart.

The first Toad Hall, 1969. Benjamin Collection.

The clipping continue on until 1993, including a piece from August 1990 about the issue of the roof.  There had been concerns about the use of asphalt tiles instead of slate or another material from the beginning, and council was not too happy with the resulting “mottled green colour”.  The Chateau had been ordered to re-shingle, but the process was deferred and the hotel was later given the option of paying a “fine” of $140,000 to be used for community projects instead.

The museum would like to thank the Chateau for their donation.  If you find a piece of Whistler’s history while clearing out an old office, garage or attic come visit us at the museum.

Toad Hall: The Poster Returns

With the holiday season fast approaching we’ve started taking particular notice of holiday-themed photos in our collections.  These photos can vary from Whistler Mountain ski instructors dressed up as reindeer to Santa finding hidden powder to Season’s Greetings from the Philip family.  One of the more interesting holiday photos shows a roasted turkey in a wood burning stove called “Master Climax” (so named for the make of the stove).

Master Climax Turkey Glory – Christmas Dinner at Toad Hall in 1969! Benjamin Collection.

This stove was part of the kitchen set up at the first Toad Hall, one of Whistler’s most famous (or infamous) lodgings.  This Toad Hall was built by Alta Lake resident Alf Gebhart, who first came to live in the area in 1936.  In the mid-1960s, Alf sold his property to Charles Hillman, a high-school teacher working in Vancouver.  Charles, in turn, rented his property to a “respectable-looking” father with two daughters.  The rent was paid consistently and on time, though after a while the names on the cheques started to change.

By the time Charles Hillman decided to start using his cabin to ski, unbeknownst to him, the property had been renamed Toad Hall and was gaining a reputation across the country.  Charles arrived to find a young resident from Montreal cooking breakfast, evidence of a campfire in one of the bedrooms, and sleeping quarters set up wherever possible, including the chicken house.

The first Toad Hall, 1969. Benjamin Collection.

With help from the RCMP in Squamish and a court order, the residents of Toad Hall were amicably evicted, with enough time given for a farewell party.

By the 1970s, the Soo Valley Logging Camp, near the northern end of Green Lake, was no longer in use by the forestry industry.  This became the second incarnation of Toad Hall.  Perhaps the best known image of Toad Hall, the Toad Hall Poster, was taken here.

The second Toad Hall was scheduled for demolition in the summer of 1973.  (Though no buildings remain today, some photos of Parkhurst donated by the Clausen family show the in-use camp across the lake.)

The Toad Hall Poster.

That spring, knowing their time there was limited, residents gathered with their ski gear and little else for a memorable photo shoot set up by photographer Chris Speedie – 10,000 copies of this poster were printed and sold for two to three dollars each.  Copies were distributed along the World Cup ski circuit by Terry “Toulouse” Spence.

Over the decades, copies of these posters became harder to obtain.  Then, in 2013, Terry brought a box to the museum.  The museum officially sold out of the original run of Toad Hall posters this past January, almost 45 years after it was first printed.

The first official reprint of the Toad Hall Poster is now available to purchase at the Whistler Museum.

Saunas of Whistler

Looking through Whistler publications from the 1970s, it’s easy to see that building and design in Whistler has changed a lot over the decades.  It’s rare today to see a newly constructed A-frame, Gothic arch cabin or a condo advertised using wall-to-wall shag carpeting as a selling point.  Like the shag carpeting and A-frames, saunas also seem to be disappearing from town.

Not all saunas built in Whistler necessarily met the criteria of H.J. Viherjurri, one of the founding members of the Suomen Saunaseura (Finnish Sauna Society), to be considered a true sauna.  He and other members defined a sauna as a room or hut built of wood and containing stones heated by some kind of stones.  These stones heat the air to upwards of 160°F and water can be thrown on the stones to produce steam, called löyly.  Viherjuuri explains that, unlike steam rooms, the air in a sauna remains dry as the moisture is instantly absorbed by the wooden walls of the room.

It’s not clear whether the products in this 1980 California Pool & Spa ad from the Whistler Answer would meet the requirements of a sauna.  Whistler Answer, December 1980.

Also important to be considered a true sauna is the multi-round process of alternately heating and cooling, whether by a cold shower, jumping in a lake or even rolling in snow.  The process often also includes light beating with leafy birch branches to clean the skin.  Without known how saunas built in Whistler were used in the 1970s it is impossible to assume they met the requirements of this definition.  The term sauna was, however, used to attract buyers and visitors to various properties.

In advertisements placed in Garibaldi’s Whistler News the Christiana Inn, Highland Lodge, Cheakamus Inn, Ski Boot Lodge and Whistler Inn all featured the word sauna among their various assets.  The Whistler Inn, described as “an ultra modern, yet rustic lodge” listed their sauna first among their attractions “available for your added enjoyment and comfort”.

Many of the condominiums built around Whistler at the time also included saunas, whether private or shared, for the use of guests and residents.  Blackcomb Condominiums, Telemark Townhouses and Alpenforst condos all had saunas available and the “very deluxe units” of Adventures West included “dishawashers, saunas, washing machines and dryers”.

This living room was used to sell Tamarisk units in 1973; see the massive fireplace and wall-to-wall shag. Garibaldi’s Whistler News, Fall 1973.

Perhaps best known is the example of Tamarisk.  The first phase of Tamarisk, built in 1973, included 146 units, each featuring a sunken living area, a “massive stone fireplace”, shag carpet and a private sauna.

Saunas remained a popular part of aprés-ski culture into the 1980s.  For those who didn’t already have their own sauna Wedge Mountain Construction advertised in The Whistler Answer in December 1980 that they could build one for you.  You could also purchase a freestanding sauna kit from California Pool & Spa for $900.

For a price Wedge Mountain Construction would build a sauna for you. Whistler Answer, December 1980.

Though houses may still contain saunas, many of these rooms are now used for purposes other than bathing.  Growing up in 1980s house built with one of these wooden rooms, some small children thought sauna was just another word for storeroom.  Rather than attract buyers with the promise of their own private sauna, house listings today are more likely to advertise a Tamarisk unit with a converted sauna.

While saunas may not be nearly as prevalent as during their 1970s ’80s heyday, they can still be found in Whistler at Meadow Park Sports Centre, various hotels, the Scandinave Spa and even some private residences.

Over 20 Years of Whistler Welcomes

November has traditionally been a time of arrivals in Whistler: the snow arrives in the valley (we hope) and new faces arrive for the upcoming season.

Over the past week you may have seen some (or been one) of these new residents throughout town getting their scavenger hunt passports stamped, attending classes at Meadow Park Sports Centre or playing board games at the Whistler Public Library.

While many board games can by played at Games Night at the Whistler Public Library, we don’t think the Whistler Challenge will be among those found there.  Does anyone have a copy of this Whistler game? Whistler Question Collection, 1983.

All of these activities are part of Connect Whistler, a weeklong Whistler introduction put on by Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) and community partners.  Though the name may not sound familiar, the idea behind it should be.  After all, WCSS has been officially welcoming new arrivals to Whistler for over a decade.

The first Whistler Welcome Week was put on in November 2003 by WCSS youth outreach workers Tessa McLoughlin and Greg McDonnell.  The week was designed to resemble “a healthier version of a university frosh week” and offered five alcohol-free events attended by over 1,300 people.

Some events, such as a volunteer fair and scavenger hunt, familiarized attendees with services and businesses available in Whistler.  There was also a snowboard film screening and the Moist Pool Party held at Meadow Park.  The week’s festivities culminated in Saturday’s Community Welcome Dinner.

Community meals have been held in the Whistler valley for decades.  Here the Alta Lake community gathered to ring in the new year.  Philip Collection.

Held at the conference centre, the Community Welcome Dinner sat new residents and old at a table together to share a meal provided by some of the town’s top chefs.  Whistler’s then-Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and his wife got to know eight young Australians the first year, discussing travel and the upcoming season.

The following year, the dinner was renamed in honour of Jill Ackhurst, a long-time community member and chair of the WCSS board of directors who died in 2003.

With the support of community partners such as LUNA, Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and the RMOW, most of these events would remain Welcome Week staples over the next 12 years.

Other events were also added, ranging from a community rummage sale to workshops on tenants’ rights.

In 2016, WCSS announced a rebranding of Welcome Week.  The scavenger hunt, which used to be a single afternoon’s activity, has been reformed as a week-long opportunity to find and get familiar with local businesses and services, including the new WCSS building, the Re-Use-It Centre, the Whistler Library and even the Whistler Museum, with the incentive of some pretty great prizes.

Participants are also offered a chance to try out classes at Meadow Park, devour Rotary pancakes and ensure a good winter season by taking a plunge in Lost Lake.

With a few variations in dress, this photo easily could have been taken at the Whistler Museum last night. Whistler Question Collection, 1978.

Last night the Whistler Museum hosted Feeding the Spirit, the last in a long list of Connect Whistler events.  Thank you to everyone who joined up and we hope you learned something about Whistler’s history (if not, we’re open daily!).

A huge thank you to Creekside Market for their ongoing support of Feeding the Spirit, as well as all the local businesses that generously provide prizes.