The Real Story of The Longhorn Saloon

While you may have heard wild stories about the Texas Longhorns driving their cattle through Whistler to the Caribou, these are cover stories to the real series of events that led to the naming of The Longhorn Saloon.

The Longhorn Pub in December 1981. The hand-painted sign is a far cry from the slick branding you will see there today. Whistler Question Collection.

It all started when the phone rang in the Vancouver office of lawyer and business-person Dick Gibbons. On the other end of the phone line selling shares for a “terrific” stock, was a man with a terrible stutter. Dick said of this phone call, “I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs. Growing up on the railway tracks in Burnaby I know what it is like when you are considered an underdog. So after hearing this I said, ‘Okay, I’ll buy some’.” Making a fairly large purchase Dick received a certificate for his shares in the Canadian Longhorn Petroleum Company. Not long after the company started trading on the stock exchange it went out of business and the shares became worthless. As a reminder of this lesson Dick continued to keep the share certificate on his desk.

In Whistler in the early 1980s interest rates reached up to 22%. Many developments were halted as owners, developers and contractors faced economic hardship. Dick Gibbons did not set out to run a pub; he ended up running The Longhorn Pub because he could not sell it. Nobody was buying at this time.

The Longhorn Pub opened on December 23 1981, almost 11 months before the residential units of the Carleton Lodge were completed. After a successful opening and holiday season, the Whistler Question remarked on the “small miracle and lot of hard work” that allowed The Longhorn to open before the holidays. According to the newspaper, on December 21 The Longhorn was an empty shell with workers painting and dismantling scaffolding while floor tiles dried. Then, in just 48 hours, it was open for business and selling cold drinks and hot food.

The Longhorn was instantly popular in the winter. Here it is packed at the beginning of January 1982, not long after the grand opening. Whistler Question Collection.

Prior to opening, the liquor licensing branch said during a call that they would approve a liquor licence, they just needed a name to put on the certificate. Still sitting on the corner of his desk Dick Gibbons saw the worthless share certificate for Canadian Longhorn Petroleum Company, and thought, ‘Aha, I’m going to get some value out of this yet,’ and The Longhorn Pub was born! Later when the naming rules were relaxed it was officially changed from pub to The Longhorn Saloon.

Before the deck was completed, there was an orange plastic fence to indicate the boundaries of The Longhorn. During the ski season, despite patrons standing in the mud outside with no chairs to sit on, there would still be a line up to get inside the fence for a drink.

Summer was a different story. When Dick Gibbons called manager Gavin Yee to check on business he said, “Well it’s been kind of slow.” How slow exactly? Despite being late in the afternoon, the total sales for the day were one pack of cigarettes. To encourage summer recreation they tried everything to get the momentum going. They built a backstop at the old Myrtle Philip School and hosted slow pitch tournaments. Volleyball courts and a horseshoe pit were built in front of The Longhorn patio and games would run throughout summer.

Assistant manager Gavin Yee (left) poses with manager Peter Grant (right) in January 1982. Whistler Question Collection.

Eldon Beck’s vision of a bustling Whistler Village in summer encouraged Dick Gibbons to invest in Whistler during the original proposal meeting in 1979. Although it was a slow start, that vision has now been realised with summer visitation outpacing winter. Likewise, with the long lines, pumping music and gyrating dance floor, The Longhorn Saloon is a Whistler institution. The luck of The Longhorn did indeed turn around.

Whistler’s Answers: July 7, 1983

In the 1980s the Whistler Question began posing a question to three to six people and publishing their responses under “Whistler’s Answers” (not to be confused with the Whistler Answer).  Each week, we’ll be sharing one question and the answers given back in 1983.  Please note, all names/answers/occupations/neighbourhoods represent information given to the Question at the time of publishing and do not necessarily reflect the person today.

Some context for this week’s question: The Whistler Health Planning Society was formed in 1982 and that September opened the Whistler Medical Centre in a double-wide trailer on Whistler Way. The two doctors in Whistler, Dr. Christine Rodgers and Dr. Rob Burgess, as well as the public health nurse Marilyn McIvor and physiotherapist Susie Mortensen-Young, began practicing out of the facility. That winter, Whistler Emergency Services also began operating out of the Whistler Medical Centre. As of 1983, the Whistler Medical Centre did not have tools such as an x-ray machine and was a small space for the number of patients treated. Find out more about the Whistler Medical Centre’s early years here.

Question: How extensive do you think health care facilities at Whistler should be?

Sue Howard – Director of Sales, Tantalus Lodge – Whistler Cay

I don’t think we need a hospital yet, we’re not big enough. The health care facilities definitely need improving though. We should have an x-ray machine and perhaps a specialist in athletic injuries.

Gerd Bechtel – Air Traffic Controller – Munich, Germany

It sounds like you need a hospital here. What if someone is ill or has a skiing accident? It is a long way to Vancouver for proper care. It seems to me you have enough people here to have that facility.

Bart Imler – Unemployed – Emerald Estates

I believe Whistler needs certain facilities like an x-ray machine for sure. We don’t need a hospital because there’s not enough people to warrant one and if they tried to build it now it’d be so rinky-dink it wouldn’t be worth having.

Whistler at 22% Interest – Part 2

Find Part 1 here.

When the financial crisis of the 1980s hit Whistler even the prime real estate at the base of both mountains did not make it through unscathed. Dick Gibbons and Jack Cram were partners in Fitzsimmons Condominiums and Stoney’s Restaurant, where La Bocca is today. With a completed Whistler development under their belts, they were approached by Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) about potentially purchasing the unfinished project where the Carleton Lodge now stands.

The base of Whistler Mountain in 1981 showing the Carleton Lodge under construction. The Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside Hotel can be seen on the right. The base of the mountain looks a bit different today! Arv Pellegrin Collection.

At the time the foundation was partially complete and it was anticipated that this building would be a day lodge and gateway for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, however WVLC’s finances were dire and there was not enough money to finish the project. Dick recalls a conversation with Neil Griggs, President of the WVLC “I don’t want to exaggerate this, he literally begged us to finish the Carleton Lodge. I seem to recall he had tears in his eyes.”

Together with additional partners, they negotiated a deal wherein they agreed to finish the project on the condition that if they were unable to sell the 32 condominium units for a certain price the development permit charges would be refunded. Throughout the build the architect, building contractor, and many partners felt the financial strain. By the end of the project, Dick Gibbons and Ken Mahon were the only two left to finance and run the show.

Dick Gibbons and Gilbert Konqui in 1981. It was all hands on deck to get the Carleton Lodge and The Longhorn completed. Whistler Question Collection.

When the Carleton Lodge was finally completed in November 1982, few residential units sold and Dick Gibbons ended up running The Longhorn because nobody else would buy it. The unsold residential units were transferred to the people involved in the development according to their investments, and development permit charges were refunded as initially agreed after the court got involved.

When Dick Gibbons was asked how he was able to balance his finances while many in Whistler could not, he said, “Being a little more risk adverse than some others might be was good for me at times and bad for me at other times because you miss opportunities. I sold quite a bit of real estate when the market had its peak in Vancouver because I thought it pretty much couldn’t go any higher.” Obviously real estate in Vancouver did eventually increase, but selling these real estate investments left Dick in a more comfortable position when interest rates skyrocketed, although it was still a difficult period.

Signs for The Longhorn and Nasty Jack’s can be seen while the Carleton Lodge is still under construction in 1982. Arv Pellegrin Collection.

Interest rates had an impact throughout all of the Whistler community. Bruce Watt, who had been a patroller since 1974, decided his family needed better financial security which led to him getting into real estate, a career he has loved and where you will still find him today. On the other hand, the ugly unfinished Village led realtor Drew Meredith to make “the mistake of running for Mayor in 1986” (his words, not mine) where he served for two terms.

While similar circumstances led to very different decisions, a consistent sentiment when talking to long-time locals about this time is that they would not want to do it again. The Village was started just in time, a year later and it may never have happened.

Summer Programs with the Whistler Museum

Our summer programs are up and running for July and August! You’ll find us at the Discover Nature tent at Lost Lake Park Tuesdays – Fridays, online for self-guided Nature Walking Tours around Lost Lake, leading Valley of Dreams Walking Tours through the Village daily, and being crafty in Florence Petersen Park each Wednesday! Find more information about summer programs here.