Lost on Whistler?

In February 1968, The Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN) published an article entitled “Were 107 Skiers Really Lost on Whistler Mt.?”  The article was meant as a (somewhat belated) response to articles published in Lower Mainland newspapers on December 4, 1967 about an incident that occurred at the Blue Chair on Whistler Mountain.

In 1966, the Blue Chair had become the second chairlift to be installed onWhistler Mountain.  In was located in the same general area that the Harmony Express run today, loading in the same area and carrying skiers up to where today’s Emerald Chair offloads.  According to Lynn Mathews, the Blue Chair was part of a popular circular route.  After riding the gondola and Red Chair, skiers could go up the T-bar, hike over to the back bowl, and ski down to the base of the Blue Chair, which they could take back up to start the circle again.

On Sunday, December 3, 1967 the Blue Chair was shut down for part of the day, and skiers who had expected to take the lift back up were led out from the bottom of the chair via the beginner tail, just over 3 km.

The view from the lineup at the Blue Chair, today the location of the Harmony Chair.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to The Vancouver Sun, the Blue Chair broke down, “stranding scores of skiers,” but the versions of events presented by those who were “stranded” differed greatly from the lift company.  Those who talked to the paper claimed that 117 skiers were led by four ski patrol volunteers on “a gruelling 6 1/2-hour hike through shoulder deep snow,” with skiers needing rescue after falling off of the single-file trail trampled by the patrollers, finishing long after dark (in December, sometime after 4 pm).

The Sun wrote that the lift company’s response to these claims was to “sneer”.  Jack Bright, then the area manager for Whistler Mountain, reported that it took less than four hours for the group to hike out, using a ski run “which happened to have a bit more fresh snow on it.”  The company handed out free passes to those who had been stranded, but claimed that the number of passes handed out did not necessarily reflect the number stranded, as “Everybody claimed to be stranded so they could get a free ticket.”

Thanks to the colour coded nature of the early Whistler Mountain chairlifts, it’s easy to identify chairs in colour photographs! George Benjamin Collection.

Two months after the incident, the lift company used their publication to clear up lingering questions.

According to Jack Bright in the GWN, high winds and extremely heavy snow caused mechanical difficulties for the Blue Chair, causing the engine to overheat and automatically stop the lift.  The operator announced that it would take from an hour to an hour and a half for the engine to cool off before they could restart.  The auxiliary engine was used to evacuate the chair.  The decision was made to send those waiting in line, accompanied by five experienced patrollers and employees, out along the beginner trail.

Due to the snow, it took longer than expected for the group to make it out.  The trail was marked and, according to Bright, “however irritable people were, there was a general gay harmony throughout the safari.”  This agrees with the memory of Lynn Mathews, who remembered her husband Dave, Whistler Mountain’s operations manager, coming home late and announcing that there were over 100 people lost on the mountain, although she said he told her, “They’re not lost, they’re having too much fun at the moment.”  According to Lynn, Dave claimed the skiers in the group were making snow angels, throwing snowballs, and generally having a good time.

No matter what truly happened on the mountain that day, this experience is unlikely to be repeated today as over the past five decades both chairlifts and grooming (as well as on-mountain communications) have advanced.

Tourists, Trains, and the Cariboo Prospector

A few weeks ago, we wrote an article about the history of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway.  Today, we’d like to continue that journey, so to speak, and take a look at the history of the PGE passenger trains, which were invaluable to the history of tourism in the Whistler area.

Many communities all along the PGE line were very optimistic about how the railway’s services would help expand infrastructure and encourage their communities to grow.  As it turns out, they were right – once the rail line was operational, many towns saw a huge population increase, and the passenger trains were a definite asset for tourism in BC.  From the beginning, the railway was a quick, easy way for people to visit Alta Lake, which later became the booming Resort Municipality of Whistler.  The PGE started advertising travel options for campers, fishermen, and vacationers as early as 1915.  In the early 1930s, a trip along the PGE line was advertised in newspapers as “the perfect vacation,” and by the end of the decade, the PGE had partnered with Union Steamships to provide tourists and travellers with special one-day excursion packages.

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

One of the longest running passenger services on the PGE line was called the Cariboo Prospector.  The route was serviced by a dayliner that eventually took passengers all the way from Vancouver to Prince George once the rail line was complete.  It boasted a fleet of the Budd Company’s self-propelled diesel multiple unit railcars, the first seven of which were bought brand-new in 1956.  Those seven railcars cost the PGE $1.5 million, which equates to just over $14 million in today’s currency.  At the time, the coaches were state-of-the-art railcars, the largest of which seated 89 people and provided passengers with the luxury of air conditioning.

BC CABINET AT WHISTLER: Mayor Carleton greets Premier Bill Bennett and Labour Minister Allan Williams as they get off the train.  Whistler Question Collection.

In 2001, BC Rail introduced another passenger service call the Whistler Northwind.  The new, luxury train ran a similar route as the Cariboo Prospector, and many people worried that the new train would prove to be too much competition for the older one.  That concern proved to be unfounded.  In the year that it ran, the Whistler Northwind only carried about 2,000 passengers, which was only a small fraction of people travelling via BC Rail.

Two of many skiers that made use of BCR (BC Rail) passenger service last week.  Whistler Question Collection.

Despite the praises of train enthusiasts world-wide, and the efforts of newspapers in BC to draw more attention to the beautiful, history route, the high costs of running a railway caught up with BC Rail.  After years of struggling to make ends meet, they were forced to shut down passenger services in 2002.  The decision was met with a lot of backlash from communities along the rail line, who argued that they depended on the trains to bring tourists to their communities.  In fact, the Cariboo Prospector served around 81,000 customers in 2001 alone, about 45,000 of whom went to Whistler as their final destination.  Protests were held in an attempt to convince BC Rail to reverse their decision, and Dan Stefanson, the director of the Northern BC Tourism Association at the time, was even quoted in the Houston BC newspaper saying that cancelling the passenger services was “the worst tourism decision made in BC.”  Despite everything, though, the financial consequences of continuing to run the trains were too much.  The beloved Cariboo Prospector made its last trip on October 31, 2002.

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.

Whistler Mountain’s Early Operations

As we approach another opening day for Whistler Blackcomb, we’ve been looking back at the early days of operations on Whistler Mountain.  Much of the information we have on these early years comes from oral history interviews, some lift company records, and Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN).

Earlier this year, a volunteer for the museum conducted a series of interviews with none other than Lynn Mathews.  Lynn was the editor, and so much more, of GWN, and she shared a wealth of knowledge about both the paper and her experiences at Whistler.

The Skiers Chapel was still under construction when the Mathews first came to town. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Mathews was born on Staten Island, New York.  She is a journalist and writer by profession, and before moving to Whistler worked for magazines and at Harshe-Rotman & Druck, one of the leading PR firms in New York City.  In the early 1960s, Lynn spent a winter in Quebec, teaching skiing at Gray Rocks Inn.  It was there she met Dave Mathews, who was involved in resort business in the area, and the two were married the following year.  The couple soon moved west to Vancouver, and Dave planned to leave the ski business to work full-time for an irrigation company where he had previously worked summers.  The ski industry, however, would prove hard for the pair to leave behind.

During their first winter in BC, Lynn taught skiing at Grouse Mountain, while also working for various magazines and publications.  The irrigation business was slow in the winter, and so for the season of 1966/67, Dave and Lynn planned to spend their weekends teaching at a new ski area north of Vancouver that was just opening for its first season of full-time operation.

Even by 1970, the Creekside area was a little empty. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Lynn’s first trip to the Whistler Valley in August 1966 didn’t necessarily impress her.  As she put it, “There was nothing here.  There was the gondola, that was there, the daylodge had been built, there were two A-frames on the hillside,” and not too much else.  Due to extensive logging and burning, Lynn said that without snow, the Creekside area “looked like a war zone.  It wasn’t a pretty alpine village at all.”

For about $125, Lynn and Dave rented one of the log cabins at Jordan’s Lodge for the season.  Lynn chose the cabin “that tilted the least,” and the self-described “city girl” prepared for a winter with no electricity, no plumbing, and a wood cookstove.

In the 1970s, this was more likely to be the scene at Jordan’s Lodge. Benjamin Collection.

Lynn recalled that in December, Franz Wilhelmsen, who was acting as a combination of general manager, CEO, and chairman of the board, got very sick with pneumonia, right when Whistler Mountain was heading into its first full season.  Two managers were brought on board, Dave Mathews as operations manager and Jack Bright as mountain manager.  According to Lynn, Dave was responsible for “anything that moved,” and Jack was in charge of ticket sales, administration, image, publicity, and much more.

Lynn worked in the mountain’s office as well.  Though some ski passes were sold at the Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. offices in Vancouver, others were sold at Whistler Mountain and Lynn was in charge of making those passes.  Without any computer systems, she used a polaroid camera and a hand-cranked laminating machine.  Each person got two photos, one for their pass and one for the files, and a lift ticket to go skiing.  At the end of the day they could pick up their pass at the office.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing more tales from Lynn and others who have told their stories to the museum.  Have a story about Whistler to contribute to the Museum’s collection?  Please come see us!

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.

Feeding the Spirit 2019

The Whistler Museum, with the support of Whistler’s Creekside Market and the Whistler Community Services Society, will again be hosting Feeding the Spirit as part of Connect Whistler!

Each year we invite newcomers to town (as well as anyone who wishes to join us) for some free food and to explore our exhibits.  Feeding the Spirit aims to provide a sense of place and community, as well as a general knowledge of Whistler’s past.  With free admission, Whistler trivia, and prizes donated by local businesses, everyone is encouraged to learn about our town’s unique history!