Tag Archives: Northern Mills

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.

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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.