Tag Archives: Dorothy 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.

Tales of Whistler’s Early Water Supply and Sanitation Facilities

This year I spent thanksgiving with a group of new friends. As tradition goes, we went around the table and said what we were thankful for. This has got to be one of the most beautiful holiday rituals, as the room generally goes from silly and sarcastic to completely genuine as soon as the first person says their thanks. This sincerity and gratefulness got me thinking about Whistler’s early days when there was a bit less to be thankful for in terms of amenities–more specifically, regarding Whistler’s water supply and sanitation facilities.

Whistler’s early settlers had to locate their homes near rivers, creeks or lakes in order to have access to water. Rainbow Lodge and Hillcrest Lodge had holding tanks of water pumped from Rainbow Creek and Alta Lake, respectively; however, most properties weren’t so fortunate. Some residents used flumes to direct water from the source to their property, though this method was quite unreliable.

Betsy DeBeck recalls her and her father constructing a flume for her brother and sister in-law, Denis and Dorothy DeBeck. Denis and Dorothy had recently built a house on the shores of Green Lake, and Betsy and her father figured they could ‘help’ the new homeowners by providing a more convenient water supply system. The two got to work, building a V flume that reached approximately 100 yards up the slope from Green Lake, right into Denis and Dorothy’s backyard. This would prevent them from having to go down the stream to retrieve buckets of water. While great in theory, during the winter months the flume and all the water in it froze and they were left with this ‘huge big iceberg,’ as Dorothy describes. Dorothy quickly grew to curse the flume.

By 1925, the town installed a water line from Scotia Creek in order to service new subdivisions on the west shore of Alta Lake. It operated on the gravitation principle, by which water flows downward from a large wooden holding tank built up on a hill. In 1954, Dick Fairhurst of Cypress Lodge received the rights to Scotia Creek and took over the system.

Along the railway line at the main stations, public outhouses were build for passengers' convenience. Someone with a sense of humour added the sign.

Along the railway line at the main stations, public outhouses were build for passengers’ convenience. Someone with a sense of humour added the sign.

Early sanitation systems were nothing to write home about either (because people write home about their plumbing all the time). Whistler’s early sanitation systems consisted of outhouses and, in later years, septic tanks. Surprisingly, the outhouses were considered quite the establishments and are remembered fondly by many of the first skiers to live in the valley.

Jean McDevitt in front of Petersen's old outhouse, 1968.

Jean McDevitt in front of Petersen’s old outhouse, 1968.

These outhouses brought many tales of hilarity. One in particular is the sizzling story of Charlie Chandler. Charlie Chandler, a local trapper, had been given a small amount of high-grade aircraft fuel by a kindly visiting floatplane pilot, which he used to clean some of his exceedingly grimy overalls. When finished cleaning his clothes, Charlie felt that the best way to dispose of the remaining fuel was to chuck it down the ‘biffy.’ He went on with his day as usual, and when it came time for his next visit to the outhouse he sat down and lit his pipe, as was his habit. The explosion was heard from miles away. Charlie’s nearest neighbour, Phil Tapley, rushed to the scene where he found a singed but otherwise unscathed Charlie with his pants around his ankles, wondering what had occurred.