Tag Archives: Pacific Great Eastern Railway

The Woods at Alta Lake

The Woods family moved to Alta Lake around 1926 and worked in the area, both for the railway and in the logging industry, until the 1940s. Fred Woods was born in the Isle of Man and immigrated to Canada after a time in the army. He worked on the railroad in Broadview, Saskatchewan where he met and married Elizabeth. Their first child, Helen, was born in Broadview in 1921 and a couple of years later the family moved to Port Coquiltam, where Fred continued to work on the railroad. While there Fred and Elizabeth had two sons, Jack and Pat. Fred then took a job as a section foreman for the PGE Railway and the entire family moved to Alta Lake.

Fred and Elizabeth Woods on the train tracks at Alta Lake. Jardine/Betts/Smith Collection

After a few years, Fred lost his job with the PGE and the family moved out of the company house. After living for a time in a much smaller house, the family was able to rent a property from Jack Findlay, who charged them only the cost of the property taxes. The property included a house, barn, hayfield, and garden and was located across the creek from the Tapley’s farm. Fred began working for the logging operation of B.C. Keeley of Parkhurst during the summers and clearing trails and bridges as relief work in the winters.

The family kept a cow, horse, chickens, and, at times, a pig and grew their own vegetables. In the summer the children would pick berries that Elizabeth would use to make jam. She also canned meat from their animals. When the logging camp closed at the end of the summer Fred would order groceries such as flour and sugar wholesale through the cookhouse to last through the winter. Vegetables were stored in the roothouse and the children would keep the path from the house clear of snow.

Pat Woods, Bob Jardine, Tom Neiland and Jack Woods skating at Alta Lake. Jardine/Betts/Smith Collection

Helen, Pat, Jack and later their younger brother Kenneth went to the Alta Lake School, though Pat remembered some days when snow prevented them from attending. As they got older they also began working outside of their home. When Jack was fifteen and Pat fourteen they spent a summer working in the sawmill at Lost Lost (after a fire at Parkhurst in 1938, logging operations were temporarily moved to Lost Lake before returning to Green Lake). Their employment ended abruptly when Jack lost all the fingers on his right hand in a workplace accident. According to Pat, it took years for Jack to receive compensation, as he was supposed to be sixteen before working in the mill.

The Woods family band played at community events, such as dances and fundraisers, held in the school.

Though the family worked hard during their years at Alta Lake, both Pat and Helen had fond memories of living in the area. Elizabeth loved music and taught her children to play violin and guitar. She played accordion and the family would perform at community dances. They also remembered the kindness of various “bachelors” who lived at Alta Lake, such as Bill Bailiff and Ed Droll, who would visit with their father and sometimes give the children carrots from their gardens on their way to school.

In the early 1940s Fred Woods joined the Canadian army and the family, apart from Helen who had left home and lived in Squamish, moved to North Vancouver. In later years, members of the Woods family returned as visitors to Alta Lake and then Whistler, though they never forgot the years they spent living and working in the area.

Taking a Walk with Pip Brock

Mildred and Reginald Brock first visited Alta Lake in 1927 as guests of friends.  Mildred fell in love with the area and the Brock family bought three small lots on the southwest corner of Alta Lake, hiring Bert Harrop to build a cottage that they named “Primrose”.  The Brocks and their five sons visited Alta Lake each summer; it’s likely that their youngest son, Philip ‘Pip’ Gilbert Brock, spent the most time exploring the area.

A young Dave Brock (formerly identified as Pip) atop Whistler Mountain.  Brock Collection.

At the time, there were only two trains from Squamish to Alta Lake each week, though the steamship from Vancouver to Squamish was daily.  Rather than limiting himself to the train schedule, Pip Brock would often choose to walk over 60km to reach Alta Lake.  According to Pip, this walk would take “a long time, about ten hours.”  The boat would reach Squamish around 2 o’clock.  From there, Pip would sometimes splurge for the 50 cent taxi fare to get as far as Cheakeye, but more often than not he and any companions would walk straight to Primrose.  Pip recalled that not many others wanted “to do the walking,” and so he mostly walked alone.

Parts of his route led him down some of the remaining sections of the Pemberton Trail.  In 1992 Pip recalled that “the parts that were there were excellent, but then it would just disappear under rock falls and stuff.”  For other sections of the journey, he would walk along the railway tracks and, if he was lucky, a freight train might come by and give him a ride.

The Brock Family at Primrose, ca. 1930.  Brock Collection.

Once he reached Alta Lake, Pip would spend his time hiking and exploring the area.  One of his favourite hikes was to Russet Lake, still a favourite destination for many people today.  At the time there was quite a good trail on the northside of Fitzsimmons Creek, which Pip thought was most likely built and maintained by whomever was trapping in the area.

Pip’s trips around the area did not end with the end of the summer; he would continue even after the snow fell using skis.  Around Easter in 1933, Pip climbed to the top of Whistler Mountain and skied down, marking the first reported ascent and descent of Whistler on skis, though he later described the department store skis he used as “terrible things.”  Ski touring had not yet become popular among the majority of mountaineers at that time.  Pip said that, “most mountaineers thought that skiing was impure and indecent.  But a few of us, being frivolous, realized the fun and value of skis for winter touring.”

The Brock boys picnicking near Singing Pass, 1930s.  Brock Collection.

Pip and brothers continued visiting the valley even after the tragic death of their parents in a plane crash at Alta Lake in 1935.  In the 1930s Pip began joining Don and Phyllis Munday, legendary mountaineers from North Vancouver, on trips, including an attempt to reach the top of Mount Waddington.  In 1937 Pip and the Mundays skied up Wedge Creek and then skied and climbed up to the top of Wedge Mountain, marking the first ascent of Wedge by skis.  They also made the first ski descent in the Blackcomb backcountry and “skied right up to the source of Cheakamus to Mount Sir Richard.”

Since Pip began exploring the mountains surrounding Alta Lake by ski, ski touring has become increasingly popular.  Today, however, few of those who head out into the backcountry around Whistler choose to begin their trip with a ten hour walk from Squamish.

Alta Lake Speeders

Transportation in the Whistler valley takes many different forms; people walk, bike, rollerblade, skateboard, bus, drive, and even ski in some seasons from one place to another.  In the early 20th century Alta lake residents had another way to get around the area: the railroad.

Speeders, maintenance vehicles used by inspectors, work crews, and other employees to travel along the track, are often mentioned in oral histories about Alta lake.  Speeders could be dangerous (in 1918 John Jardine was working for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) alongside Thomas Neiland when the speeder he was riding on collided with a train and John was killed) but they could also be very convenient.  In the 1950s, when there was still no easy road access to Alta lake, those with speeders were some of the first to be called in the event of an emergency, such as when a section foreman and his speeder were called on to transport a labouring Marianne Golnick to the hospital in Squamish.

Especially when snow was piled high, the tracks offered a clear path through the valley.  Jardine/Betts/Smith Collection.

Eugene Jordan, the son of Russ Jordan who operated Jordan’s Lodge on Nita Lake, spend some summers living at Nita Lake with his wife Lorraine and their children while he worked in fire suppression for the BC Forest Service.  Fire Suppression meant following the train on a speeder and putting out any fires found along the way.  According to Lorraine, “There were quite a few fires, you know, people would throw a cigarette out.  And the trains used to themselves, the brakes would give off sparks and start fires.”

The BC Forest Service and fire suppression also brought Walt Punnett to the valley in 1947.  Walt had served in the navy during the Second World War and, after being discharged, began working with the Forest Service.  Like Eugene, Walt followed the trains on the PGE on a speeder as a “spark-chaser.”  He was stationed at Mile 83 (today known as Devine) but his section extended south to the Alta Lake Station and he would sometimes be entertained by Alex Philip at Rainbow Lodge in between runs.

These handcars (powered by pumping the lever at the front) were popular before speeders were introduced, and were sometimes used for fun by those who lived at Alta Lake since they were much faster than walking

Walt explained that he and his partner would wait ten or fifteen minutes before following after the train, as “by that time if there was gonna be anything, a fire, it would have got started but not had time to do any damage.”  Most of the fires would start in rotten ties and could be smelt while passing.  According to Walt, the summer of 1947 was a quiet fire season and the worst part of the job was filling out paperwork, which all had to be filled out in triplicate by hand.

A covered speeder traveling on the PGE tracks in wintertime.  Some speeders were larger than others and could carry an entire crew.  Jardine/Betts/Smith Collection.

Despite a quiet summer, Walt’s last day of work for the Forest Service demonstrated both the danger and the convenience of speeders.  A millworker had run his fingertips through an edger and the fastest means of transportation to reach medical care was by speeder.  Walt phoned Squamish to find out what trains were running that day and the pair set out.  Only one freight trains was expected and it was meant to be quite a ways off.  Near Anderson Lake, however, while heading downhill and northbound, Walt rounded a bend and found the steam engine coming straight at him.  The speeder was moving too fast to jump off of so Walt held onto his passenger, threw on the one-wheel brake, and at the last second, Walt and his passenger jumped off either side and watched the speeder flip high in the air.

Speeders have now largely been replaced by trucks using flanged wheels to travel along tracks, but they were an important mode of transportation for Alta Lake residents, especially in case of an emergency.

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!