Tag Archives: mining

The Mysterious Harry Horstman

One of the most mysterious Whistler characters is Henry ‘Harry” Horstman.  The details are pretty slim.  We know that he moved to Alta Lake sometime around 1913 from Kansas.  He pre-empted two pieces of land – one between Nita and Alpha Lakes and another at the end of Alpha Lake.

He came to the area with dreams of striking it rich through mining.  He mined on Sproatt Mountain for copper, but always had a hope of finding gold.  Horstman had a small farm near Nita Lake on which he raised chickens and grew vegetables. He would haul his goods on the train tracks using a cart he built himself.  Harry would supply fresh produce and eggs to Rainbow Lodge and was of course willing to sell to anyone willing to pay.

Harry Hortsman on Sproatt Mountain, probably not far from his mining claim. Harry first came to Alta Lake with dreams of finding a rich copper vein. Unfortunately, this dream never came true.

Jack Jardine recalled visiting Harry and having bacon and eggs with him – Horstman kept his greasy frying pan in the woodpile, of all places.  In an interview conducted in 1991 Jack recalled:

[…] we’d go to old Harry Horstman’s place there and he’d be having bacon and eggs for breakfast or something like that and he would just take his frying pan and he’d walk over and he turned it upside down on the woodpile, that’s what he did to his bacon grease.  He just turned it upside down on his kindling pile.  And then when he used his frying pan he just picked it up and put it in the stove. […] I mean the bacon used to hang on the wall on a piece of string!  You went to hang it from the wall, the same as a ham would hang from the ceiling, three or four hams hanging from the ceiling!

 Other residents didn’t really get to know Hortsman very well – often referring to him as an odd man, or only every seeing him and his beard from a distance.

Harry Hortsman at his cabin.

Horstman often led a solitary life, which is probably why we know so little about him.  Pip Brock, who often visited Alta Lake, remembers passing Horstman’s cabin on a hike one day and Harry remarked “ Gosh all Dammit. This hiking is getting to be quite a fad.  You’re the second party this year!”

In the summer of 1923 the Alta Lake Community Club held their fist official gathering at Rainbow Lodge.    It was an informal picnic and Horstman was designated as the official coffee provider.  He took this position of responsibility so seriously has actually wore a suit, tie and fedora to the picnic!

First official meeting of the Alta Lake Community Club in 1923. Harry is pictured here on the right carrying the coffee pot, as part of his duties as ‘Official Coffee Provider.” Check out the full suit and fedora!

Although Harry dug many tunnels on Sproatt Mountain, looking for copper, there of course came a time when he just couldn’t take the physical labour any longer.  He retired to his cabin on Alpha Lake.  Eventually he moved to Kamloops to live the remainder of his life in a nursing home.

While we don’t really know much about Harry Horstman, his memory lives on in the name of the Horstman Glacier.  In fact, the remnants of his cabin at the 5300-foot level on Sproatt Mountain can still be found.  Harry would no doubt be very impressed indeed by the number of hikers passing by these days.

Image of the Hortsman Glacier on Blackcomb Mountain.

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.

Mining Whistler’s Past

Whistler draws people from around the world for any number of reasons: skiing, biking, wildlife viewing, night clubs, fine dining, mining… wait, mining? Although a largely forgotten aspect of our region’s past, the (mostly unfulfilled) promise of underground riches was one of the Whistler Valley’s main draws in the days before “world-class shopping.”

Our local mining industry is actually 10,000 years old. Squamish archaeologist Rudy Reimer has found obsidian quarries in Garibaldi Park that were in use shortly after the retreat of continental ice sheets permitted the initial peopling of the region. Used for razor-sharp blades and fine jewellery, this volcanic glass can still be found among Garibaldi Park’s ancient lava flows.

Because each obsidian quarry has a distinct mineral composition, scientists are able to “fingerprint” fragments found at archaeological sites and trace them back to their source. Garibaldi obsidian, a valuable trade item, has been found throughout southern B.C. and Washington state.

The first non-indigenous visitors to Whistler–William Downie, a Scottish veteran of the California  gold rush (a “49er”), and Joseph Mackay, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee (a fur trader, not a retail clerk)–were commissioned by the colonial government to explore the territory between Lillooet Lake (Pemberton) and Howe Sound (Squamish) in September 1858, hoping to find a better coastal access route to the booming gold mines of the B.C. interior. Dwindling rations forced Downie and Mackay to press on to to the coast before exploring the surrounding mountains.

Scouring our archival holdings is a little like exploratory mining. Our archivists recently uncovered a gem, this massive 1916 map of recorded mining claims in southwestern BC. It is currently in a very fragile state and unavailable for public viewing, but we are looking into getting it properly restored.

Following on their heels, tens of thousands of goldseekers rushed into B.C. during the 1860s. While the majority of them travelled along the Douglas Route up Lillooet Lake then northwards beyond Pemberton,  many other prospectors came up from Howe Sound and rooted around the surrounding creeks and mountains en route. Since mining men are notoriously secretive, however, very few records survive of prospecting activity prior to the twentieth century.

Among Whistler’s earliest known commercial mining operations was the Green Lake Mining and Milling Company, beginning operations at least as early as 1910. Run by Mr. A McEvoy of Vancouver, the Green Lake Co. worked 10 small claims at the 1000 – 1300 metre level on Whistler Mountain above Fitzsimmons creek. The workers lived  on the mountain’s lower slopes in cramped, drafty housing with a regrettable male-to-female ratio. Sound familiar? They found gold, silver, and copper, but never in commercially viable quantities.

Harry Horstman, a lanky prospector from Kansas, was to have greater staying power but similarly meagre returns. Despite his prairie roots, Horstman was at ease up high, living for decades in a log cabin near the 1600-metre level on Mount Sproatt. Digging several tunnels, Horstman found enough copper to eke out a modest living (supplemented by trapping), but he never struck a major load.

Harry Hortsman at his Mt. Sproatt cabin.

The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb is named after this pioneering local. Horstman was a fixture in the Alta Lake community for decades, but still appreciated the seclusion of his mountain-top retreat. I wonder what he would think of the neon circus that goes on every summer on his namesake glacier!

Beginning in 1916, a group of twenty-odd men began operations as Alta Lake Mining near today’s Alpine Meadows neighbourhood. They excavated bog-iron ore, which occurs when iron dissolved in run-off water forms deposits in bogs or swamps. At their height of operations they sent 150 tons of bog iron a day down the PGE railway to Squamish, where it was then shipped to the Irondale smelter at Port Townsend, Washington.

Other locals also pursued small-scale prospecting and mining. Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, is named after  Jimmy Fitzsimmons, who prospected throughout his namesake valley. Mining shafts that resulted from his exploration can still be found along the Singing Pass trail.

In the 1930s, locals Billie Bailiff (who also kept a trapline in the Singing Pass/Cheakamus Lake area) and Bill “Mac” MacDermott also dug mine shafts on the north side of Whistler Mountain, hoping to find the north end of the Britannia Mine’s massive copper vein. They didn’t succeed, but interest in Whistler Mountain’s underground remained.

Most of us know that the first ski lifts on Whistler Mountain started from Creekside. Fewer realize that the original plans included lifts and runs on Whistler’s north side, rising from near the present-day village. These plans had to be abandoned, however, because the provincial government chose to protect mineral claims on that side of the mountain now held by two companies, including the Canadian giant Noranda.

Unsurprisingly, mining claims didn’t interfere when plans to develop the north side of Whistler Mountain resurfaced in the late-1970s, as the provincial government was now a key investor in the planned resort expansion.

While never developing on a comparable scale to the Coast Mountain mega-mines at Brittania Beach or the Pioneer Mine, the quest for underground riches still played a formative role in Whistler’s early days. If one knows where to look, traces of this past mining activity can still be found throughout the local landscape. Local whitewater folk are familiar with the abandoned Ashlu gold mine because it is the drop-in point for a popular kayaking run.

Kayaker at the entrance to the abandoned Ashlu gold mine.

Though interesting to history buffs, this hidden legacy also poses significant physical and environmental hazards. For more on this context, track down the Summer 2011 issue of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine  for a short article on this titled “Rider Dun Gone.” (The article isn’t available on-line, but the magazine is free and can be found here.) For more info on industry and government efforts to track down and regulate Canada’s thousands of abandoned mines, check out the National Orphaned Abandoned Mines Initiative.

If you’re really keen you can even take your new knowledge into the woods and find some old mining ruins that haven’t yet been completely overtaken by the relentless coastal rainforest. But be careful! And remember, although relatively young these are archaeological sites; try to leave them undisturbed for others to enjoy.