Tag Archives: PGE Railway

DeBeck Letters: Life After Parkhurst

When going through accounts of life at Parkhurst one name that keeps coming up is Denis DeBeck.

Denis DeBeck poses with some ties and the dog Micky. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis DeBeck was the eldest of six siblings.  Two of his younger brothers, Ward and Keary, also worked a few summers at Parkhurst.  It was during those years that their mother brought the younger three children, Betsy, Nedra and Fred, to stay on Green Lake as well.

The DeBecks came from the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver where the children all attended school.  Denis graduated from Magee High School in 1928 and got his first job at Coast Quarries.  Over the next few years he worked various jobs, including a stint as his father’s office boy.  In 1932 he began working for B.C. Keeley (who bought Parkhurst in 1933) at his mill in Marpole.  A year later Denis was on the train bound for Parkhurst (in a snowstorm, according to his letters) where he would work on and off for the next five years.

Dorothy DeBeck outside Parkhurst. Photo: DeBeck Collection

During these years he married Dorothy, a friend of his cousin Barbara.  After the original mill burnt down in 1938 the DeBecks left Parkhurst and in 1940 Denis and his partner John Brunzen opened their own small portable mill at 43.5 Mile on the PGE Railway.  This was also the year Denis and Dorothy had their first daughter, Wilma.  Their second, Barbara May, came after they moved the mill to 48.8 Mile.

We are fortunate at the museum to have copies of letters written by Denis to his brother Keary between 1943 and 1944, when Keary was serving in the RCAF overseas.

The letters provide a glimpse into life in British Columbia during the Second World War and into the DeBeck family.  Denis provided his brother with family news and commented on the updates Keary sent about their brother Fred who was recovering from a plane crash.  When Fred returned to Canada their roles switched and Denis provided the updates.  While living at 48.8 Mile the DeBeck family appears to have communicated often through letters and visits, described once by Denis as “a three week raid on Victoria” where their parents had moved.

Wilma DeBeck and another girl on the PGE tracks. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis also sent his brother news of the mills in the area in his first few letters.  By November 1943 he was already looking for the next location for his portable mill, expecting to finish the timber at 48.8 Mile by the next April.  Locations mentioned were Nita Lake, D’Arcy and Squamish.

Alf Gebhart’s house in the 1930s.  The Gebharts had a mill in the valley, but weren’t necessarily having the best year. Photo: Debeck Collection

From his news, mills did not appear to be having the best year.  As Denis put it, “Poor old Parkhurst.  Same old story, out of logs.  They are only running a 7 hour day and still run out of logs.”  There was also trouble with logs at Lost Lake and for the Gebhart’s mill.

In a letter from March 1944 Denis describes the new tool being used to fell the last of the timber at 48.8 Mile.  “We bought one of those power chainsaws and it works pretty good but not as well as we thought it would.  Very good for falling but no good for bucking in the woods.”  Despite taking awhile to start up, he claimed the sawing was “4 or 5 times as fast as hand sawing.”

Despite his predictions of moving soon, the DeBeck family was still at 48.8 Mile in October of 1944.  Though the letters we have stop there, the family moved to Squamish in 1945 and Denis continued to operate his own sawmills.  He lived there until his death in 2007 at the age of 96.

Whistler Before the Sea-to-Sky

Whistler’s steep, mountainous terrain is what makes it so attractive as a tourist destination. It’s perfect for skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, and hiking. However, those same rocky hills have been one of it’s greatest challenges, providing a frustrating barrier for tourists and residents alike.  For the first non-indigenous settlers, the area was only accessible by a narrow path known as the Pemberton Trail, constructed in 1877. This trail, which ran from Burrard Inlet, around the far side of Alta Lake, and up to Lillooet, was intended to provide access to the Gold Rush.

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The Pemberton Trail would have ran around Alta Lake’s far shores. Photo: Philip Collection

Unfortunately, by the time the trail was constructed the rush was basically over. An attempt was made to take cattle down it, but most of them died, due to the lack of grazing and the difficult terrain. With no other use for it, the Pemberton Trail functioned as an occasional route for travelers. The trail took three days, by steamship and by foot, assisted by a packhorse. In those days, horses were an important asset. Travelers carried supplies on packhorses, as did Myrtle and Alex Philip, founders of the area’s first resort. They also used a series of workhorses to construct Rainbow Lodge- to simplify things, all the horses were called “Bob”.

The train tracks also provided a ready-made sidewalk for Alta Lake and Parkhurst residents. Photo: Philip Collection

Many of the area’s inhabitants hoped the construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway would make access easier. The PGE had multiple false starts- a company was incorporated to build it in 1891, and by 1909 twelve miles of track were completed, when they ran short of funds and had to stop.

By the time construction began in earnest in 1912 the railway had acquired a number of despairing nicknames, among them  “Province’s Great Expense”, “Past God’s Endurance”, and “Prince George Eventually”.  Finally, in 1914, the railway was up and running from Squamish to Quesnel, and soon resorts, logging, and other industries began to spring up in the area. Transit was still anything but easy. The journey involved four to six hours on steamship from Vancouver to Squamish, and a further three to four hours to Alta Lake, as the train only went from 25 to 40 km/h and often had to stop to refuel. The train ride was upgraded through the years, including the addition of open-topped observation cars and a dinner service. Though the journey was long, it wasn’t unpleasant- travelers often enjoyed ice cream, or beer if they were older, as they waited in Squamish. There were also stops for afternoon tea at Rainbow Lodge, costing 35 cents.

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The creation of the PGE made it easy to travel in style. Photo; Philip Collection

Despite these improvements, the journey was still a long one. In the sixties, the Garibaldi Lift Company, hoping to set up skiing in the area, realized that something more convenient would be necessary in order to draw in tourists. A “road” was built from Whistler to Squamish in 1962, although it was. Initially the track was mostly fist-sized rocks and dirt, and driving across streams was sometimes required. 

The trail was plowed infrequently, making winter journeys treacherous. Tire punctures were common, and the first trips from Vancouver took five hours. Thankfully, the road was paved in 1966, and improvement has continued up to the present. The most recent upgrades were for the 2010 Olympics, cutting the travel time down to the two hours we enjoy today.  Although travel time has ranged from multiple days to a matter of hours, people have always felt Whistler was worth the trip.

Highway 99, shortly after it’s creation- still not paved! Photo: Gord Leidal

 

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.”