Category Archives: Pioneers

Stories from the Alta Lake days.

DeBeck Letters: Life After Parkhurst

When going through accounts of life at Parkhurst one name that keeps coming up is Denis DeBeck.

Denis DeBeck poses with some ties and the dog Micky. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis DeBeck was the eldest of six siblings.  Two of his younger brothers, Ward and Keary, also worked a few summers at Parkhurst.  It was during those years that their mother brought the younger three children, Betsy, Nedra and Fred, to stay on Green Lake as well.

The DeBecks came from the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver where the children all attended school.  Denis graduated from Magee High School in 1928 and got his first job at Coast Quarries.  Over the next few years he worked various jobs, including a stint as his father’s office boy.  In 1932 he began working for B.C. Keeley (who bought Parkhurst in 1933) at his mill in Marpole.  A year later Denis was on the train bound for Parkhurst (in a snowstorm, according to his letters) where he would work on and off for the next five years.

Dorothy DeBeck outside Parkhurst. Photo: DeBeck Collection

During these years he married Dorothy, a friend of his cousin Barbara.  After the original mill burnt down in 1938 the DeBecks left Parkhurst and in 1940 Denis and his partner John Brunzen opened their own small portable mill at 43.5 Mile on the PGE Railway.  This was also the year Denis and Dorothy had their first daughter, Wilma.  Their second, Barbara May, came after they moved the mill to 48.8 Mile.

We are fortunate at the museum to have copies of letters written by Denis to his brother Keary between 1943 and 1944, when Keary was serving in the RCAF overseas.

The letters provide a glimpse into life in British Columbia during the Second World War and into the DeBeck family.  Denis provided his brother with family news and commented on the updates Keary sent about their brother Fred who was recovering from a plane crash.  When Fred returned to Canada their roles switched and Denis provided the updates.  While living at 48.8 Mile the DeBeck family appears to have communicated often through letters and visits, described once by Denis as “a three week raid on Victoria” where their parents had moved.

Wilma DeBeck and another girl on the PGE tracks. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis also sent his brother news of the mills in the area in his first few letters.  By November 1943 he was already looking for the next location for his portable mill, expecting to finish the timber at 48.8 Mile by the next April.  Locations mentioned were Nita Lake, D’Arcy and Squamish.

Alf Gebhart’s house in the 1930s.  The Gebharts had a mill in the valley, but weren’t necessarily having the best year. Photo: Debeck Collection

From his news, mills did not appear to be having the best year.  As Denis put it, “Poor old Parkhurst.  Same old story, out of logs.  They are only running a 7 hour day and still run out of logs.”  There was also trouble with logs at Lost Lake and for the Gebhart’s mill.

In a letter from March 1944 Denis describes the new tool being used to fell the last of the timber at 48.8 Mile.  “We bought one of those power chainsaws and it works pretty good but not as well as we thought it would.  Very good for falling but no good for bucking in the woods.”  Despite taking awhile to start up, he claimed the sawing was “4 or 5 times as fast as hand sawing.”

Despite his predictions of moving soon, the DeBeck family was still at 48.8 Mile in October of 1944.  Though the letters we have stop there, the family moved to Squamish in 1945 and Denis continued to operate his own sawmills.  He lived there until his death in 2007 at the age of 96.

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Walking Tour Season 2018

Ever found yourself lost in Whistler Village?  The unique flow of Whistler Village was actually one man’s specific intention!  On our one hour tour you can learn more about him and many others who have helped to shape Whistler as it is today.  As we wander through Whistler Village you’ll uncover Whistler’s start as a fishing lodge, tales behind the mountain development, and our long journey to the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The tour is approximately one hour long.  Each tour is led by a long-time local, each with their own personal knowledge to add to Whistler’s story.  Whether you’re visiting us, here to work for the season or have lived here for years we guarantee you’ll be sure to learn something new.  Do you know how Whistler and Blackcomb mountains got their names?  Or when the first Olympic bid was placed?  This is your chance to find out the answers to these questions and so many more!

Valley of Dreams Walking Tours occur every day at 11 am in June, July and August.  Meeting outside the Whistler Visitor Centre on Gateway Loop, these daily tours are offered by donation.

We are more than happy to provide private tours outside of these times or for groups.  Simply contact the museum to book a private tour, preferably at least a week in advance.  With sufficient notice we can also customize content and routes to meet your group’s specific interests and needs.
For all tour-related inquires please call the Whistler Museum at 604-932-2019 or visit us behind the library.

Whistler Before the Sea-to-Sky

Whistler’s steep, mountainous terrain is what makes it so attractive as a tourist destination. It’s perfect for skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, and hiking. However, those same rocky hills have been one of it’s greatest challenges, providing a frustrating barrier for tourists and residents alike.  For the first non-indigenous settlers, the area was only accessible by a narrow path known as the Pemberton Trail, constructed in 1877. This trail, which ran from Burrard Inlet, around the far side of Alta Lake, and up to Lillooet, was intended to provide access to the Gold Rush.

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The Pemberton Trail would have ran around Alta Lake’s far shores. Photo: Philip Collection

Unfortunately, by the time the trail was constructed the rush was basically over. An attempt was made to take cattle down it, but most of them died, due to the lack of grazing and the difficult terrain. With no other use for it, the Pemberton Trail functioned as an occasional route for travelers. The trail took three days, by steamship and by foot, assisted by a packhorse. In those days, horses were an important asset. Travelers carried supplies on packhorses, as did Myrtle and Alex Philip, founders of the area’s first resort. They also used a series of workhorses to construct Rainbow Lodge- to simplify things, all the horses were called “Bob”.

The train tracks also provided a ready-made sidewalk for Alta Lake and Parkhurst residents. Photo: Philip Collection

Many of the area’s inhabitants hoped the construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway would make access easier. The PGE had multiple false starts- a company was incorporated to build it in 1891, and by 1909 twelve miles of track were completed, when they ran short of funds and had to stop.

By the time construction began in earnest in 1912 the railway had acquired a number of despairing nicknames, among them  “Province’s Great Expense”, “Past God’s Endurance”, and “Prince George Eventually”.  Finally, in 1914, the railway was up and running from Squamish to Quesnel, and soon resorts, logging, and other industries began to spring up in the area. Transit was still anything but easy. The journey involved four to six hours on steamship from Vancouver to Squamish, and a further three to four hours to Alta Lake, as the train only went from 25 to 40 km/h and often had to stop to refuel. The train ride was upgraded through the years, including the addition of open-topped observation cars and a dinner service. Though the journey was long, it wasn’t unpleasant- travelers often enjoyed ice cream, or beer if they were older, as they waited in Squamish. There were also stops for afternoon tea at Rainbow Lodge, costing 35 cents.

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The creation of the PGE made it easy to travel in style. Photo; Philip Collection

Despite these improvements, the journey was still a long one. In the sixties, the Garibaldi Lift Company, hoping to set up skiing in the area, realized that something more convenient would be necessary in order to draw in tourists. A “road” was built from Whistler to Squamish in 1962, although it was. Initially the track was mostly fist-sized rocks and dirt, and driving across streams was sometimes required. 

The trail was plowed infrequently, making winter journeys treacherous. Tire punctures were common, and the first trips from Vancouver took five hours. Thankfully, the road was paved in 1966, and improvement has continued up to the present. The most recent upgrades were for the 2010 Olympics, cutting the travel time down to the two hours we enjoy today.  Although travel time has ranged from multiple days to a matter of hours, people have always felt Whistler was worth the trip.

Highway 99, shortly after it’s creation- still not paved! Photo: Gord Leidal

 

Life at the Parkhurst Logging Camp

A season working in Whistler can mean many different things.  For some, a season means spending as much time as possible on the mountains; for others, it can mean settling for the next few decades of your life.  For those who came to work on Green Lake in the 1930s, however, a season in the area usually meant hard work on most days and recreation on Sundays.

When Parkhurst Mill opened, it offered seasonal work only since the mill could be closed for up to five months a year due to snow.  The mill continued to offer seasonal work into the 1930s.

Jack Nebel was one of the men who came to work for a season in 1937, the year before the mill burned down.  At the time he was, as he described it, “four years out of high school, living in North Vancouver, and still looking for my first steady job.”  Nebel was hired by Northern Mills as a greenhorn (meaning new and inexperienced) logger under Denis DeBeck, the “logging boss”, and his first assignment was to ride the logs down the river and keep the logs moving towards the mouth on Green Lake.

Red standing in the doorway of the “river rats” cabin at the logging camp. Photo (and post-it): Jack Nebel

When Nebel arrived at Parkhurst, he was taken over to the logging camp on the western side of Green Lake, which included a bunkhouse, a cookhouse, a Caterpillar shed and a small shack where Nebel and “Red”, the other “river rat”, would stay.  The camp was connected to the mill at Parkhurst via the Queen Mary, a “crude box-like cabin cruiser” with enough power to tow logs across the lake.

Conditions at the logging camp weren’t quite as comfortable as a stay at Rainbow Lodge may have been at the time.  On one occasion during Nebel’s stay, the river rose and overflowed its banks, making his morning walk to the cookhouse more like a wading trip through knee-deep water.  The water rose to the level of his cabin floorboards and he and Red discovered hundreds of insects taking refuge under their cots.  Fortunately for them, the water subsided after just a couple of days, taking the insects with it.

The Hiking Crew, including Ward DeBeck, Red and Keary DeBeck. Photo: Jack Nebel

Life at the logging camp wasn’t all work.  One evening each week, some workers would hike about 8 km (5 miles) through the woods and along the railway to Alta Lake to meet the mail train.  On Sundays, a day of recreation for those in the logging camp, a group would go hiking around the mountains and up towards the glaciers.  This group included Nebel, Red and Ward and Keary DeBeck, two younger brothers of Denis DeBeck who Nebel remembered were university students working over their summer break.

A Sunday game at the fields of the old Lineham’s mink ranch. Photo: Jack Nebel

One Sunday a baseball game was organized between members of the logging camp and members of the sawmill crew on a field near the Lineham’s old mink ranch.  As Nebel described it, “I don’t remember who won the game, so I guess the loggers lost!”

Shortly after the game Nebel was transferred from the logging camp to the sawmill at Parkhurst.  The sawmill was much livelier, housing a mix of singles and families, though it didn’t offer much more in the was of recreation than the logging camp.

Having been hired in early spring, Nebel left the mill around midsummer after working for Northern Mills for only a few months.  By the time he returned almost 50 years later the mill at Parkhurst was no longer operating and the area was well on its way to becoming the ghost town it is today.

Crafts in the Park is starting up again!

We’re super excited to announce that Crafts in the Park are starting up again! Every  Thursday starting July 5th, the Whistler Museum and the Whistler Library will be hosting fun and free craft activities in Florence Petersen Park from 11 to 12 am. Kids of all ages can learn about Whistler’s history, enjoy a story, and get creative with one of our amazing crafts.

Our theme this year is “Whistler Through the Ages”. People have been coming to Whistler for over one hundred years in the pursuit of seasonal fun- from the first visitors to Rainbow Lodge in 1914, who came out to ride, fish, and sail, or the crowds that gathered in 2010 to cheer on the Olympic athletes. Our crafts this year are based on activities enjoyed in Whistler past and present.

July 5th

The first settlers in Whistler came here to hunt and trap animals for food, and for their furs. We’ll  be making multimedia animal collages, using foam, felt, paper, magazines, tissue paper, fake fur, and more.  Whistler has an amazing variety of wildlife (bears, squirrels, and everything in between) so what animal will you make?

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July 12th

Alta Lake became a popular fishing destination in 1914. People caught fish of all kinds.  Just like those early tourists, we’ll be making our own mini fishing rods and fish. You’ll even be able to catch these fish with your rod. Design these fish however you want – rainbows are never a bad idea!

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July 19th

For this craft, we’re collaborating with the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. We’ll learn about the relationships between animals and people in Pacific Northwest First Nations culture, and the ways we can identify with animals to understand the world around us. The children will make their own animal headdresses, and participate in a drumming song.

July 26th

Sailing has been popular in Whistler since its early days and Alta Lake residents enjoyed taking all kinds of boats out in the summer. We’ll be making our own sailboats out of sponges, corks, and paper. Just like real boats, these really float, and you’ll even get a chance to try them out on the water.

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August 2nd

Rainbow Lodge at one time had a stable of 20 horses, and many visitors enjoyed trail rides and trail picnics during their stays. We’ll be making cut-out paper horses with moveable joints. Though you can’t take these horses out for a ride, they’re a fun, poseable homemade toy. And although Whistler’s never been home to any unicorns (as far as we know) you can go ahead and make one of those too.

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August 9th

Whistler boasts several beautiful golf courses and this craft is a fun spin on one of Whistler’s favourite sports. We’ll be making kinetic golf ball paintings, using golf balls to roll the paint across the paper. These painting are fun to do and look even cooler.

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August 16th

Skiing began in Whistler in the early 1960s and has been wildly popular ever since. We’ll be making paper doll skiers and snowboarders, and using paper and fabric to dress them up warmly against Whistler’s freezing winters.

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August 23rd

Whistler was proud to host the Olympics in 2010 when Canada won gold on home turf for the first time. We will be making our own personalized Olympic medals using foam stamp printing and metallic glitter. Win gold in your favourite sport, or even make up your own!

So come out and join us at Crafts in the Park, every Thursday from 11 to 12 in Florence Petersen Park!

Parkhurst Before the Ghost Town

Parkhurst may now be known primarily as a ghost town, but it was once the site of the first large and permanent mill operations in the valley.

Mr. and Mrs. Parkhurst pre-empted the land on Green Lake in 1902 and built a small house where they lived with their family.  It is unclear whether they ever operated a sawmill on the property, which was sold in 1926 after the death of Mr. Parkhurst.

The property was purchased by the Barr brothers of Mission who had been looking for a new source of timber.  William, Malcolm and Ross Barr built a mill and a camp for their workers and began operating Parkhurst Mill, named for the previous owners.

A mill at Parkhurst operated on the shores of Green Lake from 1926 to about 1956. Barr Collection

In 1928 Malcolm drowned after falling into Green Lake and then, due to the effects of the Depression, the mill went into receivership in 1930.  William moved on from the valley while Ross and his wife Alison stayed on at Parkhurst as watchmen hired by the bank until the property could be sold.

Logging operation at Parkhurst, late 1920s. This photograph shows a railcar, a spar tree and the steam donkey. The man standing on a log in the foreground is Ross Barr. Barr Collection

In 1932 Parkhurst was sold to B.C. Keeley and Byron Smith who reopened the mill under the name Northern Mills in 1933.  Ross Barr and Denis DeBeck were hired by Keeley to manage the mill and worked together until it burnt down in 1938.

Norm Barr and neighbour Jack Findlay in 1936. Barr Collection

The museum recorded two oral histories in 2011 that include many stories and a lot of information about Parkhurst during this time: one with Norm Barr, the son of Ross and Alison Barr, and another with Betsy Henderson, sister of Denis DeBeck.

Betsy Henderson had a very different experience at Parkhurst than those who worked and live there.  She, her mother and two more of her siblings stayed near Parkhurst at what had been the Lineham’s mink ranch during the summers of 1936 and ’37.  Her three older brothers, Denis, Ward and Keary, were all working for Northern Mills and, as Betsy recalled, their mother decided she’d like to stay with all six of her children for the summer.

As she was not working, Betsy was able to explore the area around Parkhurst and got into some rather potentially dangerous situations, such as taking a dip in fast-running Fitzsimmons Creek and crossing the Blackcomb glacier with her brother Keary.

The glacier was full of chasms and on one crossing, Keary asked her to take a picture of him on the upper side of a huge crevasse.  Betsy maneuvered around to set up the photo and, as she remembered, “when I looked up to take the picture I found that Keary was sitting on just a shelf of ice.”  Needless to say, the picture did not get taken.

The Northern Mills operation on Green Lake before it burned down in 1938. It was later rebuilt at the same site. DeBeck Collection

After the fire Northern Mills moved to Lost Lake for a year before deciding to rebuild at Parkhurst.  Though the mill would continue to operate into the 1950s, neither the Barrs nor the DeBecks went back to the mill.  This was not the end of the DeBecks’ association with the area, however, as Denis DeBeck continued working in what is today Whistler until 1945, when he followed the Barrs to settle permanently in Squamish.

Over the next few weeks we hope to bring you more stories from the DeBecks, the Barrs and others who worked in forestry in the valley.

Early Dining, Whistler Style

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The first Alta Lake Community Club picnic in 1923 was a chance for residents to share a meal. Photo: Philip Collection

Whistler hasn’t always been a resort town. In the 1920s and 30s, Whistler was a a collection of permanent and part-time residents on the shores of Alta Lake. In those days, storing and preparing food was a little different than it is today. There were no grocery stores- instead, most food and supplies were brought up on a train from Vancouver, that came once every two weeks. Residents depended on this supply train for their meat and other essentials into the 50s. Since the deliveries were so infrequent, the food needed to be well-stored. Florence Petersen and the others living at her cabin, Witsend, kept their meat and butter fresh in a crock- a hole dug in the ground about three feet deep, lined with planking, which kept the food cool and the bugs out in the hot summer. Some residents, such as Bill MacDermott, used an ice box to keep meat fresh. Ice was cut from one of the lakes in February and stored year-round in an ice house, insulated with sawdust. Eleanor Kitteringham, who lived in Parkhurst with her family, remembers using a sawdust-filled root cellar, under the kitchen. “Later on, we got a fridge run by kerosene,” she recalls. “It was beautiful.”

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Canned food kept for long periods and was easy to store and serve- even on top of a mountain. Photo: Carter Collection

The only other ways for families to get their food besides the train were to make it, grow it, or buy local. Trout and salmon could be fished from the lakes, and ducks and deer caught in the woods. Most people kept vegetable gardens, and picked blackberries and blueberries in the summer. Phil and Dorothy Tapley owned a farm on Alta Lake, with an orchard, cows, chickens, and turkeys. As well, Alfred and Daisy Barnfield ran a summer dairy farm, and sold milk to the locals, which Alfred and his son Fred delivered in a dugout canoe. Many prospectors also brewed their own beer.  Like most area mothers at the time, Eleanor Kitteringham baked her own bread, and remembers making ten loaves every other week. She baked it in a big sawdust-burning stove, which used up as many as eight pails of sawdust a day.

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In Whistler’s early days, trail cooking was an important skill. Photo: Myrtle Philip

Some creativity and flexibility were often needed to get everyone fed. Bannock, was a popular food- an unleavened bread traditional to Indigenous people and adapted with the introduction of European flour and cooking tools. The usual recipe required only water, flour, and lard, which could be mixed together and pan-fried for a quick meal on the trail, providing fat and carbohydrates inexpensively and easily.  Both J’Anne Greenwood and Louise Betts Smith, residents of the valley in the 30s, made a buttermilk chocolate cake with sour milk as one of it’s ingredients- a good way to get the most out of your milk, even if it had curdled. Many recipes were also used that worked around the occasional inavailability of eggs and dairy. Edna Stockdale’s Oatmeal Cookies consisted mainly of margarine, oats, and sugar.

Many also employed some unconventional cooking methods, such as Alta Lake resident Kokomo Joe, who was known to make a meal of soup and toast with his airtight heater. He would set the soup on top to boil, and stick the bread to the heater’s sides. You knew the toast was done when it fell off. Says Dick Fairhurst, “A lot of [people] copied him, but we put something on the floor to catch the toast.”