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Tag Archives: Rainbow Substation
This week in the 1980s was apparently all about the kids of Whistler, with the majority of the photos having to do with the Myrtle Philip School sports day, ballet recitals and the Whistler Children’s Art Festival.
If you’ve been in Whistler over the past couple of months you probably experienced or heard about power outages around town, most notably on October 18 when most neighbourhoods experienced a loss of power.
The most common reason Whistler residents lose electricity seems to be from trees coming down on the lines due to rain, wind and snow storms. The recent outages remind us how dependent we are on electricity today but only 52 years ago using electricity in the Whistler valley was luxury and something of a rarity.
Residents of Alta Lake made do without connecting to the grid for decades. Ice blocks cut from Alta Lake and covered in sawdust provided refrigeration through the summer months. Wood stoves and fireplaces, as well as a few oil or coal furnaces, provided heat through the winter.
Individual properties used generators to provide their own power, though some were more reliable than others. Bob Williamson installed a wind-powered turbine at the south end of Alta Lake. As he recalled, “I thought there’d be a lot of wind there, but there was only enough to charge the batteries of the radio, but when the wind was blowing we had lights.”
At Rainbow and Hillcrest Lodges the Philips and Mansells installed generators that ran until 10 pm when the lights went off. Cypress Lodge, as well as a few neighbours, was powered by a water wheel and generator installed on Scotia Creek by Dick Fairhurst. Having a generator meant you could charge a battery-operated lamp to use after the generator was turned off for the night.
Even the Alta Lake School had a gas-powered generator for community use. It ran the weekly movies and played the records for dances, though dances always ended when the gas ran out.
Amenities such as gas-powered washing machines and propane fridges also appeared in the valley, though as Bob remembered, “In those days there was a lot of red tape to put these sort of things in, you had to get a permit, and in these days there was no one to do the inspecting so it was left to this Walter Giel to do the inspecting and he says to me, ‘I don’t known a damn thing about it, just you inspect it yourself.'”
Though Alta Lake had no hydro service, transmission lines did run through the valley as early as the 1930s. Bob Williamson even worked on the power lines in the 1940s, despite having no home access to the electricity they carried. More transmission lines were put in by BC Electric in the 1950s, connecting Seton Portage (about 25 km west of Lillooet) to Squamish. It was this project that first brought long-time resident Peter Alder to Alta Lake in 1956 as part of the construction crew.
It was almost 10 years later, just months before Whistler Mountain opened for skiing, that the Rainbow Substation (near Nesters) was completed and Alta Lake was able to utilize the power running through the valley.
Alex and Myrtle Philip were invited to officially open the substation on November 18, 1965, and Alex even got to flip the switch. Today it has become hard to imagine Whistler operating without power throughout the valley.
Don’t forget, this Tuesday (December 5) is our annual Big Kids LEGO Building Competition! We’ll provide the LEGO and electricity – you bring you ideas and skills.
Throughout BC we are blessed with an abundance of mighty rivers from which we get almost 90% of our electricity. Here in Whistler we’re surrounded by hydro-generating stations of all sizes, notably the IPP on Fitzsimmons Creek which provides for all of Whistler-Blackcomb’s electricity needs. [Correction – it produces the equivalent of all W-B’s electricity needs, but the power is sent to the province’s main power grid.]
Considering this natural bounty, it’s hard to believe that a mere 50 years ago Alta Lake residents had still not entered the modern electric era.
As Whistlerites have always been wont to do, a few residents took matters into their own hands. Bob Williamson installed a small wind-powered turbine at the south end of Alta Lake but it could only power a few lights when the wind picked up. Dick Fairhurst was more successful with the water-wheel and generator he installed on Scotia Creek in 1954, providing steady, reliable power for his Cypress Lodge (the old hostel building next to Rainbow Park). In later years the Philips had also purchased a gas-powered generator for Rainbow Lodge. But aside from these few enterprising DIY-ers, Alta Lake residents continued on with pre-electric living.
Heating was mostly from firewood (some residents had oil or coal-burning furnaces) and bed-time reading was done by candlelight or gas lantern. Refrigeration was accomplished in sheds full of thick ice blocks cut from Alta Lake in winter and insulated through the summer with sawdust from local mills.
This lack of hydro service must have been especially frustrating since high-voltage transmission lines ran through the valley as early as the 1930s, linking the Bridge River Hydro dam to Vancouver. At the same time there were plenty of plans for more hydro-development closer to home, including dams at Garibaldi Lake, Cheakamus Lake, on the Soo River and elsewhere, but that’s another story altogether.
Then in the late 1950s, BC Hydro built the Cheakamus Dam at Daisy Lake and another set of transmission lines linking Seton Portage to Squamish was constructed. Ironically, work crews for the power lines (which included a young Peter Alder, the influential ski area manager/developer who continues to call Whistler home) were even housed at the still-unserviced Rainbow Lodge for some time. Still, no infrastructure was provided to convert the 230,000 volts running through the valley into something a little more manageable for the residents of Alta Lake.
It wasn’t until November 1965, a few months before ski operations on Whistler Mountain began, that the Rainbow Substation was finally completed. It was only fitting that Alex and Myrtle Philip were the honourary guests at the opening ceremonies. In typically stylish fashion the Philips were a little late for the event, but as Alex noted, “after 54 years without hydro, what’s five minutes?”
Alex was granted the honour of actually flipping the switch that finally energized the valley. Unable to conceal the thrill of the moment, Alex let out an excited “I did it!” and a new era dawned upon the Whistler Valley. For the now-retired Philips this meant they could spend the winter at Alta Lake, instead of with friends in the city as they had in previous years.
And so a new era dawned for the Whistler Valley, albeit a little late. According to Wladek “Walter” Zebrowski‘s biography In Search of Freedom, the arrival of electricity almost prevented Whistler’s development into the massive resort it is today. While clearing his land near what would soon become Creekside in July 1964, Zebrowski was suddenly drawn from his work by the deafening roar of a helicopter setting down nearby:
A man got out–it was Bob Brown, a surveyor for the B.C. Hydro Corporation–and he informed Wladek that a power line was going to be put through his land.The forty meter wide line with transmission towers… was to cut through the whole valley (today the centre of town with the town and and four large residential areas). The plans had been already made, the land had been prepared and many tress had been cut out. He was here just to take the last measurements as the construction was to start very soon.
The book continues to recount how Zebrowski immediately halted working and drove to Vancouver to inform Franz Wilhelmson at the GLC offices. The next day they met with B.C. Hydro Chairman Dr. Gordon Shrum and convinced them to relocate the transmission line so as not to interfere with the planned ski area and adjoining residential developments. Instead, the high transmission lines run along the west side of the valley–the more populated side during the Alta Lake era–leaving room for Whistler to develop into its current state.