Tag Archives: Bill MacDermott

Ice harvest on Alta Lake

Usually, we don’t think about ice very often, unless there’s none in the freezer. The cold, slippery truth is that our local ice deserves more consideration than that. Wrap up warm, and we’ll take you back to the times when the ice harvest was a hard, but fun, event in our valley.

Cutting ice was a big event at Alta Lake. The Photograph shows Sewall Tapley (Myrtle Philip’s father) in foreground and Rainbow Lodge guests. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

Cutting ice was a big event at Alta Lake. The Photograph shows Sewall Tapley (Myrtle Philip’s father) in foreground together with Rainbow Lodge guests. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

Since amenities were few before the 1960s, ice was one of the only ways to keep things cool and food from spoiling. Ice blocks were cut out of the frozen Alta Lake during February, when the ice was thickest. In the 1920s, it would take Myrtle and Alex Philip, the owners of Rainbow Lodge (Whistler’s first resort lodge), about two weeks to get enough ice to last the summer. The ice cutting was very hard work – as one can imagine due to fact that our early settlers had no modern tools. “They cut the ice with an ice saw… like a big crosscut saw” noted Myrtle on the back of her photos. Blocks were cut out of the chilled Alta Lake, loaded onto a sled, and pulled to an ice house where the blocks were kept to provide refrigeration through the summer months.

A chore for every winter until Hydro came in: Alex Philip with an ice saw cutting blocks of ice out of Alta Lake. They were stored in sawdust in an ice house for summer use. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

A chore for every winter until Hydro came in: Alex Philip with an ice saw cutting blocks of ice out of Alta Lake. They were stored in sawdust in an ice house for summer use. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

A couple of small ice houses dotted the valley’s landscape at this time. Ice houses were double-walled, tightly insulated structures packed with sawdust, capable of keeping large amounts of ice through the warm months. At first, Myrtle and Alex built their ice house near Rainbow Lodge. It was later moved closer to Alta Lake to cut down on the distance that the ice needed to be hauled.

The early Rainbow Lodge with the ice house close by. It was later moved closer to Alta Lake to cut down on the distance that the ice needed to be hauled, Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1919

The early Rainbow Lodge with the ice house close by. It was later moved closer to Alta Lake to cut down on the distance that the ice needed to be hauled, Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1919

Of course, the hard work had to be duly celebrated. In her book Whistler Reflections, Florence Petersen, founder of the Whistler Museum, remembers that after the ice-cutting work Alta Lake locals like Alex Philip would gather at the cabin of Bill MacDermott, an American who settled on the south end of Alta Lake in 1919: “His jugs of homebrew would be brought out from under the floorboards to help celebrate.”

Ol’ Mac

Last week’s post profiled a former Whistlerite who came to this valley with dreams of resort development, so I figured I’d switch it up this week and recount the story of a local figure who came here with very different intentions, to escape from the stresses of modernity into a quiet life of mountain-bound solitude.

William “Mac” MacDermott was born somewhere in the American Midwest in 1869 or 1870. We know little of his early life, but his experiences as a soldier during World War 1 eventually led him to the Canadian wilderness. Mac suffered severe injuries while fighting (some Alta Lake contemporaries mentioned that he also suffered from shell shock) and he left the army disillusioned with the senseless violence of modern civilization.

Mac (left) with local guest-lodge owner Russ Jordan and a boy (possibly Russ’s son) near Singing Pass, 1920s.

After the war he spent a brief stint prospecting for gold in the Cariboo before heading back down the PGE railway to Alta Lake, where he settled in 1919. The tranquility of this quiet mountain valley was perfectly suited to his gentle demeanor; Mac made Alta Lake his home for the next 25 years.

He built a handful of log cabins at the south end of Alta Lake, one for himself, the others he operated as rental properties during the summer months. I guess, in a sense,  Mac was a real estate developer too.

Vancouver’s Matheson family spent two months at Mac’s cabins every summer from 1927 until 1934. Betty Jane Warner (née Matheson) was just a young girl during this period, but in correspondence with the Whistler Museum from June of 2011, she vividly recalled those action-packed summer getaways.

We children thought [Mac] was wonderful, truly a favourite of ours and we would visit him often in his cabin. He played the juice harp, smoked a lot, was a great spitter, swore and turned his flapjacks by tossing them sky-high, hitting the ceiling and miraculously catching them back in the pan. A marvellous feat… He was a great hiker and would take [Matheson siblings] Jack, Claudia and me on many treks to Lost Lake and Green Lake.

A lifelong bachelor, Mac endeared himself so much with the Matheson family that he would often trek down to the city during the winter holidays, which could be quite cold and lonely up in the mountains. As Betty remembers

We would pick him up at the Abbotsford Hotel on Pender Street… He would always present each of we three children with one green dollar. There was no better gift or more welcome guest around our festive table than to have Mac join us for Christmas Day.

While beloved by children, other Alta Lake locals recall Mac’s cabin as a preferred spot for some of the men to “get away from the wives” for a few hours. On one occasion, Some of Alex Philip’s Vancouver friends were having such a good evening that they didn’t want to get back on the train to head back to the city, even though they had to work the next day. Knowing the PGE wouldn’t let them on the train soaking wet, the two men accidentally “fell” into the lake. Now stuck at Alta Lake, the men had no choice but to return to the party.

Ice-cutting day was an Alta Lake February tradition (ice blocks were cut out of the lake ice to provide refrigeration in insulated through the summer months), and after the work Alta Lake staples like Alex Philip and Bert Harrop would come over to enjoy some of Mac’s popular homebrews.

Aside from managing his cabins, Mac supported his simple mountain lifestyle with a variety of casual jobs; carpentry, building rowboats, and trapping, but it as a guide for work crews and hikers heading up into the mountains that he is best remembered.

Mac (2nd from left) with a crew of men helping Jimmy Fitzsimmons set up a load of dynamite to be hauled up to Fitzsimmons’ copper mine on the north flank of Whistler Mountain, circa 1919. The creek that they followed to get to the mine is known today as Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs along the edge of Whistler Village and provides the hydro-electricity for Whistler-Blackcomb mountain operations.

Mac’s stamina and enthusiasm on the trail were renowned among locals. Bob Williamson recalled how Mac would brew extra-strong tea to keep energy levels up ( “Awful tasting stuff” Bob remembered), and when that wouldn’t suffice, he’d engage in some “verbal coaching”: “holy ol’ moccasins can’t you climb that little bit?’ he’d shout. Everybody loved Mac.”

Mac’s favourite destination was up the Fitzsimmons Valley along the  Singing Pass Trail. In the sub-alpine meadows there was an old trappers’ cabin maintained by Mac and fellow Alta Lake mountain man Billy Bailiff, which they used on overnight hikes towards the larger peaks at the back of the Fitzsimmons Range.

In the Whistler Archives we have a great collection of photos from a 1928 hike that Mac took with Myrtle Philip, and two of her young staff from Rainbow Lodge, Lena Hanson and Mollie Stephenson.

Mac with Lena Hanson and Mollie Stephenson at the Singing Pass trapper’s cabin (photo by Myrtle Philip), 1928. The Seventh Heaven ski area and Blackcomb Peak are visible at far right background.

 

Inside the cabin.

After spending a night at the cabin, they headed up over Cowboy Ridge to Fissile (then known as Red Mountain).

Mac and the girls snow-climbing on the flanks of Fissile Mountain, during the same 1928 hike.

This was exactly the life that Mac had envisioned when he first escaped to this remote Canadian outpost. He stayed on at Alta Lake until his death in 1946 at the age of 76.

Back to School!

With calendars flipping over to September one thing immediately comes to mind… Back to School! (some might disagree with my choice of punctuation there). Those who dread the end of summer freedom and the return of classrooms, homework, and detention might be surprised to read how, by most accounts, local children were excited by the arrival of the first Alta Lake school (if only because it meant a break from their endless chores).

In the decades following the construction of the PGE railway through the valley, a full-fledged community emerged at Alta Lake. By 1930 there were a dozen school-aged children who lived at Alta Lake year-round. Myrtle Philip began lobbying the provincial government for funds for a new school, but Alta Lake was deemed too small and remote so local residents were forced to take it upon themselves.

A local school committee was formed. Minutes from a November 12 1932 meeting record how Myrtle Phlip, Bill Bailiff, and Bob “Mac” MacDermott were elected as the Alta Lake School Board of Trustees, and that their efforts had been officially recognized by the Provincial Department of Education. Almost immediately the community set about renovating a room at the near-abandoned Alta Lake Hotel near the south end of the lake where the first classroom sessions were held.

At that point there was already a fledgling Alta Lake community club which had a few hundred dollars saved up. It was decided that these funds would be put towards the construction of a dedicated schoolhouse/community centre. The $1500 structure (1930s figures) was completely funded and built by local residents.

Raising a flagpole outside the school, 1935.

Margaret Partridge, a 21-year old from Vancouver, was hired to be the first teacher, lured away from the big city with the promise of an extra $10 per month from regular teacher’s wages. By all accounts she did an excellent job juggling the varying ages, grades, etc. It should be noted that in its inaugural year this was the first day of school for all the children, regardless of age. Still, as Myrtle proudly reported, every single student from those early days went on to study at least at the high school level after graduating from Alta Lake.

Group portrait of the entire Alta Lake Schol student body, 1933. Back Row (l to r): Wilfred Law, Tom Neiland, Helen Woods, Kay Thompson, Bob Jardine, Howard Gebhart. Front Row: Doreen Tapley, George Woods, Jack Woods.

The new schoolhouse was completed in 1934. For the next twelve years children trekked from all over the valley to learn the 3 R’s, but also about healthy living: report cards from that era stressed the importance of sleep, a healthy diet with fresh fruit and vegetables, and, most importantly, lots of outdoor play in the fresh air (as if this needed stressing back then!)

The original Alta Lake schoolhouse, ca late 1930s.

The school closed temporarily in 1946 when the regional Howe Sound School District was formed. Then local kids went to Squamish or Pemberton, until 1952 when local children had their own school at Alta Lake again. For the Kitteringham boys of Parkhurst mill (more on them next week), school was an eleven-hour day, beginning with a tugboat ride down Green Lake at 6am – sometimes a 12-year-old Jim drove and docked the boat himself — followed by a 2 mile-trek to school. A ride on the northbound PGE was hitched at 5 pm, getting them home just in time for dinner (and doubtless a bunch of chores).

The schoolhouse doubled as a community centre where regular dinners and dances were held.

Despite never having children of her own, for nearly four decades Myrtle Philip was a dedicated school board trustee. In recognition of her efforts, when a larger school was built in 1977 (near today’s Cascade Lodge at the Village Gate), it was christened Myrtle Philip Community School. Myrtle recounted that she was uncharacteristically speechless, and that it was the greatest honour of her life.

Myrtle Philip (left) at the 1977 opening ceremony of the first Myrtle Philip Community School.

By the 1990s it was evident that the Whistler Village location was less than ideal for an elementary school, and so it was moved to its present location in Whistler Cay. True to our inaugural school, today’s Myrtle Philip school also doubles as a community centre.