Tag Archives: PGE Railway

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.

The Beginnings of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway

If you’ve ever been out hiking near the train tracks on the western side of Whistler, you know how difficult the terrain can be.  The cliffs, creeks, and rivers running through the valley make for beautiful scenery and photographs, but they can make travel very difficult.  As a result, building a railway from coastal British Columbia to the Interior was an expensive, difficult venture, and it took a long time to build the rail line that exists today.

The first company that was meant to build a railway from coastal BC to the BC Interior was incorporated in 1891, but not much came of it.  Once the Howe Sound and Northern Railway Company (HSN) was incorporated in 1907, however, things really started moving in the right direction.  Surveys from Squamish through the Cheakamus Canyon were conducted in secret by the Cleveland and Cameron engineering firm, and the demand for a railway into the BC Interior was very high.  When a feasibility report was published by the HSN Railway Company in 1909, it was the talk of the town, making headlines in the Daily Province newspaper.  The feasibility report announced that the construction of a railway through the Cheakamus Canyon was possible, and the first rails were laid that very same year.

Grace Woollard and Grace Archibald in the Cheakamus Canyon on their way to Alta Lake, 1912. Clarke Collection.

The HSN Railway was taken over by the Foley, Welch, and Stewart Firm in 1912.  They renamed the company the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE), and within a year of the new company’s incorporation, track was being laid on two separate sections of the route.  The PGE Squamish Line finally reached Pemberton in October of 1914.  The new railway brought many opportunities for people in the Whistler valley, especially Alex and Myrtle Philip.  Their Rainbow Lodge opened the same year the railway reached Pemberton, and they received a lot of encouragement from the PGE workers to host fishing tours.  The first tours were held in May of 1915, and fishermen, with rods and tackle in hand, arrived by train to stay at Rainbow Lodge.

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

Expansion of the rail line continued, but not without difficulty.  The PGE line from Squamish reached as far as Lillooet, but going further was a financial problem.  The BC Provincial Government stepped in, and the PGE received a loan of $10 million ($200 million adjusted for inflation today) in order to continue extending the rail line in 1916.  The money didn’t help much, through, and in 1918 the PGE was forced to default on the loan.  The Provincial Government took over the PGE Railway Company, but, again, building a railway was very expensive.  The Provincial Government even listed the PGE for public sale in 1924, but there were not takers.

A southbound PGE train pulling in to Rainbow Lodge. J Jardine Collection

Despite everything, the railway pushed on.  The Provincial Government undertook a $10 million redevelopment program for the PGE in 1949 (over $110 million today).  It took a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of time, but the PGE did eventually reach its destination.  Finally, after over 50 years of planning and development, the PGE Railway reached Prince George on September 11, 1952.

If you would like to learn more about the influence the PGE had on Whistler, stay tuned for future articles!

Jacquie Pope’s “Vatican”

Earlier this month, we were invited to attend the Alta Lake Road Block Party.  While sharing information about the neighbourhood’s history with residents, a couple came by to share some history of their friend Jacquie Pope with us.

Jacquie Pope first visited Alta Lake in 1953, when she and Kelly Forster (later Kelly Fairhurst) took a two week vacation at Rainbow Lodge.  After that holiday, Pope remembered that they returned every chance they got, including “the following summer and every long weekend in between.”  At the time travel to Alta Lake was an all-day affair and weekend trips took dedication.

Rainbow Lodge under the Greenwoods in the 1950s.

In 1955 Jacquie and Kelly were part of a group of teachers who bought a cabin together on Alta Lake Road.  The five women were Jacquie, Kelly, Florence Strachan (later Petersen), Betty Gray, and June Tidball.  At Alta Lake they learned to split wood, cook on a wood-burning stove, and lime an outhouse.  Their cabin, soon named “Witsend” after a particularly trying and rainy journey to Alta Lake, was a much-loved summer and weekend getaway for the group.

Jacquie sold her shares in Witsend in 1964 and bought her own lot further along the road.  She paid $1,500 to a PGE employee for Lot 30 and her house, built by Alta Lake Road neighbour Colin Ramsay, was completed in 1965.  In a play on her last name, the house was named “The Vatican”.  At that time it wasn’t uncommon to see names attached to properties, including Valhalla, the Gowery, Whispering Leaves, Woodbine Cottage, Worlebury Lodge, Primrose, the Vicarage, and Kelso Lodge.

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

Jacquie continued teaching in Burnaby and spent her summers at Alta Lake.  After retiring in 1983, she moved to Whistler full-time.

Florence remembered Jacquie as “the life of many a gathering,” especially when she led the sing-a-longs with her ukulele.  Jacquie had a passion for sports and had even played field hockey for Canada in the Netherlands in 1959.  During her retirement in Whistler she hiked, fished and even sailed her own Sabot, a sailing dinghy that is sailed single handedly, as part of the Alta Lake Sailing Club.

Jacquie stayed at “The Vatican” on Alta Lake Road until 2001, when she sold the property and moved to Squamish to enjoy easier winters and a longer golf season.  James Collingwood, who bought Lot 30, demolished the house built by Colin Ramsay.

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

The sign that hung outside “The Vatican” moved to Squamish with Jacquie and was reportedly displayed in her garden.  After her death in 2011, friends and neighbours of her inherited the sign and kept it in their own garden.

These friends of Jacquie’s attended the Alta Lake Road Block Party and brought with them the sign from her Alta Lake property, surprising us by donating it to the museum collections.  Despite spending decades outside, it is in remarkably good condition and the carved lettering is still easy to read.  The sign represents a period in the area when Alta Lake was a popular summer cottage destination, before visitors traded their sailboats for skis.  Though Jacquie’s house is no longer standing, artefacts like her sign provide insight into Whistler history.

Honeymooning at Rainbow Lodge

Though built as a fishing lodge, Rainbow Lodge was a destination for more than eager fishermen.  With its location on Alta Lake relatively easy to access, though still feeling remote in the 1950s, it was a popular resort for honeymooners looking to escape life in the city.

Les and Marge Stevens came to Rainbow Lodge on their honeymoon in September 1953.  They later recounted their stay while revisiting Alta Lake and staying with Cloudsley and Dorothy Hoodspith, the publisher of the Squamish Citizen, in 1981.

Jordan’s Lodge on the shores of Nita Lake.  Barber Collection.

Les Stevens, an advertising manager for Wosk’s in Vancouver, first visited Alta Lake with his family in the summer of 1944.  His parents had booked a cabin at Jordan’s Lodge for two weeks and Les and his sister spent what he called a “typical holiday” swimming and fishing.  Later, when planning his and Marge’s honeymoon, Les thought of his earlier holiday at Alta Lake and suggested Rainbow Lodge.  The couple enquired with the lodge, looked over their brochure, and made a reservation for the day following their wedding.

The Stevenses made the journey to Rainbow Lodge in the same fashion guests had decades earlier.  They caught the Union Steamship from Vancouver to Squamish and then rode the PGE to the station at the lodge.  According to Les, “The coaches in those days were like old street cars with the wooden slat seats with the flip over backs so you could face either way and for heat they had a potbelly stove at one end.”

The newlyweds were met at Rainbow Lodge by Alec and Audrey Greenwood, who had bought the lodge from the Philips in 1948.  They were assigned Cabin 11 for their stay.  For the next week the Stevenses spent their time boating on Alta Lake and hiking.  They took one day to hike up to Rainbow Falls.  On their way they found a deserted log cabin and spent part of their hike speculating on who had built it.

The entrance to Rainbow Lodge during the Greenwood’s tenure.  Greenwood Collection.

The Stevenses had always planned to return to Rainbow Lodge for a second honeymoon, perhaps inspired by a couple they met during their stay who had come back to celebrate their 10th anniversary.  Unfortunately, by the time they had made it back, much of Rainbow Lodge had been destroyed by a fire.  The Stevenses visited the remaining cabins and even took a photo outside of Cabin 11.  Les claimed that the visit was “like going back in time, because coincidentally the weekend we were there was the weekend of the ’50s dance and everyone was dressed for the period.”

Only some cabins survived the fire, a few of which still stand at Rainbow Park today. Photo by Robyn Goldsmith.

Rainbow Lodge was not the only part of the valley that had changed drastically by 1981.  Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains were both open, the Resort Municipality of Whistler had been formed, and construction was well underway on the new town centre.  According to the Stevenses, not being skiers, they were amazed by all the development.  They claimed that, “looking back it doesn’t seem so long and it’s hard to believe it’s the same spot that 28 years ago seemed so remote.”

The gondola area showing the early arrivals in the parking lot – the Wosk lot is the empty one centre right.  Whistler Question Collection, 1979.

Despite their surprise, the Stevenses were not entirely unconnected to the development in the area.  Their story was found while doing a keyword search of our research files for “Wosk” after reading about a proposed development in the Summer 1969 edition of Garibaldi’s Whistler News.  Benjamin Wosk, who had built the Wosk department store chain with his brother Morris, proposed to develop a hotel, shopping centre, condominiums, swimming pool, and youth hostels on 40 acres in today’s Creekside.  These plans, however, were never realized.  The area, known as the Wosk lot, was used on and off as a parking lot for the lifts into the 1980s.  As an advertising manager for Wosk’s, Les Stevens’ employers played their own part in the development of the Stevens’ remote honeymoon destination.