Category Archives: Pioneers

Stories from the Alta Lake days.

Before Opening Day

One of the most-talked about topics in Whistler each November is opening day: when it will be, what the conditions will be like, and how the rest of the snow season looks.  Often this causes us to look back at previous opening days, but this week we thought we’d look further back, and see what the community of Alta lake was talking about 60 years ago, years before lifts started operating on Whistler Mountain.

 

 

Alex Philip stands on the snow he’s been clearing from the door. A fascination with snow and weather was just as popular in the early days of Whistler. Philip Collection.

According to the Alta Lake Echo, the (more or less) weekly newsletter of the Alta Lake Community Club (ALCC), those living at Alta Lake in 1959 found the topic of November weather just about as fascinating as we find it today.  The newsletter of November 3 reported clear skies, a brisk north wind, and snow within a couple hundred metres of the lake, with a chance of flurries int he afternoon.  Don Gow was even reported to have said, “This is the year of the big snow.”

The next few weeks didn’t seem quite as promising.  A lack of snow, however, didn’t seem to be as unwelcome as the thawing ice on Alta Lake.  By the beginning of December, there was reportedly “beautiful” ice forming on the lake, but rain and warmer temperatures washed it away with the snow.  This, it would seem, was particularly frustrating for some “would-be skaters who got their Christmas presents early.”

Though ice stock sliding came later in the 1970s, Alta Lake residents spent many winter days out on the frozen lake. Petersen Collection.

Unlike today, when many people arrive for the season in November and businesses are busily preparing for a bustling winter, Alta Lake residents were looking ahead to a slower pace after a full summer.  Rainbow Lodge officially closed for the season soon after the Armistice Day Holiday, and the fishing season would appear to have been finished.  Bill and Phyllis House, who visited Alta Lake each November to fish, determinedly went out in the snow but reportedly caught nothing, a first in 20 years.

Some Alta Lake residents took the slow winter season as a chance to take a holiday, visit friends and family, or even return home after seasonal work, such as Ivor Gunderson who returned to Norway once Valleau Logging ceased operations for the winter.  Alex and Audrey Greenwood, the owners of Rainbow Lodge, left for two weeks to San Francisco, and Russ and Maxine Jordan, the proprietors of Jordan’s Lodge, left to wait out the cold season in warmer climes.

Many of the cottages and lodges on Alta Lake were built for the summer, and were not always winterized to keep occupants warm through the winter. Photo: Mitchell

There were few evening entertainments at Alta Lake once the summer guests left and the days grew shorter.  The ALCC began organizing poker sessions in November.  Participants took turns hosting, and some games were played at the Alta Lake School building.  Though scores and winnings were not printed, the Alta Lake Echo did give a fair impression of how the games went, reporting on December 8 that, “Last week saw a good turnout at Cruickshank’s Casino.  This week, Kelly & Dick [Fairhurst] are going to win their shirts back.  They’ll use their own cars.  Come one, come all…”  Interestingly, these reports were printed in the newsletter’s “Wildlife” section.

We, and many others, are looking forward to a busy winter, but it was not so long ago that winters meant something very different in the Whistler valley.

The Beginnings of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway

If you’ve ever been out hiking near the train tracks on the western side of Whistler, you know how difficult the terrain can be.  The cliffs, creeks, and rivers running through the valley make for beautiful scenery and photographs, but they can make travel very difficult.  As a result, building a railway from coastal British Columbia to the Interior was an expensive, difficult venture, and it took a long time to build the rail line that exists today.

The first company that was meant to build a railway from coastal BC to the BC Interior was incorporated in 1891, but not much came of it.  Once the Howe Sound and Northern Railway Company (HSN) was incorporated in 1907, however, things really started moving in the right direction.  Surveys from Squamish through the Cheakamus Canyon were conducted in secret by the Cleveland and Cameron engineering firm, and the demand for a railway into the BC Interior was very high.  When a feasibility report was published by the HSN Railway Company in 1909, it was the talk of the town, making headlines in the Daily Province newspaper.  The feasibility report announced that the construction of a railway through the Cheakamus Canyon was possible, and the first rails were laid that very same year.

Grace Woollard and Grace Archibald in the Cheakamus Canyon on their way to Alta Lake, 1912. Clarke Collection.

The HSN Railway was taken over by the Foley, Welch, and Stewart Firm in 1912.  They renamed the company the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE), and within a year of the new company’s incorporation, track was being laid on two separate sections of the route.  The PGE Squamish Line finally reached Pemberton in October of 1914.  The new railway brought many opportunities for people in the Whistler valley, especially Alex and Myrtle Philip.  Their Rainbow Lodge opened the same year the railway reached Pemberton, and they received a lot of encouragement from the PGE workers to host fishing tours.  The first tours were held in May of 1915, and fishermen, with rods and tackle in hand, arrived by train to stay at Rainbow Lodge.

The Rainbow Lodge station could be a bustling place when a train came in, especially the Sunday excursion train. Philip Collection.

Expansion of the rail line continued, but not without difficulty.  The PGE line from Squamish reached as far as Lillooet, but going further was a financial problem.  The BC Provincial Government stepped in, and the PGE received a loan of $10 million ($200 million adjusted for inflation today) in order to continue extending the rail line in 1916.  The money didn’t help much, through, and in 1918 the PGE was forced to default on the loan.  The Provincial Government took over the PGE Railway Company, but, again, building a railway was very expensive.  The Provincial Government even listed the PGE for public sale in 1924, but there were not takers.

A southbound PGE train pulling in to Rainbow Lodge. J Jardine Collection

Despite everything, the railway pushed on.  The Provincial Government undertook a $10 million redevelopment program for the PGE in 1949 (over $110 million today).  It took a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of time, but the PGE did eventually reach its destination.  Finally, after over 50 years of planning and development, the PGE Railway reached Prince George on September 11, 1952.

If you would like to learn more about the influence the PGE had on Whistler, stay tuned for future articles!

Charlie Chandler and the Runaway Bannock

This week, we thought we’d take a look at the life and legacy of Charles Ernest Chandler, one of Whistler’s earliest European settlers.  Locally known as Charlie, he was a trapper during the beginning of the twentieth century.  He came to the Whistler valley from Wisconsin in 1908 to pre-empt about 160 acres on the northern end of Alta Lake.

(L-R) Sue Hill, Kay Hill, Charlie Chandler, Wallace Betts holding daughter Louise, Charlie Lundstrom, and ‘Sporty’ the dog on Alta Lake docks, 1939. J Jardine Collection.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, pre-emption was a method of acquiring Crown Land from the government for agriculture or settlement.  It was formally established by the Land Ordinance in 1870, and was still legal until 1970.  In order to pre-empt land, a person (the pre-emptor) would have to stake out a block of unsurveyed, non-reserved Crown Land and submit an application to the government.  If their application was approved, the pre-emptor would receive a Certificate of Pre-emption, and they would be free to begin “improvements.”  After appropriate development had taken place, the pre-emptor would receive a Certificate of Improvement from the government, which would allow them either to buy the land at a discounted price, or receive the title for it outright.  Pre-emption often did not take into account indigenous claims to land, and the land that was pre-empted by Chandler was part of the unceded territory of the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations.

The Rainbow Lodge property was part of the 160 acres pre-empted by Charlie Chandler.  Philip Collection.

For the next three or four years, Chandler spent his time improving the area he had pre-empted in order to gain title for it.  His move to the Whistler valley was meant to give him a fresh start, away from the influences of “the bottle.”  According to Dick Fairhurst, Chandler though the best method to solve such a problem was “to get the hell away – out in the woods, some place it [alcohol] wouldn’t be too handy.”

He also spent his time working on his trap lines, which ran along Wedge Creek all the way to Wedge Pass, and about 1.5 km down Billy Goat Creek on the Lillooet divide.  He occasionally made money taking people on hunting trips along his trap lines, as well, which is how one of his many colourful stories came about.

Myrtle and Alex Philip stand outside Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s. Philip Collection.

One night, while guiding Alex Philip on a hunting trip, Chandler was cooking his typical fare of bannock for dinner.  The camp they had pitched sat at the top of a steep slope, and when Chandler tried to flip the bannock over in his frying pan, he missed.  The unfortunate bannock flew out of the pan and went cartwheeling down the ridge.  Chandler, the determined man that he was, went chasing after it.  The bannock put up a bit of a fight, it seems, but eventually, with a well-placed stomp, Chandler caught his dinner.  By the time he made it back up to the camp, the bannock looked more than a little worse for wear.  Chandler, however, just looked at the messy ball of dough and said, “You look a little dirty, but we’re eating you anyway.”

Chandler sold ten acres of land to Alex and Myrtle Philip in 1913, which they would quickly turn into the famed Rainbow Lodge property.  Chandler himself moved further north along Alta Lake to settle in the area now known as Alpine Meadows.  He built his homestead there, where he lived until passing away peacefully on his porch in the winter of 1946.

Jacquie Pope’s “Vatican”

Earlier this month, we were invited to attend the Alta Lake Road Block Party.  While sharing information about the neighbourhood’s history with residents, a couple came by to share some history of their friend Jacquie Pope with us.

Jacquie Pope first visited Alta Lake in 1953, when she and Kelly Forster (later Kelly Fairhurst) took a two week vacation at Rainbow Lodge.  After that holiday, Pope remembered that they returned every chance they got, including “the following summer and every long weekend in between.”  At the time travel to Alta Lake was an all-day affair and weekend trips took dedication.

Rainbow Lodge under the Greenwoods in the 1950s.

In 1955 Jacquie and Kelly were part of a group of teachers who bought a cabin together on Alta Lake Road.  The five women were Jacquie, Kelly, Florence Strachan (later Petersen), Betty Gray, and June Tidball.  At Alta Lake they learned to split wood, cook on a wood-burning stove, and lime an outhouse.  Their cabin, soon named “Witsend” after a particularly trying and rainy journey to Alta Lake, was a much-loved summer and weekend getaway for the group.

Jacquie sold her shares in Witsend in 1964 and bought her own lot further along the road.  She paid $1,500 to a PGE employee for Lot 30 and her house, built by Alta Lake Road neighbour Colin Ramsay, was completed in 1965.  In a play on her last name, the house was named “The Vatican”.  At that time it wasn’t uncommon to see names attached to properties, including Valhalla, the Gowery, Whispering Leaves, Woodbine Cottage, Worlebury Lodge, Primrose, the Vicarage, and Kelso Lodge.

(Left to right) Florence Petersen, Jacquie Pope, June Tidball, Fido, Betty Gray and Eunice “Kelly” Forster at their Witsend cottage in 1955.

Jacquie continued teaching in Burnaby and spent her summers at Alta Lake.  After retiring in 1983, she moved to Whistler full-time.

Florence remembered Jacquie as “the life of many a gathering,” especially when she led the sing-a-longs with her ukulele.  Jacquie had a passion for sports and had even played field hockey for Canada in the Netherlands in 1959.  During her retirement in Whistler she hiked, fished and even sailed her own Sabot, a sailing dinghy that is sailed single handedly, as part of the Alta Lake Sailing Club.

Jacquie stayed at “The Vatican” on Alta Lake Road until 2001, when she sold the property and moved to Squamish to enjoy easier winters and a longer golf season.  James Collingwood, who bought Lot 30, demolished the house built by Colin Ramsay.

Three of the original Witsend owners! (Left to right) Jacquie Pope, Kelly Fairhurst and Florence Petersen.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The sign that hung outside “The Vatican” moved to Squamish with Jacquie and was reportedly displayed in her garden.  After her death in 2011, friends and neighbours of her inherited the sign and kept it in their own garden.

These friends of Jacquie’s attended the Alta Lake Road Block Party and brought with them the sign from her Alta Lake property, surprising us by donating it to the museum collections.  Despite spending decades outside, it is in remarkably good condition and the carved lettering is still easy to read.  The sign represents a period in the area when Alta Lake was a popular summer cottage destination, before visitors traded their sailboats for skis.  Though Jacquie’s house is no longer standing, artefacts like her sign provide insight into Whistler history.

Sharing the History of Alta Lake Road

Every so often, we get to take history out of the museum and share Whistler’s past at events around town.  This past weekend, we were invited to attend the Alta Lake Road Block Party held at The Point, and so we spent a few days gathering together any information we have about the neighbourhood.

The history of Alta Lake Road is possible one of the most thoroughly documented neighbourhood histories we have at the museum.  Florence Petersen, one of the founders of the Whistler Museum & Archives Society, even wrote a book entitled The History of Alta Lake Road, which included both the history of the area and a detailed narrative of each individual lot from 1925 to 2006, including her own.

Grace Woollard traverses the Pemberton Trail to Whistler in 1912.

The Alta Lake Road of today roughly follows the path of a section of the Pemberton Trail.  IN 1858, a Joseph MacKay and William Downie were commissioned to plot an alternate trade route between Vancouver and the gold fields of the Cariboo region.  The route went past Alta Lake and, though the grand ambitions of the trail as a trade and cattle route were never fulfilled, it was the path taken by some of the early 20th century settlers of Alta Lake, including John Millar, Alex and Myrtle Philip, and Grace Woollard.

The Pemberton Trail remained the only direct route from the coast to Alta Lake until 1914, when the Pacific Great Easter Railway reached the area.  In 1891, a company was incorporated with the intention of building a railway from North Vancouver to Pemberton.  A feasibility report for the project was published in 1909 by the Howe Sound Pemberton Valley and Northern Railway, which also began acquiring land along the Pemberton Trail as the train was to follow a similar (if less steep) route.  Nineteen kilometres of track had been completed before the money ran out.  In 1912, the PGE took over the project and resumed construction.

A southbound PGE train pulling in towards Rainbow Lodge.

Some of the land along Alta Lake that the railway had acquired was subdivided into lots and put up for sale in 1925.  Summer cottages soon joined Rainbow Lodge and Harrop’s Tea Room (today, the site of The Point) along the western shore of the lake.  Not all of the lots were sold at the time, and in 1956, the remaining lots were sold for a starting bid of $350.  These lots still make up the Alta Lake Road neighbourhood today.

Worlebury Lodge on Alta Lake Road, built by Maurice and Muriel Burge in the late 1950s. The house occupying the lots today looks very different.  Photo: Mitchell

As development and forestry increased in the area, the Pemberton Trail by Alta Lake was widened and frequently used by logging trucks.  The “road” ran between the lake and Millar Creek (in today’s Function Junction), giving automobiles summer access to the west side of Alta Lake.  According to Petersen, the Alta Lake Road we know today was constructed in 1965, branching off of Highway 99, running around the south end of Alpha Lake, and joining the Pemberton Trail road.  This early road was made wide enough for two-way traffic and went as far north as Rainbow Lodge.  The road was extended to join Rainbow Drive in Alpine Meadows in 1972 and, some time later, was paved.

Cypress Lodge, today the location of The Point, as seen from the lake.  Some of the building pictured are still standing today. Fairhurst Collection.

Though there have been more changes to Alta Lake Road in the past few decades than just paving, the area still plays a large role in discussions of Whistler’ past.  Many of the houses today bear little resemblance to their summer cottage predecessors, but others harken back to the years when visitors were drawn to the area for the fishing rather than the snow.

The Early Days of Alex & Myrtle

Working at the Whistler Museum we sometimes forget that not everyone has heard of the story of Rainbow Lodge and its owners Alex and Myrtle Philip.  Every so often we’ll be reminded, sometimes by a student on a field trip fascinated to learn that their school was named after a real person or a visitor to Rainbow Park who wants to know why there are old buildings in the bushes.

The story of Alex and Myrtle Philip began far away from Alta Lake, on the other site of the continent in Maine.

The Philip family emigrated to Maine from Scotland when Alex was just a baby.  Some members of the family later traveled and worked in British Columbia and as a young man Alex joined his father to work on the west coast.

The Philip family c. 1891. Alex Philip sits in the centre. Around him are John, William, John (sr.), Elise, Elisabeth (sr.) and Elisabeth. Philip Collection.

In 1906 Myrtle was fifteen, attending school in Maine prior to becoming a teacher, and boarding at the Philip family house.  The two met when Alex returned home to visit his mother.  As Myrtle described it, “I came home from school that day for lunch, dashed into the front door and threw my sweater on the stair rail and dashed through to the kitchen where we were to have our lunch and I ran plumb into his arms in the little hallway… And that was it.”  For four years the pair wrote to each other (Myrtle called it “courtship by correspondence”) and were married in Oregon in 1910 before moving to Vancouver.

Alex and Myrtle Philip, far more dressed up than they tended to be at Alta Lake. Philip Collection.

In Vancouver Alex met John Millar, who was then living near Alta Lake in a cabin on the Pemberton Trail.  Though described as a “funny looking little fellow,” Millar made such an impression on the Philips that the next summer they made the journey up to visit him. (You may have seen John Millar as part of the museum’s parade float for Canada Day yesterday!)

In the archives we have a recording of Myrtle’s account of their first trip to Alta Lake.  After arriving at Squamish by boat they took the stagecoach to Brackendale where they stayed the night at the Bracken Arms, “a quaint hotel.”  They had arranged for the use of a packhorse to carry their supplies and, after getting some help to attach the pack to the horse, they started on their way up the Pemberton Trail.

Myrtle & Alex Philip coming up the Pemberton Trail on their first visit to Alta Lake,August 1911.

By the time they reached Millar’s cabin two days later Myrtle had become proficient in attaching the pack but both were happy to reach the relative comfort of Millar’s hospitality.  His accommodations may have been described as “three or four old shacks” but his cooking more than made up for the structures.  Myrtle, who prided herself on her pies, claimed he made “pastry that would just melt in your mouth and bread that was just out of this world.”  (Millar has also been mentioned by others for his muskrat stew and steller’s jay pie.)

This trip also featured Myrtle’s first time fly fishing.  Using old rafts they found at the lake (also described as “three or four poles tied together with any old thing”) Myrtle and Alex ventured out on Alta Lake.  Thinking that using two flies might mean catching two fish, Myrtle put two flies on her line and, unexpectedly, caught two fish.  Fortunately the fish were small, as Myrtle claimed that “I got so excited that I nearly fell off the raft.”

Myrtle and Alex Philip stand outside Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s. Philip Collection.

The Philips returned for another visit and in 1913 they purchased property along Alta Lake from Charlie Chandler.  With help from Myrtle’s father Sewall Tapley and her brothers and sister they built the main lodge and were open for business by 1915.  The construction and operation of Rainbow Lodge could (and has) fill multiple articles but the roles of Alex and Myrtle over the decades may have been most succinctly described in “A Short History of the Garibaldi Area” by Ian Barnet: “Alex is the drinker and greeter of guests; Myrtle the business operator.”

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.