Tag Archives: Bill MacDermott

Summer Getaways at Alta Lake

Summertime in Canada, especially for children, is often portrayed as a series of long, carefree days spent exploring the outdoors, playing in and on the water and spending time with friends and family.

While this is certainly not how the season plays out for everyone, the Matheson children of Vancouver would seem to have close to the quintessential summer vacation from 1927 to 1934.

In 2011, the Whistler Museum received an account of their summers at Alta Lake from Betty Jane Warner, the youngest of the three Matheson children.  Every year the Matheson family would spend two months renting one of William “Mac” MacDermott’s three cabins (the same cabins later lived in by Bob and Flo Williamson and the descendants of Grace Woollard).

Alta Lake was an amazing summer retreat for the Matheson children, who spent a good part of the time in and on the lake. Philip Collection.

The final days of June would see Betty Jane, her siblings Jack and Claudia, her mother Violet and, in some years, a maid board the Union Steamship in downtown Vancouver bound, eventually, for Alta Lake.  The family did not travel light – they brought a steam trunk and five bags – but unfailingly, Mac would meet them at the PGE station and see them and their luggage across Alta Lake to what Betty Jane called their “summer cottage”.

This cottage consisted of a sleeping porch, a small sitting area, a kitchen complete with wood stove, and two bedrooms.  Mac provided use of a shared outhouse and woodpile and each of his three cabins came equipped with its own outhouse.

Mac at the cabin on Singing Pass en route to Red Mountain. During his time at Alta Lake Mac took many people hiking through the valley and some of his cabins are still standing today. Philip Collection.

As Betty Jane recalled, “We loved Alta Lake and looked forward to our happy times each summer – no matter how basic our living conditions were compared to our city living.”

It’s easy to see why they looked forward to summer.  The three children took walks around the lake picking ripe blueberries, rowed among the water lilies and dragonflies, and joined Mac on treks to Lost Lake and Green Lake where “there were always rotting old logs to climb over and the threat of lots of bees!”

Over the years they got to know their summer neighbours and packed picnics for train excursions with permanent Alta Lake residents.  With the nearest store at Rainbow Lodge, even going out to get groceries could be an adventure.

Baths in the copper tub were reserved for Saturday nights and few days required dressing up.  Once every summer Betty Jane and Claudia rowed up the lake for tea at Mrs. Harrop’s tearoom, requiring them to “shed our blue denim coveralls for something a little more dressy to wear for the occasion.”

Every summer, Betty Jane and Claudia visited the Harrop’s tearoom where they had a floating cottage right on Alta Lake.

The Matheson family chose Alta Lake after their father, Robert, met Mac and the Philips while staying at Rainbow Lodge with Violet and became “enchanted with the area.”

He was unable to join his family in the summers and remained in Vancouver where he worked as an architect.  His firm, Townley & Matheson, designed quite a few buildings still standing in Vancouver today, including Vancouver Motors, the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, Point Grey Secondary and Vancouver City Hall.

It was after his death in 1935 that the Matheson family stopped coming to Alta and, according to Betty Jane, “our happy summers came to an end.”

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When Trains Connected People to Alta Lake

When Bob Williamson first arrived at Alta Lake (now Whistler) in February of 1930, he found himself in a valley bearing little resemblance to the bustling resort town of today.  Even getting there was a completely different experience.

Bob came to work as a lineman for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, at the time the most common and reliable transportation to and from the valley, or, as Bob put it, “the only means of transportation with the outside world.”

Bob Williamson at work on the transmission lines, well before Alta Lake was able to access the electricity they carried.  Smith Collection.

For most people, travel was confined to four days of the week: north on Mondays and Thursdays, south on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Passengers travelling from Vancouver would leave on a Union Steamship at 9 am and, after switching to a train in Squamish, would arrive at Alta Lake about 4:30 pm.

The view of Brandywine Falls clearly shows the railway bridge which provided a unique view to passengers. Philip Collection.

When Bob’s wife Florence (Flo) joined him at Alta Lake in September, the pair travelled south, leaving their car in Lillooet and taking the train the rest of the way.

During the summer months a couple of special trains were added to the usual schedule.  An excursion train on Sunday ran from Squamish to Alta Lake and back and a Fisherman’s Special headed north to Lillooet on Saturday and back south on Monday.  Later, a third through train was added going north on Wednesdays and south on Fridays.

Today, the only trains that come through Whistler are either freight or the Rocky Mountaineer.  Those that passed through the valley in the 1930s were mixed trains, carrying a combination of freight and passengers.

They stopped at various restaurants along the way, including Rainbow Lodge when heading south, to provide meals for passengers until dining cars were added later in the 1930s.

 

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

Alta Lake had two railway stations, the Alta Lake Station at Mile 37 and the Rainbow Lodge Station at Mile 38.  Mileages were measured from the Squamish dock, where the railway began (when the railway was extended to North Vancouver in 1956 the mileages were changed to read from there, creating some confusion when looking at older documents).

Bob and Flo rented a cabin from Bill “Mac” MacDermott on the south end of Alta Lake.  As Mac usually rented his cabins out to summer visitors, he had to do a bit of winterizing when the Williamsons moved in year round.

By 1934, with the addition of a generator, a pump for indoor plumbing, a gas-powered washing machine and a propane fridge (possibly Alta Lake’s first refrigerator) Bob and Flo were comfortably settled.

Life at Alta Lake had quiet periods, but Bob remembered some exciting moments as well, one of which arrived on the train from Pemberton.  A woman was on her way to Vancouver to have her baby, but made it only as far as Rainbow Lodge.

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

There she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.  As Bob recalled, the boy was named Philip for Alex Philip and the girl Grace after Grace Woollard, a retired nurse living at Alta Lake who helped with the delivery.

In 1942, Bob and Flo left Alta Lake for Lillooet and a promotion within the railway.  By that time, float planes had started arriving in the valley, but the railway remained residents’ main connection between Alta Lake and the outside world.

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.”