Tag Archives: Denis DeBeck

DeBeck Letters: Life After Parkhurst

When going through accounts of life at Parkhurst one name that keeps coming up is Denis DeBeck.

Denis DeBeck poses with some ties and the dog Micky. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis DeBeck was the eldest of six siblings.  Two of his younger brothers, Ward and Keary, also worked a few summers at Parkhurst.  It was during those years that their mother brought the younger three children, Betsy, Nedra and Fred, to stay on Green Lake as well.

The DeBecks came from the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver where the children all attended school.  Denis graduated from Magee High School in 1928 and got his first job at Coast Quarries.  Over the next few years he worked various jobs, including a stint as his father’s office boy.  In 1932 he began working for B.C. Keeley (who bought Parkhurst in 1933) at his mill in Marpole.  A year later Denis was on the train bound for Parkhurst (in a snowstorm, according to his letters) where he would work on and off for the next five years.

Dorothy DeBeck outside Parkhurst. Photo: DeBeck Collection

During these years he married Dorothy, a friend of his cousin Barbara.  After the original mill burnt down in 1938 the DeBecks left Parkhurst and in 1940 Denis and his partner John Brunzen opened their own small portable mill at 43.5 Mile on the PGE Railway.  This was also the year Denis and Dorothy had their first daughter, Wilma.  Their second, Barbara May, came after they moved the mill to 48.8 Mile.

We are fortunate at the museum to have copies of letters written by Denis to his brother Keary between 1943 and 1944, when Keary was serving in the RCAF overseas.

The letters provide a glimpse into life in British Columbia during the Second World War and into the DeBeck family.  Denis provided his brother with family news and commented on the updates Keary sent about their brother Fred who was recovering from a plane crash.  When Fred returned to Canada their roles switched and Denis provided the updates.  While living at 48.8 Mile the DeBeck family appears to have communicated often through letters and visits, described once by Denis as “a three week raid on Victoria” where their parents had moved.

Wilma DeBeck and another girl on the PGE tracks. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis also sent his brother news of the mills in the area in his first few letters.  By November 1943 he was already looking for the next location for his portable mill, expecting to finish the timber at 48.8 Mile by the next April.  Locations mentioned were Nita Lake, D’Arcy and Squamish.

Alf Gebhart’s house in the 1930s.  The Gebharts had a mill in the valley, but weren’t necessarily having the best year. Photo: Debeck Collection

From his news, mills did not appear to be having the best year.  As Denis put it, “Poor old Parkhurst.  Same old story, out of logs.  They are only running a 7 hour day and still run out of logs.”  There was also trouble with logs at Lost Lake and for the Gebhart’s mill.

In a letter from March 1944 Denis describes the new tool being used to fell the last of the timber at 48.8 Mile.  “We bought one of those power chainsaws and it works pretty good but not as well as we thought it would.  Very good for falling but no good for bucking in the woods.”  Despite taking awhile to start up, he claimed the sawing was “4 or 5 times as fast as hand sawing.”

Despite his predictions of moving soon, the DeBeck family was still at 48.8 Mile in October of 1944.  Though the letters we have stop there, the family moved to Squamish in 1945 and Denis continued to operate his own sawmills.  He lived there until his death in 2007 at the age of 96.

Advertisements

Life at the Parkhurst Logging Camp

A season working in Whistler can mean many different things.  For some, a season means spending as much time as possible on the mountains; for others, it can mean settling for the next few decades of your life.  For those who came to work on Green Lake in the 1930s, however, a season in the area usually meant hard work on most days and recreation on Sundays.

When Parkhurst Mill opened, it offered seasonal work only since the mill could be closed for up to five months a year due to snow.  The mill continued to offer seasonal work into the 1930s.

Jack Nebel was one of the men who came to work for a season in 1937, the year before the mill burned down.  At the time he was, as he described it, “four years out of high school, living in North Vancouver, and still looking for my first steady job.”  Nebel was hired by Northern Mills as a greenhorn (meaning new and inexperienced) logger under Denis DeBeck, the “logging boss”, and his first assignment was to ride the logs down the river and keep the logs moving towards the mouth on Green Lake.

Red standing in the doorway of the “river rats” cabin at the logging camp. Photo (and post-it): Jack Nebel

When Nebel arrived at Parkhurst, he was taken over to the logging camp on the western side of Green Lake, which included a bunkhouse, a cookhouse, a Caterpillar shed and a small shack where Nebel and “Red”, the other “river rat”, would stay.  The camp was connected to the mill at Parkhurst via the Queen Mary, a “crude box-like cabin cruiser” with enough power to tow logs across the lake.

Conditions at the logging camp weren’t quite as comfortable as a stay at Rainbow Lodge may have been at the time.  On one occasion during Nebel’s stay, the river rose and overflowed its banks, making his morning walk to the cookhouse more like a wading trip through knee-deep water.  The water rose to the level of his cabin floorboards and he and Red discovered hundreds of insects taking refuge under their cots.  Fortunately for them, the water subsided after just a couple of days, taking the insects with it.

The Hiking Crew, including Ward DeBeck, Red and Keary DeBeck. Photo: Jack Nebel

Life at the logging camp wasn’t all work.  One evening each week, some workers would hike about 8 km (5 miles) through the woods and along the railway to Alta Lake to meet the mail train.  On Sundays, a day of recreation for those in the logging camp, a group would go hiking around the mountains and up towards the glaciers.  This group included Nebel, Red and Ward and Keary DeBeck, two younger brothers of Denis DeBeck who Nebel remembered were university students working over their summer break.

A Sunday game at the fields of the old Lineham’s mink ranch. Photo: Jack Nebel

One Sunday a baseball game was organized between members of the logging camp and members of the sawmill crew on a field near the Lineham’s old mink ranch.  As Nebel described it, “I don’t remember who won the game, so I guess the loggers lost!”

Shortly after the game Nebel was transferred from the logging camp to the sawmill at Parkhurst.  The sawmill was much livelier, housing a mix of singles and families, though it didn’t offer much more in the was of recreation than the logging camp.

Having been hired in early spring, Nebel left the mill around midsummer after working for Northern Mills for only a few months.  By the time he returned almost 50 years later the mill at Parkhurst was no longer operating and the area was well on its way to becoming the ghost town it is today.

Parkhurst Before the Ghost Town

Parkhurst may now be known primarily as a ghost town, but it was once the site of the first large and permanent mill operations in the valley.

Mr. and Mrs. Parkhurst pre-empted the land on Green Lake in 1902 and built a small house where they lived with their family.  It is unclear whether they ever operated a sawmill on the property, which was sold in 1926 after the death of Mr. Parkhurst.

The property was purchased by the Barr brothers of Mission who had been looking for a new source of timber.  William, Malcolm and Ross Barr built a mill and a camp for their workers and began operating Parkhurst Mill, named for the previous owners.

A mill at Parkhurst operated on the shores of Green Lake from 1926 to about 1956. Barr Collection

In 1928 Malcolm drowned after falling into Green Lake and then, due to the effects of the Depression, the mill went into receivership in 1930.  William moved on from the valley while Ross and his wife Alison stayed on at Parkhurst as watchmen hired by the bank until the property could be sold.

Logging operation at Parkhurst, late 1920s. This photograph shows a railcar, a spar tree and the steam donkey. The man standing on a log in the foreground is Ross Barr. Barr Collection

In 1932 Parkhurst was sold to B.C. Keeley and Byron Smith who reopened the mill under the name Northern Mills in 1933.  Ross Barr and Denis DeBeck were hired by Keeley to manage the mill and worked together until it burnt down in 1938.

Norm Barr and neighbour Jack Findlay in 1936. Barr Collection

The museum recorded two oral histories in 2011 that include many stories and a lot of information about Parkhurst during this time: one with Norm Barr, the son of Ross and Alison Barr, and another with Betsy Henderson, sister of Denis DeBeck.

Betsy Henderson had a very different experience at Parkhurst than those who worked and live there.  She, her mother and two more of her siblings stayed near Parkhurst at what had been the Lineham’s mink ranch during the summers of 1936 and ’37.  Her three older brothers, Denis, Ward and Keary, were all working for Northern Mills and, as Betsy recalled, their mother decided she’d like to stay with all six of her children for the summer.

As she was not working, Betsy was able to explore the area around Parkhurst and got into some rather potentially dangerous situations, such as taking a dip in fast-running Fitzsimmons Creek and crossing the Blackcomb glacier with her brother Keary.

The glacier was full of chasms and on one crossing, Keary asked her to take a picture of him on the upper side of a huge crevasse.  Betsy maneuvered around to set up the photo and, as she remembered, “when I looked up to take the picture I found that Keary was sitting on just a shelf of ice.”  Needless to say, the picture did not get taken.

The Northern Mills operation on Green Lake before it burned down in 1938. It was later rebuilt at the same site. DeBeck Collection

After the fire Northern Mills moved to Lost Lake for a year before deciding to rebuild at Parkhurst.  Though the mill would continue to operate into the 1950s, neither the Barrs nor the DeBecks went back to the mill.  This was not the end of the DeBecks’ association with the area, however, as Denis DeBeck continued working in what is today Whistler until 1945, when he followed the Barrs to settle permanently in Squamish.

Over the next few weeks we hope to bring you more stories from the DeBecks, the Barrs and others who worked in forestry in the valley.