Tag Archives: William MacDermott

When Trains Connected People to Alta Lake

When Bob Williamson first arrived at Alta Lake (now Whistler) in February of 1930, he found himself in a valley bearing little resemblance to the bustling resort town of today.  Even getting there was a completely different experience.

Bob came to work as a lineman for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, at the time the most common and reliable transportation to and from the valley, or, as Bob put it, “the only means of transportation with the outside world.”

Bob Williamson at work on the transmission lines, well before Alta Lake was able to access the electricity they carried.  Smith Collection.

For most people, travel was confined to four days of the week: north on Mondays and Thursdays, south on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Passengers travelling from Vancouver would leave on a Union Steamship at 9 am and, after switching to a train in Squamish, would arrive at Alta Lake about 4:30 pm.

The view of Brandywine Falls clearly shows the railway bridge which provided a unique view to passengers. Philip Collection.

When Bob’s wife Florence (Flo) joined him at Alta Lake in September, the pair travelled south, leaving their car in Lillooet and taking the train the rest of the way.

During the summer months a couple of special trains were added to the usual schedule.  An excursion train on Sunday ran from Squamish to Alta Lake and back and a Fisherman’s Special headed north to Lillooet on Saturday and back south on Monday.  Later, a third through train was added going north on Wednesdays and south on Fridays.

Today, the only trains that come through Whistler are either freight or the Rocky Mountaineer.  Those that passed through the valley in the 1930s were mixed trains, carrying a combination of freight and passengers.

They stopped at various restaurants along the way, including Rainbow Lodge when heading south, to provide meals for passengers until dining cars were added later in the 1930s.

 

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

Alta Lake had two railway stations, the Alta Lake Station at Mile 37 and the Rainbow Lodge Station at Mile 38.  Mileages were measured from the Squamish dock, where the railway began (when the railway was extended to North Vancouver in 1956 the mileages were changed to read from there, creating some confusion when looking at older documents).

Bob and Flo rented a cabin from Bill “Mac” MacDermott on the south end of Alta Lake.  As Mac usually rented his cabins out to summer visitors, he had to do a bit of winterizing when the Williamsons moved in year round.

By 1934, with the addition of a generator, a pump for indoor plumbing, a gas-powered washing machine and a propane fridge (possibly Alta Lake’s first refrigerator) Bob and Flo were comfortably settled.

Life at Alta Lake had quiet periods, but Bob remembered some exciting moments as well, one of which arrived on the train from Pemberton.  A woman was on her way to Vancouver to have her baby, but made it only as far as Rainbow Lodge.

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

There she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.  As Bob recalled, the boy was named Philip for Alex Philip and the girl Grace after Grace Woollard, a retired nurse living at Alta Lake who helped with the delivery.

In 1942, Bob and Flo left Alta Lake for Lillooet and a promotion within the railway.  By that time, float planes had started arriving in the valley, but the railway remained residents’ main connection between Alta Lake and the outside world.

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Air Travel to Alta Lake

For most of the year floatplanes overhead are a common sight (and sound) above Whistler.  Today, these planes land and take off from Green Lake – an everyday occurrence.  But in the 1920s floatplanes were an adventurous way to arrive at Alta Lake.

The first record of a floatplane landing on Alta Lake was on August 31, 1922.  While floatplanes were not a common mode of transport, a fair number did arrive and take off from the lake.

The first plane to land on Alta Lake, flown by Earl Leslie MacLeod.

In 2011, Betty Jane (BJ) Warner (nee Matheson) shared her memory of a floatplane landing on Alta Lake in the late 1920s.  She was only four or five years old at the time.

The Matheson children and their mother spent the summers of 1927 to 1934 at a cabin on the south end of Alta Lake.  Betty Jane’s father Robert Matheson stayed in Vancouver to work but sent up letters and supplies, most notably marshmallows.  The cabin was rented from William “Mac” MacDermott and Mac became a close friend to the family.  In the summers he chopped their firewood, checked the oil in the lamps, did general repairs when needed and went hiking with the Matheson siblings Jack, Claudia and Betty Jane; in winter he would spend Christmas Day with the Matheson family in Vancouver.

Mac, Mollie Stephenson and Lena Hanson at the cabin on Singing Pass en route to Red Mountain.

One day, Mac had taken Jack hiking, Claudia was reading n the shade and Betty Jane was paddling by the shore of Alta Lake with the young maid who came to keep an eye on her.  What happened next is best said in Betty Jane’s own words.

Suddenly, a loud thunderous sound and something deafening roared across the sky.  It reached the far end of the lake, seemed suspended, turned, then menacingly approached us, skimming the water like a giant torpedo.  It came lower and lower and as it became closer caused all about us to vibrate and rumble.

I was terrified and along with Evelyn (the maid) and the dog we fled into the cabin, followed by my mother, who, fearful of an overhead crash, ordered us to protect ourselves under a huge canvas that covered our woodpile.

It was my father, of course, and his pilot friend who chose that day to surprise his young family on what was, proudly for him, his first flight… What a let-down it must have been for him to be met by the dismal sigh of his terrified children huddled under a tarp and an upset wife, tearful and near fainting, scolding him for traveling in such a dangerous contraption.  My brother missed it all.

This was the first time Betty Jane had ever seen an airplane, a memory that remained with her for over eight decades.  As she recalled, “The Space Age was upon us, but to this young person the marvel of it all was the gigantic tin of Moonlight Marshmallows that came with it.”