Tag Archives: Pacific Great Eastern Railway

Traveling to Witsend with June Collins

On March 26, 2013, one of the staff at the Whistler Museum sat down to record an oral history with June Collins.  June Tidball, as she was known during her time at Alta Lake, was one of the original owners of Witsend, a cabin on Alta Lake.

June was born in Banff, AB to Tom and Anne Tidball.  Though she grew up in Alberta, June’s family had strong ties to Vancouver and the west coast.  Her father was a well-known lifeguard at English Bay, where he met her mother who worked as a ticket taker.  The pair married, moved to Alberta, and then returned to British Columbia in 1941.

June attended the University of British Columbia and after graduating went on to teacher training.  Her first teaching job was at Burnaby North High School in 1953, the same school at which Florence Petersen (then Strachan) taught.  The two did not meet during that first year, as Florence was on exchange in England.  June said that the next year, however, “We made an instant friendship.”

(Left to right) Florence Petersen, Jacquie Pope, June Tidball, Fido, Betty Gray and Eunice “Kelly” Forster at their Witsend cottage in 1955.

June, Florence, and three friends began to get together, going on weekend trips and outings.  June’s friend Betty Atkinson taught in Armstrong, BC, and Florence knew Jacquie Pope and Kelly Forster from teaching in Burnaby.  Betty had worked summers at Rainbow Lodge while attending university and Jacquie and Kelly had both stayed there.  When Betty heard of a cabin for sale on Alta Lake in 1955 the group decided to go in on it together.

June had many stories to share about their time at Alta Lake.  She described the long, often rainy, journeys which began with the Union Steamship from Vancouver to Squamish, followed by a train journey.  According to June, the couple of hours spent waiting for the train in Squamish was when everyone would run to the hotel to buy a case of beer.  She described how, when the train was ready to go, “He’d give two toots on the train and eveybody’d come running with their beer.”  With no store at Alta Lake apart from a general store at Rainbow Lodge, Squamish was the last stop for most supplies.

The Rainbow Lodge Post Office & Store was the only shop in the area and didn’t have too much variety.  Philip Collection.

Though it seemed everybody else was traveling up with beer, June described how the Witsend group decided that they would be “very elegant” and have a gin and tonic on their porch at 4 o’clock every afternoon.  They bought maraschino cherries and the proper glasses, but ran into a problem getting the gin.  The Squamish liquor store did not stock gin and they had to place a special order to have it brought in.  When they ran out at Alta Lake, they would tell a man they knew who worked on the train, and he would pick it up and bring it to them.  According to June, their gin was delivered in a shoebox, and the man would very discreetly tell them “Here’s the shoes you ordered.”

The group would spend most of their summer at Alta Lake, though June would travel to Vancouver from time to time to visit George Collins, then a dentistry student at McGill back for the break.

Three of the original Witsend owners share a laugh in the 1980s. (Left to right) Jacquie Pope, Kelly Fairhurst and Florence Petersen. Whistler Question Collection.

Though it is not currently business as usual at the Whistler Museum (especially as we are not at the museum, but working from home) we will continue to bring you more stories from Whistler’s past, including a few more stories from June Collins, each week.  You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram (@whistlermuseum), where we’ll be sharing photos, trivia and more each day.  We hope to see everyone back at the museum soon!

Tourists, Trains, and the Cariboo Prospector

A few weeks ago, we wrote an article about the history of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway.  Today, we’d like to continue that journey, so to speak, and take a look at the history of the PGE passenger trains, which were invaluable to the history of tourism in the Whistler area.

Many communities all along the PGE line were very optimistic about how the railway’s services would help expand infrastructure and encourage their communities to grow.  As it turns out, they were right – once the rail line was operational, many towns saw a huge population increase, and the passenger trains were a definite asset for tourism in BC.  From the beginning, the railway was a quick, easy way for people to visit Alta Lake, which later became the booming Resort Municipality of Whistler.  The PGE started advertising travel options for campers, fishermen, and vacationers as early as 1915.  In the early 1930s, a trip along the PGE line was advertised in newspapers as “the perfect vacation,” and by the end of the decade, the PGE had partnered with Union Steamships to provide tourists and travellers with special one-day excursion packages.

The Rainbow Lodge station could be a bustling place when a train came in, especially the Sunday excursion train. Philip Collection.

One of the longest running passenger services on the PGE line was called the Cariboo Prospector.  The route was serviced by a dayliner that eventually took passengers all the way from Vancouver to Prince George once the rail line was complete.  It boasted a fleet of the Budd Company’s self-propelled diesel multiple unit railcars, the first seven of which were bought brand-new in 1956.  Those seven railcars cost the PGE $1.5 million, which equates to just over $14 million in today’s currency.  At the time, the coaches were state-of-the-art railcars, the largest of which seated 89 people and provided passengers with the luxury of air conditioning.

BC CABINET AT WHISTLER: Mayor Carleton greets Premier Bill Bennett and Labour Minister Allan Williams as they get off the train.  Whistler Question Collection.

In 2001, BC Rail introduced another passenger service call the Whistler Northwind.  The new, luxury train ran a similar route as the Cariboo Prospector, and many people worried that the new train would prove to be too much competition for the older one.  That concern proved to be unfounded.  In the year that it ran, the Whistler Northwind only carried about 2,000 passengers, which was only a small fraction of people travelling via BC Rail.

Two of many skiers that made use of BCR (BC Rail) passenger service last week.  Whistler Question Collection.

Despite the praises of train enthusiasts world-wide, and the efforts of newspapers in BC to draw more attention to the beautiful, history route, the high costs of running a railway caught up with BC Rail.  After years of struggling to make ends meet, they were forced to shut down passenger services in 2002.  The decision was met with a lot of backlash from communities along the rail line, who argued that they depended on the trains to bring tourists to their communities.  In fact, the Cariboo Prospector served around 81,000 customers in 2001 alone, about 45,000 of whom went to Whistler as their final destination.  Protests were held in an attempt to convince BC Rail to reverse their decision, and Dan Stefanson, the director of the Northern BC Tourism Association at the time, was even quoted in the Houston BC newspaper saying that cancelling the passenger services was “the worst tourism decision made in BC.”  Despite everything, though, the financial consequences of continuing to run the trains were too much.  The beloved Cariboo Prospector made its last trip on October 31, 2002.