Category Archives: Whistler: A Town

As well as being a resort, Whistler is town (kind of) like any other.

Gassing up in Whistler

Most people will only visit the gas stations in Whistler today for gas. There was a time, however, when the gas stations offered many much-needed services to the growing community.

Looking south along Highway 99 in July 1979. The Gulf gas station sign is visible on the left, near the highway construction. Whistler Question Collection.

Before its closure, the Husky was the longest-standing conventional gas station in Whistler, but it was not the first. The B/A gas station opened not long after Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. declared Whistler Mountain open for business. In 1969, The B/A, or British American Oil Company, was amalgamated into the Canadian Gulf Oil Company and the gas station became a Gulf, easily recognised by the orange and blue circular logo. Located in today’s Creekside, where Coastal Culture and Tim Hortons are now found, the first gas station in Whistler was the place to go if you needed to buy groceries and it could get busy after skiing. Identifying a need in the community and a business opportunity they also installed a washing machine and dryer that was used as a public laundry.

The Gulf gas station, May 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

It was not long before there was competition for these services when the Union 76 gas station opened in 1970. Then, in July 1977, the Union 1976 rebranded to Husky, and the station remained a Husky until a fortnight ago when the longstanding Husky station became the Co-Op. Throughout that time the Husky went through many iterations, expanding multiple times.

The Husky gas station in October 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

Garibaldi’s Whistler News in 1977 advertised only two places in Whistler to buy groceries. According to the paper, they were, ‘FOOD PLUS, located on Highway 99 in the Husky Service Centre. Carries fresh and frozen produce, meat, pharmaceutical products, sundries.’ Along with the ‘MINIMART at Whistler-Rainbow Gulf Station stocked with a variety of foods. Open daily.’

With groceries only available at the gas stations, those visiting Whistler were encouraged to bring their food if they wanted to cook at home and most people we talk to remember buying candy at the gas stations but going to Squamish for grocery shopping. Bob Penner, a long-time Whistler local recalled, “You did have to go to Squamish for food because at the gas station there were two types of beans and a pound of sugar at the shop. We would pool our things and shop. Everything was out of cans, canned meat – spam was huge. Kraft dinner was great.”

Peggy and Pierre Merlin, owners of the Gulf in their grocery store in the early 1970s. Whistler Mountain Collection.

When The Grocery Store opened in the Village at the beginning of 1981 the competition ramped up. In January 1982, Jan Systad who previously ran the popular Cookhouse at Mons took over the operation of the deli, store, and laundry facilities at the Husky, where she continued to serve her “much-sought-after home-cooked goodies”. In 1983, the store at the Gulf was bought and renamed the Rainbow Grocer. Photos from The Whistler Question at the time show deli items for sale, including bacon for $2.19/lb and Coho Salmon steaks for $4.00/lb.

The Rainbow Grocer in the Gulf station in 1983. Whistler Question Collection.

In 1985, Petro-Canada acquired all of the Gulf gas stations in Canada and the Gulf station soon transitioned to a Petro-Can. In 2000 it was released that the Petro-Can underground storage tanks had been leaking, likely for several years, disrupting Intrawest’s plans for the redevelopment of Creekside. Remediation started to remove the petrochemicals and hydrocarbons from the ground and remediation efforts continued until 2006 with the Petro-Can open for business as usual. Then in 2006, Whistler’s first conventional gas station was demolished to finish the remediation works. While the flier to patrons said it was a temporary closure for redevelopment, the empty lot and large hole remained for many years and a gas station never did reopen on the site.

When the Power Goes Out

Though not as common an occurrence as in previous decades, power outages are not unknown in Whistler, especially during the winter months. However, power outages today are usually more localized and of a shorter duration when compared to outages in the 1960s.

In an interview conducted in 2016, Hilda McLennan, whose family owned a unit in Alpine Village, recalled that “Whistler was a strange place when the power failed.” As it sometimes took multiple days for power to be restored, word would travel to Vancouver that the lifts weren’t running and skiers would stay home. According to Hilda, “It all became really quite quiet and you used to be able to go cross country skiing down the highway.”

With little development around Whistler Mountain in the mid-to-late 1960s, power outages and freezing temperatures led to a quiet valley. Whistler Mountain Collection.

The power outages and accompanying freezing temperatures that the McLennans experienced led to some entertaining situations, as they were able to stay in relative comfort despite some challenges. It was not uncommon for pipes to freeze and the McLennans and their neighbours in Alpine Village sometimes made do without running water for a few days at a time. In one instance, the McLennans’ taps were frozen but their drains still worked while their neighbours next door had working taps but frozen drains. They all went back and forth, with the McLennans walking over to get water to boil their vegetables and the neighbours bringing their used water over to pour down the drain. Another neighbour had been washing his clothes in the bathtub when the water froze. Hilda recalled, “Eventually, he took an axe or something and chipped the ice and got his underwear.”

While entertaining, the experiences remembered by the McLennans were not as dramatic as some of the power outages experienced by Lynn Mathews and her family in the 1960s.

In January 1968, Lynn’s mother-in-law traveled to the Whistler area from urban Montreal to meet her first grandchild. She was not too impressed with what the area had to offer, even before the power went out in the valley. Dave Mathews was operations manager for Whistler Mountain and so, at the time, Lynn and her family were living in one of the mountain’s two A-frames while mountain manager Jack Bright and his family occupied the other. The A-frames were mainly heated by electricity and were not a comfortable place to stay with young children without power.

The Ski Boot Motel and Bus, still under construction. With propane-powered heat sources, the Ski Boot was a good place to keep warm when the power went out. Whistler Mountain Collection

According to Lynn, something had happened to the transformers in the valley and so power was not expected to come back on anytime soon. Instead of staying in the A-frames, the Mathews and the Brights made their way over to the Ski Boot Motel, which had a propane stove, by snowcat. It was dark and snowing hard and Lynn recalled sitting in the snowcat with Dave with “not a clue if we were on the road.” Upon her arrival at the Ski Boot, Lynn remembered her mother-in-law was “upset, to say the least,” about where the family was living.

While their evacuation to the Ski Boot was short lived, the two families were reportedly evacuated again the following winter when the whole valley lost power for multiple days. The Mathews and the Brights stayed first at Brandywine Falls and then eded up in a motel in Squamish. Dave stayed in the valley monitoring the situation at Whistler Mountain. He slept in the women’s washroom in the daylodge, as it was the most central room, to try and stay warm. He later told Lynn that all the pipes in their kitchen burst, making the room look like an “ice palace.”

Hilda McLennan and Lynn Mathews may be able to look back at these memories with humour, but power outages, though less common, and extreme cold temperatures are still a concern for many in the valley today.

A New Whistler Museum

People come into the Whistler Museum every day and are inspired to share their own stories. “I remember when I was looking at real estate in Whistler in the 1970s. Lots next to the garbage dump were selling for $10,000 but I was scared of bears so didn’t buy one.” That garbage dump is where Whistler Village now sits.

The site of Whistler Village prior to development. Whistler Question Collection.

A recent favourite was when a longtime local told us about volunteering for a race on Whistler Mountain. One of the chairs fell from the Orange Chair, and instead of stopping it and doing tests they were instructed to hide the chair in the trees so no one would see what had happened.

When Jim McConkey was visiting from Denman Island earlier in the year he casually brought up how Bob Lange brought him a prototype of a plastic lace-up ski boot to try, back when boots were exclusively made from leather. According to Jim, “I tried it and said, ‘You’re on the right track but you’ve got to make a buckle boot.’ That was the first plastic boot there was.”

There are so many unique stories about Whistler and the people who call, or have called this town home. 60 years ago there was no skiing on Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains, instead, the valley was mainly used for logging and summer tourism which revolved around fishing.

When Whistler Mountain first opened in 1966 visitors travelled to the lifts on a gravel road that was only plowed once a week. Whistler became a municipality less than 50 years ago, and when it was incorporated there was no sewer or town water in the valley, and many people relied on the manual collection of water from the lakes or creeks.

Creekside during construction of the ski resort in 1965. Janet Love Morrison Collection.

According to the 2021 census data, the median age of the population in Whistler is 35.6. This means that more than half of the population of Whistler was around before the mountains allowed snowboarding. Even more recent was the opening of the bike park. Most people would remember a time before the bike park, and Crankworx, now a global celebration of mountain biking, started in Whistler in 2004.

A lot has changed! Regularly we are told the only thing in Whistler that hasn’t changed since opening are the lift lines. The Whistler Museum and Archives Society was started in 1986 to document these changes so people could remember a time before skiing. Our mission is to collect, preserve, document, and interpret the natural and human history of mountain life, with an emphasis on Whistler, and to share this with the community to enrich the lives of residents and guests.

Like plenty of other Whistler institutions throughout history, we are currently housed in a temporary trailer. The trailer that we call home started its life as the Canada Post building in Creekside. In 1994 it was moved into the village, and the library moved in in 1995 until it found its permanent home in 2008.

There are a few challenges with our temporary home. Preserving archives and artefacts for future reference and exhibits relies on specific temperature and moisture controls so materials do not degrade. The building that we have currently is hard to keep within these parameters. Storage space is also limited so much of our collection is offsite in uncontrolled environments. This puts the collection at risk and we would love to keep it under stricter conditions for improved protection, which we could do in a new museum.

The Canada Post building in 1978. It would go on to become the library and then the museum. This is the same building the museum calls home today. Whistler Question Collection.

A bigger footprint will also mean we can share more of Whistler’s stories with the community. Whistler’s history is quite unique, we have had a big global impact for such a small town, and we want to be able to protect and celebrate this for generations to come.

On December 6th, the Resort Municipality of Whistler agreed to a lease of municipal land to the museum for a 60 year term. Sixty years ago Whistler was not a ski town, and in another 60 years who knows what will happen? Whatever the future looks like, we hope the Whistler Museum will be around to capture and celebrate our history.

Look out for more exciting information related to the new museum facility in the coming months.

Much in Whistler has changed since the Whistler Museum opened in the trailer on Main Street, next to the library in 1995. Mayor Ted Nebbeling and Sara Jennings unveil the sign during the grand opening. Petersen Collection.

Alta Lake Dances

Before the ski resort brought power and paved roads to the valley, and it was renamed Whistler, Alta Lake was a fairly small and remote town. Without developed roads it could be hard getting around and residents from opposite sides of the valley rarely crossed paths. One thing that would bring the community together, however, was the Alta Lake dances. While the music and location of the dances varied over the years, fond memories are recounted by many people that visited or called Alta Lake home.

Fred and Elizabeth Woods lived in Alta Lake with their children from around 1926 until the 1940s, and during this time their family band was the staple entertainment at dances and community events. Dances featuring the Woods family band helped raise money for the first Alta Lake School, which children Helen, Pat, Jack and Kenneth Woods attended. When the one room schoolhouse was built in the 1930s it doubled as a community hall where regular dances continued to be held.

Pat Woods was quite young when he started playing at the Alta Lake dances with his family. “We used to load the toboggan with the guitars, accordion, and a violin. We’d ride the toboggan down to the dance hall, play crib, then make some music. We weren’t very old then, but everybody was up dancing. We were 9 or 10.”

The Woods family band played at community events, such as dances and fundraisers.

Almost everyone was up dancing. School desks were pushed to the side for the dances and really young children would sleep through the event under the desks. The schoolhouse, like most buildings, was lit by coal oil lamps. When the home waltz started and the lamps turned off it was time to bundle up and head home.

Kenneth Farley’s family came to Alta Lake in 1943, after the Woods family band had moved on. “The music was the wrangler,” recounted Kenneth. “Philip’s wrangler looked after the horses. He played a fiddle and he would keep the time with the heel of his cowboy boots to set the pace, while the whisky in his back pocket would be sloshing away. You didn’t need to be able to dance because it was so crowded you could hardly move.”

Alta Lake School doubled as the community hall where dances were regularly held. Philip Collection.

For those living along the lake, the festivities started before arriving at the dance. A boat with an outboard motor would start at the north end of the lake, picking up everyone in rowboats on the way past. By the time they arrived to the dance there would be a long string of boats pulled along behind the motorboat.

John Burge first came to Alta Lake in 1956 and spent the summers here while growing up. Not quite the same as the dances you’ll find at Garfs or The Longhorn today, he remembers learning the foxtrot, waltz, schottische and polka from Florence Petersen. “We just learned all these dances and people did them. It was a fun time.”

John started working at Rainbow Lodge when he was around 13 and after working for five summers he had saved enough money to pay for university. One of his jobs was to wax the floors after the Saturday night dances held in the Rainbow Lodge dining room, which could be attended by up to 100 people. By then Rainbow Lodge was owned by Alec and Audrey Greenwood, who had bought the lodge from Myrtle and Alex Philip when they retired in 1948. The lodge was made of wood and the whole building would dance, with the deteriorating wood floor bouncing up and down as much as six inches as people boogied.

The dining room at Rainbow Lodge. Philip Collection.