Category Archives: Museum Musings

Summer Preparations at Alta Lake

With last Friday (June 21) officially marking the beginning of summer, we’ve reached the time when all the plans and preparations for the season come to life.  This change of seasons would have been a particularly busy and expectant time for the residents of Alta Lake in the first half of the 20th century.  Long before Whistler became known internationally as a ski resort, Alta Lake was a popular summer destination that drew short-term visitors and summer residents to join those who stayed in the area year round.

For Alta Lake, summer was the busy season of the year while winters were very quiet. This would change dramatically with the development of Whistler Mountain in the 1960s. Fairhurst Collection.

Sixty years ago Alta Lake had no local government, no newspaper and certainly no Facebook groups to notify residents of the goings on (official or unofficial) in the area.  Social gatherings and community initiatives were often organized through the Alta Lake School and the Alta Lake Community Club (ALCC), founded in the early 1930s and 1926 respectively.  When it came to preparing for an eventful summer, the ALCC played an active role in preparations and kept its members up to date on community efforts through its newsletter, the Alta Lake Echo.

First Alta Lake Community Club picnic on the point at Rainbow. Philip Collection.

The Echo was published from 1958 to 1961 and ran weekly through the summer months of 1959.  At this time it was edited by Don Gow, who brought a personal touch to the sharing of news, the description of events and updates on comings and goings, seemingly of everyone in the valley – this led to some entertaining issues. (In one issue calling for newsletter subscription renewal, Gow threatened to cut off the circulation or, even worse, “we will print your names in the paper and let everyone know how cheap you are.”)

Members of the Alta Lake community began preparing for summer in May with a dance at the Community Hall to kick off events for those in the area.  Before this could happen members of the ALCC were reminded of a “Hall Clean Up Day,” the main purpose of which was to wash and wax the floor.  Those planning to pitch in were urged to bring their own tools and reminded that “the more who show up the quicker we can get fishing.”

By May preparations and repairs were also also underway at the lodges around Alta Lake as they looked forward to welcoming their first guests.  Jack and Cis Mansell returned from a winter presumably spent in warmer climes to ready Hillcrest for the season, and Russ and Maxine Jordan improved the porches at Jordan’s Lodge.  Smitty and Don (surnames were rarely included in the Echo) had plans to rebuild the Mansells’ raft in front of Alta Lake Station, used to ferry guests across the lake.

The first dance of the season, scheduled to start at 9 pm and end “when we’re dang good and ready” over the May long weekend, was well attended and a good time by all accounts.  While Rainbow Lodge had not yet opened, the other lodges and accommodations around the lake were full.  Though many people returned to Vancouver and other cities after the weekend, the ALCC continued planning events through the month.  Weekly dances and shows were scheduled to begin in June and the annual Fish Derby was set to run from July 1 through September 6.  A $10 prize was on the line for the largest Rainbow Trout caught in Alta Lake “by any legal method.”

This Rainbow Trout came out of Alta Lake in the 1980s but is a good indication of what the Fish Derby was looking for. Whistler Question Collection.

Summer was in full swing by July as families returned to their summer cottages and the lodges were filled with those escaping the city.  Work days such as the “Hall Clean Up Day” would resume in the fall and the lodges might undergo more renovations, but until then those at Alta Lake were too busy enjoying all the area had to offer, and the events they had planned for so long.

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The Dangers of Cycling in Whistler

Over the last week or so, the Whistler Museum hosted various events as part of our fourth annual Mountain Bike Heritage Week, including a Post-Toonie Retro Bike Show & Shine, a bike maintenance course, a film screening of Ride to the Hills, and talks on the Cheakamus Challenge and bike manufacturing in Whistler.  We’d like to thank everyone who helped with this year’s Mountain Bike Heritage week and all of our amazing sponsors.  With all of this going, it’s no surprise that biking got a little stuck in our heads.

Usually when we discuss the history of mountain biking, we look at events, races and the growing popularity of the sport.  Reading through press clippings from the Squamish Citizen and the Whistler Question from the 1980s, however, a large portion of the reporting on biking covers accidents, injuries and growing concerns for safety.

Constable F. Pinnock runs through the bike safety testing course that he and Constable Gabriel of Pemberton set up at Myrtle Philip Elementary. Contrary to the advise of medical professionals, Pinnock seems to have forgotten to put on a helmet.  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

A July 1986 article in the Citizen reported on two separate accidents two days apart, both of which caused serious injuries.  In one, a Whistler resident and a Maple Ridge resident collided on the bike path along Nita Lake, resulting in a broken hand and possible concussion for the Maple Ridge resident.  The other claimed that a resident of North Vancouver “lost control of her rented bicycle and careened into a tree,” causing a broken leg and another possible concussion.  Both injured parties were transported to Vancouver.

The RCMP received many complaints of bikers not following the rules of the road and particularly urged riders to carry lights when riding in the dark.  In June 1987, a cyclist was reported to have struck an unidentified object while riding on Highway 99 and was transported to Vancouver for surgery for sever facial injuries.  In an effort to encourage the use of lights, the RCMP began ticketing cyclists who didn’t have any, many of whom were shocked to receive a $75 fine.

By May 1987, it would seem bike accidents were so numerous in Whistler that the Whistler Ambulance Chief Jeff Sopel made a statement appealing to cyclists to “use common sense when using the Valley Trail.”  Part of his appeal included a call to wear helmets and to be aware of their location in case an ambulance had to be called.

These helmets look suspiciously like they may also be used when skiing. Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

The Whistler Medical Clinic, then located in the basement of Municipal Hall, saw quite a bit of business from cyclists over the summer of 1987.  Dr. Ron Stanley collected data from all the bicycle accidents that passed through the clinic between May and September and found that about 50 per cent of the accidents resulted in road lacerations or abrasions (also described as “Road rash – very painful”), 30 per cent caused head and/or facial injuries, 15 per cent resulted in fractures of some kind, 15 per cent of the injuries were serious enough to require a transfer to Vancouver, and 15 per cent of the accidents occurred while the rider was drunk or impaired.

According to Dr. Stanley, there was no obvious pattern to the incidents, which occurred all over Whistler on both roads and trails.  He echoed Sopel’s call, urging riders to use common sense and wear helmets, also adding that wearing adequate clothing (such as shirts, shoes and gloves) would help prevent road rash and noted that the majority of serious injuries occurred when the rider was impaired.

Bike decorating contests for the children of Whistler often accompanied the safety demonstrations put on by the RCMP. Even ET made an appearance. Whistler Question Collection, 1983.

Mountain biking as a sport and bike safety in general have come a long way in the decades since the 1980s (as has the Whistler Medical Clinic, which moved out of the basement and into its current facility in 1994).  One thing we’ve learned from talking about biking all week, however, is that the advise of Sopel and Dr. Stanley still applies today: use common sense and wear your helmet.

Talking Shop: Whistler’s Early Mountain Bike Shops

Not only do we have a trail-rich valley to call home in Whistler, but we are also spoiled with choice when it comes to bike shops.  This wasn’t always the case.

When mountain bikes first hit the logging roads in the valley in the early 1980s, most riders had to head to Vancouver for any mountain-bike-specific parts and maintenance, according to one or our oral history interviews with local mountain bike pioneer Steve Anderson.

Mountain biking steadily became more popular in Whistler from the 1980s but at the beginning there were few shops dedicated to the sport.  Whistler Question Collection.

A couple of shops were starting to pop up around that time.  In the newly constructed village Jim McConkey’s shop sold bikes in the summer months and Doris Burma operated a small bike shop, Summit Cycles, out of a trailer right above the commercial loading zone at the Delta Mountain Inn (today known as the Hilton).  Doris was passionate about mountain bikes and famed for her Cheakamus Challenge precursor race called “See Colours & Puke,” a wild mountain bike race reportedly meant to be completed on mushrooms.

In the autumn of 1985 Backroads Whistler owner Eric Wight opened a bike shop  in the basement of Creekside’s Southside Diner.  A short time later, the shop moved to the first floor of a house in Mons.

The new location was in the centre of the local mountain bike scene at the time, not far from new trails in Emerald and Lost Lake.  The shop sold, fixed, and rented mountain bikes, even building a small trials track outside their door.  Eric admits the shops didn’t make much money in the early days, as most of the clientele were locals who could only afford parts using “local deals.”  Big things were to come, however.

Whistler began hosting bike races in the early 1980s, creating even more demand for maintenance and shops.  Whistler Question Collection.

In 1989 Eric’s shop moved to Whistler Village, finding a spot in the base of the Delta.  The location was off the radar for visitors, however, and the clientele was still all locals.  The shop finally surfaced on the Village Stroll in the spot where Jim McConkey had sold bikes (currently Showcase Snowboards) around the time Backroads began working with Whistler Mountain to begin mountain bike tours down the mountain.  According to Eric, the new shop had a Santa Fe theme, a mechanic shop in the back, rentals and tours, and plenty of snazzy lycra on sale out front.

As mountain biking continued gaining traction the 1990s saw bike shops that are still kicking it today start up shop.

In 1994 John Inglis and Peter Colapinto opened the Whistler Bike Co., also in the underground portion of the Delta, for the summer months.  In 1995 they brought onboard Giant Bicycles and they eventually expanded to Pemberton, the Village Gate location, and, most recently, their Marketplace location to accommodate a growing population of bikers in town.

Molson’s Whistler Bike Race passes through the Whistler Village, where some of the earlier bike shops in town can still be found today.  Whistler Question Collection.

Bike Co. is currently the oldest independent bike shop in town, followed closely by Evolution, which was opened by Jenine Bourbonnais in 1995.  Many more mountain bike shops have opened up as Whistler has become the mountain bike mecca it is today: Summit Sports, Fanatyk Co., Garbanzo Bike & Bean, Coastal Culture Sports, Arbutus Routes, Whistler Village Sports, The Fix, Comor Sports, Fineline, Gateway Bikes – the list is long and continues to grow.  Needless to say, Whistler’s mountain bikers (and their bikes) are now very well serviced.

This week we’ve been celebrating Whistler’s mountain biking history with the museum’s 4th annual Mountain Bike Heritage Week.  You can find a full list of events here and join us for our final event on Wednesday featuring Chris Allen of North Shore Billet and Steve Mathews of Vorsprung.

How McKeever’s Got Its Name

This past week we opened a new temporary exhibit at the museum featuring the various ways people have found a place to call home in the valley (the exhibit runs through July 31st so be sure to drop by!).  While putting together the exhibit we’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about housing and development and what has and hasn’t changed.  We recently came across an article in the Squamish Citizen that featured the beginning of a building that has changed quite a bit while, in some ways, remaining the same: McKeever’s General Store.

On July 22, 1986 Sue Cote, a reporter for the Squamish Citizen, was invited to a groundbreaking ceremony in Alpine Meadows by Chuck Johnstone, the owner of the property at the corner of Alpine Way and Highway 99.  Attended by MLA John Reynolds, Alderman Paul Burrows, Michael and Mark Sadler of Sadler Brothers Building Ltd. and Harry McKeever, the actual breaking of the ground was done by Art Den Duyf and his grader (no spades were needed).

With approval from the neighbourhood and the RMOW, Johnstone planned to develop and convenience store and laundromat on the property.  The store would be owned and operated by McKeever and his sister Linda who committed to leasing the space.  After early reports of opposition to the store were published in the Whistler Question in October 1985 Alpine Meadows residents Sonya McCarthy and Margaret Kogler conducted a petition that showed overwhelming support for the idea.  By the end of 1986, the idea had become reality and residents now had access to McKeever’s General Store and Dirty Harry’s Laundromat.

Harry McKeever, Alpine Meadows resident, Vending Machine Operator. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

McKeever’s was a well-known name in the valley well before the opening of this store.  Harry McKeever first came to Alta Lake on holiday in 1957.  In 1960 is family bought property and built a cabin in Alta Vista.  Not too long after that he moved up permanently and when Garibaldi Lifts began operating in 1965/66 McKeever became one of the company’s first lifities.  Working mainly in the gondola barn in the valley, McKeever became valley supervisor and stayed with Garibaldi Lifts until 1975.  According to a 1993 article by Bob Colebrook in the Whistler Answer, “McKeever could give seminars to today’s lifties on courtesy and friendliness, although he might have a hard time imparting his sincerity.”

Lifts were not McKeever’s only occupation; he ran a successful vending machine business between 1970 and 1990, supplying the valley’s game, pop and cigarette machines, and became known to some as Whistler’s “slot machine mogul”.  During his time in Whistler McKeever was also an early member of the Chamber of Commerce, on the Board of Directors of the Whistler TV Society, a member of the Whistler Rotary Club and the sponsor of Dirty Harry’s hockey team.

When McKeever’s General Store opened in 1986 it carried groceries, hardware, auto supplies and video rentals while the laundromat provided a welcome service to residents.  Shortly before they opened Linda McKeever stated, “We want to make the store a focal point for the neighbourhood,” a goal they certainly achieved.  McKeever’s provided a convenient location to pick up eggs or butter (especially if you already happened to be checking your mailbox) and for the children of the neighbourhood it was the closest place to buy popsicles in the summer.

When discussing the store with Colebrook in the early 1990s, Harry McKeever told him: “It’s excellent, it’s the first easy job I’ve had.  As the staff learns more and more my work gets less and less.  It’s a great way to keep in touch with the people.  Also, by having my name on the store I get a lot of people from twenty-five or thirty years ago coming in because they same my name.”

The store has evolved since McKeever left the valley.  The laundromat (and the linoleum flooring) is gone, replaced by Alpine Cafe and the store is now named Alpine Meadows Market.  The McKeever name, however, will always be associated with the address: 8104 McKeevers Place.

Whistler’s First Adventure Film Festival

In 1986, Whistler held its first Whistler Adventure Film Festival (WAFF), an event not all that different from the Whistler Film Festival’s sixth annual Adventure Film Series that takes place on the Victoria Day weekend in May as part of GO Fest. (The museum also ran some Valley of Dreams Walking Tours and a Discover Nature station as part of the festival; if you missed us, our Valley of Dreams and nature tours all start up again daily June 1 and Discover Nature will be back at Lost Lake for July and August!).

Often when films arrive at the museum, they look a bit like this.

The WAFF was co-sponsored by the Whistler Resort Association (today known as Tourism Whistler) and organized by One Step Beyond Adventure Group of Canmore, Alta., which also organized the Banff Festival of Mountain Films (today known as the Banff Mountain Film Festival) at that time.  Set to take place over the third weekend of November, WAFF was timed to excite attendees for the coming winter season and the adventures that might await them.

The films selected featured various “adventure activities” including skiing, white-water sports and climbing expeditions.  In total, the festival screened 11 films over two days, with a reception on the Friday evening featuring David Breashears.

In 1985, Breashears became the first American to summit Mount Everest more than once, having already completed the climb in 1983.  By the time he appeared at the WAFF, he had already won an Emmy for an ABC Sports special Triumph on Mt. Everest, which featured the first videotape microwave transmission from the summit.  According to the Squamish Citizen, at the opening reception Breashears was going to show a selection of his film accomplishments as well as talking about his career and the search for Mallory and Irvine, who disappeared during their 1924 Everest expedition.  Following his talk was a screening of Everest – North Wall, Laszlo Pal’s account of the 1982 American China-Everest Expedition narrated by Robert Redford.

Filmer Garry Pendygrasse, one of our “Filming Mountains” presenters from 2013, hauling gear around the Tantalus Range. Dan Milner photo.

Over the next two days, the WAFF screened more films, including three on sailing, an Irish film Beyond the North Wind about the 1981 Irish Arctic Expedition to Northern Ellesmere Island, a CBC/BBC collaboration Hell and High Water documenting a kayak and raft adventure through the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, and To the End of the Earth, a film recording the exploits of the Trans-Globe Expedition.  Two of the New Zealand ski films shown at the WAFF, Incredible Mountains and Across the Main Divide, are available for viewing today online at NZ On Screen.

The WAFF does not appear to have been long lived as we can find no evidence of it in our research binders after 1986.  Today, however, there are plenty of opportunities to view adventure films in Whistler.  The Whistler Film Festival‘s Adventure Series each spring features many of the same sports and adventures that could be seen in 1986, though some have evolved over time.

You can even catch some of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour in Whistler each February, brought to town by Escape Route.  Since it began in 1976, the festival has grown to include a World Tour in which a selection of the best films from the festival go out on tour in approximately 305 cities in over 20 different countries.

Blackcomb Mountain’s Blabcomb

We love newsletters at the museum.  They’re a great way of keeping interested parties up to date and sharing information and, when donated to the archives, are an interesting record of changes to an organization over time.  Recently, some of the museum’s resource binders were digitized to make them text-searchable to help with our own and others’ research projects.  One of these binders housed a collection of newsletters published by Blackcomb Mountain over the late 1980s and early 1990s: the Blabcomb.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain in 1980.  By the time the Blabcomb began publishing the mountain had been open for skiing for only seven seasons.  Whistler Question Collection.

When the first edition of the Blabcomb came out on March 17, 1988 the newsletter was only four pages of news and updates related to Blackcomb operations; the last issue that the museum has a copy of, from July 12, 1991, had grown to twelve.

Early issues of the Blabcomb came out with payroll every two weeks, then switched to monthly publication for the summer months.

The issues included lists of birthdays, staff changes, discounts, meetings and recognition of the latest ICE (Inspire Continued Excellence) Awards.  Even birth announcements made it in,

Thought the newsletter included frequent calls for volunteers and contributions, it would seem Blabcomb was spearheaded by Eric Sinclair of Blackcomb’s accounting department.  The name “Blabcomb” was the product of Wayne “Chookhead” Burt, who won out against competing submissions such as “Snow News” (Bart Parsons), “Seventh Heaven Express” (Peter Bacholtz), and “Blackcomb Briefs” (Gerhard Reimer).

Considering the chatty (and, at times, perhaps gossipy) tone of the newsletter, Blabcomb seems like a perfect fit.

The suitcase races on Blackcomb were a popular event, and would have made for great television. Blackcomb Collection.

In some ways the resort described in the Blabcomb is very different from the Whistler Blackcomb operations of today.  Events such as the Celebrity Challenge Suitcase Race (you can learn more about that event here) no longer run and with the merger between Whistler and Blackcomb guest numbers are no longer a competition.  Other parts of their spring 1988 newsletters, however, could almost be published today.

The Blabcomb reportedly began “in order to maintain the Blackcomb spirit,” which some feared was being lost as the company grew (a feeling not unknown in Whistler).  In early March 1988 the Blackcomb staff (combining both employees of Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises and of Alta Lake Foods, which ran the food and beverage operations for the mountain) surpassed the 600 employees mark.  The creation of the Blabcomb recognized that it could be “difficult to maintain that feeling of ‘family’ among such a large employee base.”

Original pin that was used to promote the new Wizard Chair at Blackcomb Mountain. Whistler Museum.

With expanded food service and five new lifts added in 1987 (Magic Chair, Wizard Express, Solar Coaster Express, 7th Heaven Express and Horstman Glacier T-Bar) the 1987-88 season was a big year for Blackcomb Mountain.  By early April it had exceeded 512,000 visits (to put the number is perspective, the previous record of 508,000 had been set by Whistler Mountain in the 1984/85 season) and looked on track to exceed 600,000 by the time the season ended.

Employees asked by the Blabcomb described the season as “exciting, exhausting, wild and, of course, magical” but the newsletter also acknowledged the toll the season had taken.

As they put it, “Not only did Blackcomb employees have to adjust to a massive expansion project that included new lifts, buildings and added responsibilities, they were overwhelmed by the number of skiers we received in Whistler Resort this year… A shortage of employees, cramped, and sometimes marginal living conditions made these ‘adjustments’ even more difficult.”

Over the next few years the Blabcomb continued to update employees about changes in operations and events on the mountain, while also covering topics that we still discuss in Whistler today, such as the construction of employee housing (it was during this period that Blackcomb and CP Hotels, later the Chateau, built some of the housing currently in use).

Though newsletters are often written thinking of the present and future, they can be really useful resources when examining our past.

George Benjamin’s Candid Whistler

The Whistler Museum’s archive houses many documents, printed material, films, oral histories, and photographs from Whistler’s rich cultural past, from the arrival of Whistler’s earliest pioneers to the journey of hosting the Olympic Games.  It’s a treasure trove of interesting facts and unique stories that are unapologetically Whistler.

One of the first major collections I (Brad Nichols, Executive Director/Curator) catalogued while working in the archives as an intern at the Whistler Museum in the summer of 2011 was the George Benjamin photograph collection.

George Benjamin, originally from Toronto, Ontario, first came to Whistler in 1968 on a ski vacation, staying at the infamous Toad Hall.  George, on “Benji,” as he was more commonly known, would move to Whistler in 1970.

George was a semi-professional photographer.  His family back in Ontario owned a photo-finishing business, and this allowed him to develop his photographs for free – a handy asset in the days before digital photography.

George Benjamin himself holds his catch at the dock of Tokum Corners. Benjamin Collection.

The George Benjamin Collection consists of 8,236 images from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.  Photos in the collection include images of early Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol, Soo Valley Toad Hall, Gelandesprung ski jump competitions, summer days spent at many of Whistler’s lakes, parties, and everyday shots of living and working in Whistler.  This might be the most candid representation of Whistler during this era in our collection.

Photos don’t usually get more candid than this. Benjamin Collection.

Folks living in Whistler during this time would have had more in common with Whistler’s early-20th century pioneers than with the Whistler of today.  Many residents were still using outhouses, had little-to-no electricity, and relied on wood stoves for their cooking needs.  George’s photos capture this pioneer lifestyle, but with the added element of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s – and, of course, people that loved to ski.

George’s residence in Whistler was the infamous Tokum Corners.  This cabin – which was once home to Whistler Museum Board Chair John Hetherington, had no running water, and was often repaired with found materials – would become one of the cornerstones of social life in the valley.

Tokum Corners, as seen across the tracks in 1971. Benjamin Collection.

George, who had access to 16mm film equipment, would often shoot on Whistler Mountain, capturing his days following ski patrol blasting and partaking in avalanche control.  These film vignettes would be screened at Tokum Corners, usually with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing over top to ever-growing crowds.

The Photocell, covered in snow. Benjamin Collection.

George opened the Photo Cell photography store in Creekside around 1973.

He later became a commercial fisherman in the late-1970s.  He moved from Whistler back to Toronto in the early 1980s and now lives in Port Perry, Ontario.

George generously donated his collection of photographs and negatives to the museum in 2009.  The bulk of George Benjamin’s photos are available on the Whistler Museum’s website here.

If you  have any interesting stories, films, or photographs from Whistler’s past, we would love to hear from you.