Whistler: A Brief History

While the Whistler Valley is known globally as a world-class mountain resort and host of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, its history is much more diverse.

The Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Nation and L̓il̓wat7úl Nation have been the ancestral stewards of these lands since time immemorial. Over thousands of years they built vibrant, distinct cultures through an intimate relationship with the natural landscape. As well as seasonal camps in the area now known as Whistler, for many years, Spo7ez was a shared village between the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Nation and L̓il̓wat7úl Nation, where people from both nations came together to trade.  Spo7ez was located in what is today called the Callaghan Valley, at the junction of Rubble Creek and the Cheakamus River.  According to oral histories, Spo7ez was destroyed by a landslide in the mid-1800s.

Indigenous peoples throughout the lands now known as Canada have been displaced from their lands and cultural practices through colonization for centuries, through legislations such as the Indian Act, the creation of Indian Reserves and pre-emption of land by European settlers, and Indian Residential Schools.  For more information on the past, present, and future of the the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Nation and L̓il̓wat7úl Nation, visit the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Center.

The first non-indigenous visitors to the Whistler Valley were William Downie, a Scottish veteran of the California gold rush (a “49er”), and Joseph Mackay, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee (a fur trader, not a retail clerk), along with four assistants and three Lil’wat guides. The party had been commissioned by the colonial government to explore the territory between Lillooet Lake (Pemberton) and Howe Sound (Squamish) in September 1858, hoping to find a better coastal access route to the booming gold mines of the B.C. interior.

Their guides brought them along a series of pre-existing trails. The surrounding landscape impressed Downie and Mackay, particularly the remnants of a recent, massive landslide from The Barrier, above where Daisy Lake lies today. Dwindling rations, however, forced  the men to press on to to the coast before exploring the surrounding mountains.

The first European settlers to live on the land that the Resort Municipality of Whistler now inhabits arrived in the 1880s. By this point the Pemberton Trail had been completed, connecting Howe Sound through Pemberton to Lillooet and the interior. At the time the Whistler area was known as Summit Lake, BC, after the lake that flows both north towards Pemberton, and south towards the coast. This lake, and the surrounding community, was renamed Alta Lake (Latin for “high”) sometime around 1910 to avoid confusion with several other Summit Lakes throughout the province.

One of the first European settlers to arrive was John Millar, a Texan with a checkered past. Millar supported himself through trapping and running a stopping house at the junction of the Pemberton Trail and what soon became known as Millar’s Creek, near today’s Function Junction.

John Millar in front of his cabin, August 1911.

In 1911, Millar met Alex Philip during a trip to Vancouver to sell furs. He invited Alex and his wife Myrtle to experience the superb fishing on the chain of lakes near his cabin. Myrtle and Alex Philip, both from the state of Maine, had moved to the west coast with dreams of opening their own fishing lodge and resort.

Myrtle & Alex Philip coming up the Pembrton Trail on their first visit to Alta Lake, August 1911.

Over the next three years, the Philips visited Summit Lake several times. Back then, the journey from Vancouver took three days, requiring a ride on a steamship to Squamish followed by a two-day hike up the rough Pemberton Trail with rented pack horses.

In 1913 the Philips purchased ten acres of land on the northwest corner of Alta Lake for $700, with the intention of building the wilderness fishing lodge of their dreams.

Some of Myrtle’s family, the Tapleys, came from Maine to help with construction. By 1914 Rainbow Lodge fishing resort was completed. It had four bedrooms, a large living/dining area, and a kitchen.

This was the same year that the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) reached Alta Lake, meaning that the Whistler Valley was now accessible in a single day from a rapidly growing Vancouver.

This level of accessibility, combined with legendary hospitality, a spectacular setting, and excellent fishing, allowed the Philips to expand Rainbow Lodge with cabins until it could accommodate 100 people. By the late 1920s it was considered the most popular tourist resort west of Banff.

Rainbow Lodge and surrounding developments, 1930s.

Alex Philip was an incurable romantic and writer of fiction novels. It was Alex who conceived such lyrical local place names as the “Bridge of Sighs” and the “River of Golden Dreams and Romance.” Much-loved for her strong, warm spirit, Myrtle was a tireless community organizer centrally responsible for many important developments such as the construction of the valley’s first school.

As Rainbow Lodge grew, so did the community of  Alta Lake. Starting in the 1930s, several other lodges and cabins were built around Whistler ‘s lakes to serve the summer tourist trade. Logging was also very profitable, and employed many local residents.  For several years there were a few sizable mills and lumber operations including the Barrs at Parkhurst Mill on Green Lake, and the Gebharts with the Rainbow Lumber Company on Alta Lake. Numerous mining operations came and went, and there was even a mink and marten farm on Green Lake! (For more stories from the this era, click here.)

Parkhurst Mill, with Wedge Mountain above. Winter 1936.

The Philip’s operated Rainbow Lodge until 1948 when they sold it to Alec and Audrey Greenwood. After retirement, the Philip’s chose to live on Alta Lake for the rest of their lives.

Myrtle & Alex Philip on Alta Lake, mid-1960s.

Both had a chance to witness major changes to their beloved valley, as Alex passed away in 1968 at the age of 86 and Myrtle lived until the ripe old age of 95. Today, one of Whistler’s elementary schools is still known as Myrtle Philip Community School in her honour.

Unfortunately, Rainbow Lodge burned down in 1977, but today the area has been renewed as Rainbow Park. Some of the original guest cabins and a replica of “the Bridge of Sighs” are still standing at the park, right next to Whistler’s largest public beach.

Meanwhile, events during the early 1960s would again change the valley forever.

Inspired by the exciting success of the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics in California, a group of Vancouver businessmen began to dream of building a ski resort and bringing the Winter Olympics to the Coast Mountains, just north of Vancouver. The Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) was formed, led by Norwegian-born Franz Wilhelmsen, and soon after, London Mountain in Garibaldi Provincial Park was chosen as their potential site. At this time there was still no road, no electricity, no piped water and no sewers servicing Alta Lake, at the foot of London Mountain.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

From 1962 to 1965 Garibaldi Lifts Limited, a sister organization to GODA, raised funds and began the development of the ski area. As well, in 1965 London Mountain’s name was officially changed to Whistler Mountain, which Alta Lake locals had long called the mountain because of the whistling sound of hoary marmots which greeted summer hikers.

Building the original Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler, summer 1965.

The first lifts were built on the south side of Whistler Mountain, starting from the area known as Creekside today (active mining claims prevented building lifts on the north side of the mountain). By the fall of 1965 several lifts had been installed, including: a four-person gondola to the mountain’s mid-station, a double chairlift to the alpine tree line, and two T-bars. A day lodge and several ski runs accompanied these new lifts.

By 1965 the Provincial Government had completed a narrow gravel road from Vancouver, which followed a rough service road under the large hydro towers leading to Bridge River. That same year a substation supplied by the Bridge River hydro lines was also constructed, finally providing electricity to Alta Lake.

Finally, on January 15, 1966 Whistler Mountain officially opened for skiing, and a new era in Canadian skiing began.

Franz Wilhelmsen points to his new ski resort, winter 1966.

GODA made a total of four separate bids for the Winter Olympics. In 1968 Vancouver/Garibaldi won the Canadian nomination for the 1976 proposed site.  When Montreal was awarded the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, however, Garibaldi’s bid ended as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would not allow both summer and winter games in the same country.

Fuelled by the ski area’s success, Alta Lake began experiencing rapid, unplanned, and somewhat chaotic growth. Condo developments sprang up around Creekside and elsewhere in the valley. Meanwhile free-spirited ski bums who wanted to ski tons and live on the cheap began occupying empty buildings (such as at Parkhurst and the infamous Toad Hall, an abandoned logging camp) or building their own rustic cabins, often squatting on Crown land.

George Benjamin outside one of the most renowned dwellings of the era, Tokum Corners. Unlike many ski-bum homes, it was legal.

In 1974 the Provincial NDP Government was interested in developing tourism in BC and took a number of steps affecting Whistler. This included a land freeze and a development study which resulted in the creation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler on September 6, 1975, the first resort municipality in Canada.

In 1977, calls for development proposals for Blackcomb Mountain were issued and a community plan was visualized which saw the creation of a tourist village where Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains converge. At the time this site was the community garbage dump.

Whistler Village under construction, summer 1979.

Blackcomb Mountain opened as a separate ski area in December of 1980, creating one of the largest ski complexes in North America. Whistler and Blackcomb boasted the two longest vertical drops of any ski areas on the continent. With the new village and rapidly expanding  ski areas, the pace of change in the valley accelerated further.

Skiers break for a picnic on Whistler Mountain, 1980s.

In 1992 Snow Country Magazine, one of North America’s most prominent ski magazines, voted Whistler Resort the Number One Ski Resort in North America, the first of many accolades to come. In 1998 Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains merged under the direction of a company called Intrawest, a move many saw as inevitable. The following summer the Whistler Mountain Bike Park opened, quickly becoming a global attraction in its own right as Whistler continues to evolve into a year-round resort.

In 1997, the RMOW met with the L̓il̓wat7úl Nation to consult about opportunities for the Nation’s participation and presence in Whistler, BC.  Mindful of the historic precedence of shared lands and the overlapping interests in land stewardship, the L̓il̓wat7úl Nation met with the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Nation in 1999 to discuss land use and planning in areas of traditional territory overlap.  This resulted in the two Nations signing a Protocol Agreement in 2001, formalizing their mutual relationship.  This Protocol Agreement committed to continued co-operation in matters of cultural and economic development and co-management of shared territory.  This was the first agreement of its kind in Canada.

On July 2, 2003 a dream almost fifty years in the making finally came true. Whistler, in partnership with Vancouver, won the bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Once again development in Whistler (and Vancouver, as well as along the Sea-To-Sky Highway which links the two) skyrocketed.

On February 12, 2010, the official opening ceremonies of XXI Olympic Winter Games took place in Vancouver.  From then until March 19, 2010, Whistler welcomed the world and celebrated the reality of its Olympic Dream, with the Paralympic Games closing ceremonies taking place in Whistler Village.  The Games took place on the traditional territories of the Four Host First Nations: the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Nation, the L̓il̓wat7úl Nation, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Crowds watch the Gold Medal hockey game in Village Square. Photo: Anastasia Chomlack / RMOW.

Today, a post-Olympic Whistler is deciding what comes next. A changing global economy and a changing climate are leading many to strive for diversification of our economy beyond skiing. Others insist that enough is enough, that decades of outward and upward expansion must be halted if we are to preserve our region’s natural charms. As our nearly 10,000 permanent residents look to the future, it seems certain that the coming 100 years will be as exciting and unpredictable as the past century.


In addition to the stories shared on this blog, more on-line content on the history of Whistler can be found on our main website.

26 responses to “Whistler: A Brief History

  1. Hello,
    I love the site, especially the old pictures.

    One comment: It seems misleading to refer to the Peak to Peak as connecting “the summits” of Whistler and Blackcomb. This implies the lift goes from one summit to the other. Perhaps it would be better to say it connects “the alpine areas”.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Mark Jennings

    Good work! Love the picture of Parkhurst. I have never seen this picture before.

    • Thanks Mark, glad you liked it! The Parkhurst photo was new to me as well. There are still tens of thousands of photos in our archives that I’ve never had a chance to look at, so we’ll probably uncover plenty more gems in the future.

  3. My brother Dr. Leslie Mason was the first doctor when Mt Whistler ski lift opened

    He patched up many people in those first years. Best regards Lee

  4. Great site. I as well was pleased to see the old Parkhurst shots.
    I squated there in the summer of 96 and even took my Nana over to see the old remains. Hope to see more. Justin Coleman

  5. this site helped me alot with my project


  6. I recently saw an old map of BC released by the City of Vancouver archives and I was wondering why other nearby mountains were labelled, but Whistler wasn’t there. The article says that Whistler was originally called Summit Lake. I guess that explains it!

  7. Great work. Need to expand on when Alpine and Emerald were built. Also the link to your website didn’t work for me.

    • Hi Judith,
      We hope to be increasing our information on Alpine and Emerald soon as we recently received donations that deal with the development of both neighbourhoods! Thank you for letting us know about the link – it has now been fixed and should take you to the Whistler Museum website.

  8. hi. i was just wondering if you have much information on the ski hill ” ski rainbow”. i know it was not big like whistler but it was a big part of whistler in the late 60s to late 70s. i know this because i grew up there. my grandparents built ski rainbow. it was a very busy little hill . many people learned to ski there. even Nancy Green taught her boys to ski there. please do not let this be forgotten, i know it,s in my heart forever and i,m sure many more. thanks for your time. Brian Clausen

    • Hi Brian,
      We do have some information but our Ski Rainbow collection is not nearly as big as it could be. We’re always looking out for new information and hope to be growing our collection on the subject soon. Ski Rainbow is a very important part of Whistler’s history as well as your family’s and we know there are many people in town who still remember the times they spent skiing and working there. If there’s any information you’re looking for or you would like to contribute to the information we do have, please don’t hesitate to come by the museum or contact our Collections Manager at archives@whistlermuseum.org.
      Thanks for reaching out!

      • Brian Clausen

        Hi. I would love to try and get you more or all information that my family has. Sad thing is my grandparents destroyed all the videos they had but I know my parents have some. I will try to get copies of them for your archives. Feel free to contact me by phone if you have any questions that I may be able to answer for you. Brian Clausen. Thanks 😊

  9. Does the museum plan on presenting any of the history of the Jordan family in the future?

    • Hi Robert,
      We do not currently have any specific plans, though we do try to share the history of as many individuals and families from Alta Lake as we can through our weekly column, photographs and this blog. We do have some information on the Jordan family, mostly about Russ Jordan and Jordan’s Lodge, but the history of the Jordan family at Alta Lake is certainly not complete. We hope to share the information we do have soon!
      Thanks for contacting us!

  10. I am in Whistler annually to visit my son and his family. I am intrigued will the bike trail named “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Could you please enlighten me as to the history of this trails name?
    Thank you in advance for your help in this matter.


  12. Gunnar Forsstrom

    Greetings. I recall seeing the 1991 Canada Cup national team practise there. Hiw’s my memory. Thanks. Gunnar.

  13. Further to the Whistler museum’s presentation on Rainbow Ski Hill back in late January 2018…i missed mentioning that there was a fairly substantial mining claim in behind the actual ski hill…apparently little or no minerals were ever taken out for profit . The claim was registered on title at the time i purchased the property from Norm Patterson…..(( late 1970’s ) …..current owners might want to take notice…..property is now all subdivided into single and multi family and commercial lots….may want to pursue the details of the mining claim…..perhaps certain valuable metals may have been overlooked….Tom Jarvis

  14. Who was the Finn who used to hang out at Tapleys Tavern in the late 60’s or 1970s?

  15. i stayed in zeppos bagpackers in whistler maybe 30 years ago whats happened to the place now

  16. Bruce Matheson

    Could it have been Daag Abbey?? …the Finn

    • Do not have any pictures and as far as i can remember Zepo built the log cabin himself and he came from eastern Europe it would have been quite unique as a bagpackers with a full size snooker table hot tub and sauna

  17. I remember the drive up in the sixties. We would leave East Van at 5:30 to get up in time for the first run on lovely, fresh, deep powder. Sunday morning breakfast at the base and there was an older Cowboy who lived out a ways and used to ride in for his Sunday breakfast. Lift tickets were $4.00 per day. Gondola. Red chair. Blue chair. Green chair and the Valley Tee Bar. No plumbing in the roundhouse and folks complained if there were more than 600 people in a day. The smell of leather ski boots drying on the edge of the roundhouse fireplace. Each country represented in a pie slice around the fireplace. You could tell the different countries by the smell of the food before the different languages. Peed under a fir tree until the outhouses were built. On special trips, we used to stay at the Alta Lake Lodge. I think a cabin cost about 8 or 10 dollars a night.

    When I got older and could drive, I slept on a cot under my pickup canopy in the parking lot (70’s).

    I haven’t been up there since before the Olympics. Too many people for my taste now.

    • hi Megan do you remember ever hearing about a youth hostel in whistler with a full size snooker table hot tubs sauna the owner was called zepo quite unique i would say 1989 approx

  18. Hi there, in your article you explain those are traditional territories of Four Host First Nations: the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Nation, the L̓il̓wat7úl Nation, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
    – What actual rights and benefits those Four First Nations have over their traditional territories in Whistler?
    – The Protocol Agreement signed in 2001 recognize the RMOW lands belong to the Host Four First Nations?
    – What representation those Four First Nation have at RMOW, and what degree of authority over RMOW decision making processes?
    – I understand residents in Whistler have been asked to express thanks to members of the Host Four First Nations for allowing the use of their ancestral territories. As legitimate owners of their ancestral territories at RMOW, do they have a choice?

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