Tag Archives: PGE Railway

Driving the Sea to Sky (when it was mostly dirt)

If you’ve ever taken a look at the Whistler Museum’s YouTube channel you might have seen a short film from the Petersen Film Collection that features the drive to Whistler in 1958.  The footage makes it clear that the drive was an interesting one, full of steep hills, narrow roads and bumpy track.  At one point the car obviously overheated, a problem solved with the help of a nearby river.

The footage from the Petersens is only one account of coming to Whistler by car when the area was still known as Alta Lake.  Another well-known figure in Whistler, Don MacLaurin, also made the journey up the “highway” in 1958.

At the time Don was working in the forest service and was part of a cruising crew staying in Pemberton (cruising crews measure volume and quality of timber before it is harvested).  In a 2007 with John Hammons and Karen Overgaard, Don shared photos of his trip that are now part of the Whistler Museum archives.  As Don recalled, it took “two crews, two land rovers, winches, prayers and eight hours to go from Squamish to Pemberton.”

The road through the Cheakamus Canyon. MacLaurin Collection.

One shows a portion of the original road through the Cheakamus Canyon.  When asked to describe the drive, Don chose the word “precarious.”  The one-way road had a cliff on one side and, according to Don, “logs cabled through the road into the cliff… trying to hold the road in.”  Another photo shows a cable running back to a land rover.  It was a good thing the crews had two, as one would frequently be used to pull the other out when stuck.

A land rover is pulled up the road by another land rover – it’s handy to have two. MacLaurin Collection.

The road through what is now the Tapley’s Farm neighbourhood (and at the time would have been around the actual Tapley’s Farm) was “very, very wet and very soft and you were lucky to get through that as well.”  Once past Alta Lake the crews still had to get past what they called “suicide hill” which was located “under the power lines on the railroad side of Green Lake when you made the descent back down to the Green River.”  With a “so-called road” and “baseball-sized boulders” it’s no wonder Don described that section as “very, very tricky.”  Despite these challenges, the crews did eventually make it to Pemberton.

The “roads” in Whistler. MacLaurin Collection.

This was not the first time Don had come through the Whistler valley.  In 1951 he travelled through on the PGE on his way from Quesnel to Vancouver.  By 1961, when he returned with Isobel and a couple of neighbours, there was still no dependable road, and certainly not one that could sensibly be used in the winter, so again they came by rail.

Going through the Cheakamus Canyon on the PGE. It still has quite the drop. MacLaurin Collection.

By 1964 visitors to Whistler could come along a gravel road called Highway 99.  Two years later Highway 99 was paved from Squamish to Mons Station and to Pemberton in 1969.  With changes made over the decades and work done prior to the 2010 Olympics, the road Don, the Petersens and others travelled in 1958 is almost unrecognizable in the road we travel today.

The Boom and Bust of McGuire

1992 William Jack Biggin-Pound was asked by Ruth Gallagher to write down what he knew of the history around McGuire, Brandywine Falls and Alta Lake.

Ruth and Ray Gallagher had owned and operated the Brandywine Falls Resort until 1973 (keep an eye out for more announcements on this subject in the New Year!) and Ruth was collecting information on the history of the area.

McGuire, located about 7km south of Whistler, had its own station on the PGE Railway and has been settled for as long as the area that is now Whistler.  After the construction of the railway, McGuire was the site of several small sawmills until the logging industry began moving out towards the end of the 1930s.  A mall shake mill began operating after the Second World War, employing up to 100 people in the 1950s, but by the time Jack Biggin-Pound and a friend staked some crown land in 1961 McGuire was again a quiet settlement.

“Picnic lunch at McGuire” from the Myrtle Philip Collection. Though probably taken in the 1930s, well before Jack Biggin-Pound lived there, this is believed to be the only photograph of McGuire at the Whistler Museum.

Though most of the old mills were no longer operational, the buildings and machinery (including and “A” frame crane type machine with a large engine and winch, all bolted to tree trunks as skids) were still there, if only for a short while.

Jack recalled, “One weekend I was surprised to find a large flat bed railcar on the mill site siding.  A workman arrived and started up the winch diesel and within two hours had persuaded the “A” frame contraption to ensconce itself on the flatbed railcar, and by the next weekend it was gone.”

Over the next couple of years the machinery left at the mill disappeared piece by piece and the buildings were neglected to the point where a winter storm was able to flatten what was left.

Staking crown land required that $600 in improvements be made to the property over five years.  For years Jack and his sons, Tony and Dennis, travelled to McGuire on weekends, constructing a cabin before moving in full-time in 1963.

Construction did not always go smoothly.  They finished the floor just before winter and left the timber for the walls and roof stacked and covered on the floor.  When they returned in May they discovered someone had used their building materials as firewood.  The timbers had been crisscrossed and burnt in the middle, leaving pieces “about three feet long with one burnt end.”  Not the most useful of building materials.

Jack remembered exploring the area, finding old trails and the remains of an old bridge that once spanned the Cheakamus River.  He also spent time visiting neighbours; during the winters he was invited down to the McKenzie homestead to listen to Hockey Night in Canada on their radio on Saturday nights and would visit Ken and Edna Stockdale who lived near the water tank between Brandywine and Garibaldi.

Santa used to put in appearances at Myrtle Philip Elementary around Christmas time each year. Photo: Whistler Question, Week of December 20, 1978

When Whistler Mountain opened in 1966 Jack worked providing refreshments on the mountain (Jack’s son Tony also worked on Whistler Mountain and was the one to push out the first gondola on opening day).

Jack played a very important role in the area: Santa.  Jack closed his recollections of the area with the seasonally appropriate words: “Never again will Myrtle Philip undo my flies, to the great amusement of everyone, to stuff a pillow in to make me a more portly Santa Claus for the school children.  They all tried hard but I don’t think the children ever found out who Santa was.”

Train Wreck Mystery Revealed

Train Wreck – the site of several abandoned box cars just south of Function Junction – has always been a little bit of a mystery to visitors.

We had always known that it had been there since the 1950s, but apart from that we knew very little about it. In 2013, our “Museum Musings” column in the Whistler Question newspaper featured the “mysterious” train wreck. We were subsequently approached by two members of the Valleau family (who ran a big logging operation in Mons at the time of the accident) who set the record straight once and for all.

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The abandoned box cars have been given new life by Whistler’s artist community.

The first to approach us, Rick Valleau, remembered his father talking about the train wreck. The second, Rick’s uncle Howard Valleau, actually remembered the incident first-hand!

Museum staff are frequently asked about Train Wreck’s backstory, so  we are delighted to have these accounts which shed light on one of Whistler’s most unique attractions.

Here, therefore, is the firsthand account of the definitive guide to Train Wreck: The crash occurred in 1956 shortly after the Valleau family had moved to the area. The wreck happened on an area of track constricted by rock cuts, and there were three boxcars loaded with lumber jammed in there, blocking the line. The PGE Railway’s equipment couldn’t budge them so the company approached the Valleau family.

The Valleaus took their logging machinery (a couple of D8 Cats) down to the site, put a hitch (luff) on with two moving blocks to the boxcar and pried them out. They then dragged the cars up the track and into the forest, where they lie today. To all those who were confused by the fact that there is no damage to the trees around the wreck, this is because the train did not come off the rails at this point, but the boxcars were moved there after the fact.

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The unique ambiance of these colourfully graffitied boxcars amidst mature, open forest (not to mention the impressive mountain bike stunts) makes for one of the Whistler Valley’s favourite attractions.

The train had been assembled in Lillooet by John Millar, a conductor for the PGE. Millar told the story to Howard Valleau, as follows: The train had four engines. There was a mistake made on the tonnage of the train, making it too heavy, and they had to split the train to get up the grade to Parkhurst (on Green Lake). This put them behind schedule, and they tried to make up time by  travelling a little faster than usual. The speed limit on that section of rail was only 15 mph (24 km/h). The fourth engine turned a rail, causing the train wreck. They checked the tape in the engine, which told how fast they were going – the crew had thought the speed was 15mph, but in fact it was 35 mph (56 km/h).

Millar told Howard Valleau that had they known the actual speed, they would have taken the tapes out. The engineer and crew were subsequently fired after the investigation into the wreck.

Access to the Trainwreck site has in recent years been complicated by the fact that it involved a sustained stretch of walking on the train tracks – illegal trespassing. We are very excited to spread the news that the RMOW has overseen the construction of a pedestrian bridge across the Cheakamus River, providing alternative, legal  access to the outdoor museum and impromptu art gallery. We hope you are able to go visit the Trainwreck, for the first or the fiftieth time, again soon.

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The Pacific Great Eastern Railroad

The construction of Rainbow Lodge in 1914 is recognized as a seminal moment in our valley’s history, and deservedly so. But something else happened that same year that is equally important to the creation of a tourism industry and Whistler’s early history.

When Alex & Myrtle Philip first visited Alta Lake in 1911, it famously took them three days to get here from Vancouver, by boat and on foot. That all changed with the completion of the first leg of the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) Railway in 1914.

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The route to Alta Lake, pre-PGE. Myrtle & Alex Philip coming up the Pemberton Trail on their first visit in August 1911.

Now, somebody leaving Vancouver early in the morning could ride a steamship to Squamish, transfer to the passenger car on the train right by the waterfront, and be at Rainbow Lodge in time for dinner. Not quite the speed of today’s Sea-to-Sky Highway, but a drastic improvement nonetheless.

This was not just a nice creature comfort; this was essential for the nascent tourist trade.

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The rugged Cheakamus Canyon, roughly halfway between Squamish and Alta Lake, was the main engineering challenge confronted by the new railway.

The railway was not built with tourism in mind. Linking Lillooet to Squamish (but not Vancouver), the PGE railway was built to service the heavier industries in the interior, particularly mining and forestry. Providing access to the coast was crucial for the development of a resource-based economy, as it allowed these heavy goods to be shipped overseas to market. Here in the valley, the railway led to an immediate increase in logging activity (think Parkhurst), and some mining operations (particularly iron and copper) got substantial enough to make use of the train as well.

Despite its seminal role in our valley, the PGE was mis-managed from the start. In 1915 the owner’s of the privately-held railway began missing bond payments, and the province of BC took over ownership a few years later.

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Riders were treated to a spectacular view of Brandywine Falls.

The original plan was for the railway to extend all the way to Prince George, the commercial centre of northern BC, where it could connect to the broader, nation-wide rail system. Even with provincial control however, this wan’t achieved until 1950, earning it tongue-in-cheek nicknames like “Province’s Great Expense” and “Prince George, Eventually.”

Regardless, it was a lifeblood of the early community of Alta Lake, not only bringing tourists, but provisions and supplies, transported locals to the city, and connected them to essential services that weren’t available here, like hospitals and (sometimes) schools.

And Rainbow Lodge was right in the centre of it all. There were several designated stops in the valley, but “Alta Lake,” adjacent to Rainbow Lodge’s front gate, was certainly the liveliest. You get a strong sense of the growth of the Philip’s retreat by simply comparing images of the train station over the years:

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Waiting for the train with a full load of passengers, circa 1915.

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Myrtle (waving, in black dress near centre) and Alex (plaid shirt, to her right) greeting visitors at the train station, circa late-1920s. 

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Coming or going? We’re not sure here, but either way, the Alta Lake train station was a welcoming place. Alex Philip at far left, in his trademark safari suit.

 

Even with the completion of the highway from Vancouver in 1965, passenger service continued on the PGE until 2002, by which point it had long been renamed as BC Rail.

Nowadays, there are frequent calls to restore and upgrade passenger rail service to Whistler and beyond, but there are a whole host of technical, logistical, and financial barriers making it an unlikely prospect.

 

The Post Office Post

This morning I woke up to beautiful, massive snowflakes falling over Whistler, and a substantial layer of powder already formed on the ground. It’s days like these that entice me to look through our archive for some old photographs of deep snow. Our collections are full of such pictures, and today I found a few especially endearing ones of Whistler’s first post office (covered in snow, of course).

Post office and store at Rainbow Lodge, 1914 or 1915. Verso reads "First winter, 1914-1915." Philip Collection.

Post office and store at Rainbow Lodge, 1914 or 1915. Verso reads “First winter, 1914-1915.” Philip Collection.

Before the PGE Railway ran to Whistler (then Alta Lake) in 1914, mail was sent and delivered by people passing through the valley to and from Vancouver – a less than reliable system. The completion of the railway made way for many conveniences such as mail delivery. In anticipation for the PGE Railway, Myrtle and Alex Philip (proprietors of Rainbow Lodge, Whistler’s very first resort lodge) included a post office in a small alcove in the lodge, and the office was later moved to their newly built general store. Myrtle became Alta Lake’s first postmaster in 1915, and she would often wake up before dawn to collect the mail packet from the train.

Myrtle Philip and her dog standing outside the post office, ca. 1930. Philip Collection.

Myrtle Philip and her dog standing outside the post office, ca. 1930. Philip Collection.

Although the progress of the PGE allowed for a more reliable mail delivery service, there was still one major issue; the first post office address was Summit Lake, B.C., which was often confused with another Summit Lake in the province. Thus, mail was frequently sent to the wrong destination. This conflict immediately prompted a name change to “Alta Lake, B.C.,” which made delivering and receiving mail a little more consistent.

Post office with Christmas tree, ca. 1930. Philip Collection.

Post office with Christmas tree, ca. 1930. Philip Collection.

In the beginning, mail came in on all trains, four times per week. On Monday and Thursday the mail came direct from Vancouver. On Wednesday and Saturday it came from Vancouver via Ashcroft and Lillooet and was usually a lighter load. The PGE had a mail car with a mail attendant on the train. Everyone in town gathered at Rainbow on mail days to collect their mail, pick up their newspapers, and of course, socialize.

Myrtle Philip remained postmaster for almost 40 years. In 1948, after Alec and Audrey Greenwood purchased Rainbow Lodge, the position fell to Audrey.

Canada Day Parade and the 100th Anniversary of the PGE

Canada Day was an absolute blast in the village and at the museum!

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Andy Petersen and Sarah Drewery enjoying a rest.

This year, the theme for the parade was Earth, Wind Fire and Water.  In true museum style, we decided to attack the parade theme by blending it with a little bit of history. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the PGE Railway to Whistler; thus, we decided to build a cardboard train as our float. Oh sure, no problem, a cardboard train to fit five humans, no big deal! Not quite. Original design flaws and general limitations made for an intensive week of construction. Alas, we prevailed and our tireless efforts certainly paid off after seeing the enthusiasm from children and adults alike.

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The museum crew in full attire.

The Canada Day parade was also a great opportunity for us to talk about the actual PGE (Pacific Great Eastern) Railway, which is a remarkable piece of Whistler’s history.  As you could imagine, it was no easy feat traveling to Whistler over 100 years ago before the train.  In fact, before the railway laid its tracks to Whistler, it would take three days–two of which on foot–to make the trip from Vancouver.

This three-day journey consisted of taking a steamship from Vancouver to Squamish, followed by a horse-drawn buggy a few miles north to Brackendale, until finally renting packhorses and walking the rest of the way along the Pemberton Trail.  Let’s just say the population of Whistler (known as Alta Lake at the time) was much, much smaller then.

Grace Woollard traverses the Pemberton Trail to Whistler in 1912.

Grace Woollard traverses the Pemberton Trail to Whistler in 1912.

Cue the PGE Railway in triumph! Backed by the provincial government, the PGE was underway in 1912. Contractors Foley, Welsh & Stewart were hired to build the track from Squamish to Prince George. A ribbon of land 100 feet wide plus 15 feet for sidetrack was cleared. The PGE was open and running by October 11, 1914, making Whistler much more accessible.

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Speeder on the PGE Railway.

A very interesting thing to note about the PGE is its inapt acronym. The railway could not really be considered pacific, great, or eastern. This baffling cipher allowed the company to acquire many unofficial names, such as Please Go Easy, Past God’s Endurance and Prince George Eventually.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the PGE Railway to Whistler, Sarah Drewery (Executive Director) will continue featuring stories of the train in her weekly Question Newspaper article throughout the year. Stay tuned!

The “Fishy” History of Rainbow Trout in Whistler

The rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is native to streams, rivers, and lakes along the west coast of North America from Alaska to northern Mexico. This fish can live its entire life in freshwater when confined to land-locked bodies of water, but it also has a migratory form, known as steelhead trout, which feeds at sea before returning to its birthplace to spawn. The rainbow trout is notable because it has been widely introduced throughout the world – non-native populations can now be found on every continent except Antarctica.

This beastie has made its mark on Whistler by way of a common misconception. Locals know that the name “Rainbow” can be found all over Whistler – Rainbow Mountain, Rainbow Lodge (now Rainbow Park), the Rainbow Building, and the new Rainbow subdivision. Many people (including the staff here at the museum!) believed until very recently that these places and landmarks were named after the rainbow trout, due to its natural abundance in our lakes and rivers.  But early accounts of the area indicate that cutthroat trout (O. clarki) were the primary species being caught by early patrons of Rainbow Lodge, and that rainbow trout weren’t introduced to Alta Lake until the 1920s, nearly 10 years after the lodge was named!

Whistler has a long history with fishing, as the fishing industry was one of the first attractions to bring in tourists. Rainbow Lodge was the first and only holiday destination built in the valley before 1914, when the Pacific Great Eastern Railway was built. At this time, other entrepreneurs began building accommodations most notably for fishing holidays. Now, we know that fishing was a main attraction in early Whistler days and that Myrtle and her guests were catching trout; however, our archival photos are not clear enough to determine the species definitively.

Margaret Tapley, Edna, & her husband Don McRae with dog Ki, fishing from the log bridge to Tracks, Myrtle's tent house. 1915. Inscription reads: Rainbow 1915. Philip Collection.

Margaret Tapley, Edna, & her husband Don McRae with dog Ki, fishing from the log bridge to Tracks, Myrtle’s tent house. 1915. Inscription reads: Rainbow 1915.
Philip Collection.

One of Whistler’s earliest fishing enthusiasts, a Mr. Billy Bailiff, refers to “Kamloops trout” in his 1956 article, “History of Alta Lake.” This is a moniker given to rainbow trout found in the interior of British Columbia (particularly around Kamloops, believe it or not). Most introduced rainbow trout in B.C. are descended from the Pennask Lake strain, which is known for its ability to conserve fat, making these fish well suited for long winters and the low temperatures of high-elevation lakes – sound familiar? This strain is also notoriously “spirited,” meaning that they put up a good fight when hooked, much to the delight of the sport fisher.

Myrtle Philip and Grace Naismith with freshly-caught large fish, Mahood Lake. 1949 Philip Collection

Myrtle Philip and Grace Naismith with freshly-caught large fish, Mahood Lake. 1949.
Philip Collection.

So, then, how do we explain the ubiquity of the “Rainbow” label around town? It seems to have originated with the mountain, rather than the fish.  How the mountain got its name is still uncertain. Perhaps the early settlers in the area were often treated to a rainbow arching over the mountain after a storm – sounds like a memorable sight!

– Written by guest blogger Jeanette Bruce