Whistler’s Evolution

Alta Lake, as the Whistler area was once known, was a blank canvas when Myrtle and Alex Philip arrived. On their newly acquired ten acres of land they set up a fishing lodge and were ready for business by the end of 1914. The Pacific Great Eastern (P.G.E) Railway line was finalised that same year, opening the valley up to the outside world. Rainbow Lodge was the prefect meal stop for the rail crews. With a new found working relationship, the PGE and the Philips collaborated on a plan to run fishermen’s tours up to Alta Lake giving the Philips’ business an opportunity to grow. And the evolution continues…

A Blank Canvas

The railway turned out to be a fundamental aspect to the lodge’s success, so much so that constant expansion was needed in order to cater for a hundred or more guests at a time. The initial additions were two log cabins to house a dormitory and two bedrooms. With a broad clientele from hikers to honeymooners, the areas popularity increased dramatically. By 1918 the grounds included a railway station, bridges, boardwalks, side verandas and a dining room. Along with Rainbow Lodge there were the cabins of trappers, prospectors and loggers; a small neighbourhood was evidently emerging. The opening of a post office and general store instigated by Myrtle Philip encouraged a community spirit. She appears to have been the leader of the community; running a business, taking on the role of postmistress and rounding up funds for the school. The first official school at Alta Lake was built in 1932 and Margaret Partridge was the first teacher of the small class of students who varied greatly in age.  Bob Jardine was fourteen by the time the school was established and he recalls his mother, Mrs Neiland, being “so furious to be taxed when there was no school that she started a movement to establish one.” [i]

When Bert and Agnes Harrop moved to the lake in the 1920s, they opened a tea room, which became a gathering point for both the residents and the tourists. Agnes supplied regular entertainment telling guests’ fortunes by reading the patterns left by leaves in their tea cups! The library of Flo Williamson and the gardens of Lizzie Jardine-Neiland added to the friendly spirit of Alta Lake — each resident contributed to the community. Grace Archibald was the creator of the social club in 1923 beginning with the first community picnic of 25 people. Saturday night dances for both tourists and locals were held at the community hall that doubled as the school with parties, meetings, poker and card nights as well as the popular fundraising concerts. Everyone attended the Saturday night dances and it was a great chance to socialize and party after a hard week’s work. Whistler’s population was slowly growing and continued throughout the area led to a humble but flourishing society. Nonetheless, the inhabitants still lacked a basic infrastructure; living without water, electricity or sewage facilities up until the 1960’s. Bob Williamson a PGE Lineman describes living at Alta Lake:

There was no indoor plumbing. We got our water supply from a well that served five cottages. The water was carried into the cottages in open buckets. Coal oil lamps were used for lighting and wood burning stoves for cooking and heating. I dug a well near our cottage and installed a pump and sink in the kitchen and a 60 gallon tank above the ceiling. This enabled us to have hot and cold water. The hot water heated in a coil in the kitchen stove.  [ii]

It was only the rise of skiing that brought electrical power to Whistler, the rainbow substation on Highway 99 was established in 1964-65 for the ski lifts and the substation for hydro enabled homes to have accessible electricity. Prior to this, a generator had powered both Rainbow and Cypress lodges. Some homes installed water wheels, however, the unreliability of adverse weather conditions was very troublesome during the winter season with creeks freezing over or becoming snowed under. Wood stoves and fireplaces provided heat for warmth but also for bathing, cooking, baking, washing clothes and cleaning.

Olympic Glory?

Whistler and the Olympics go hand in hand with one another and there had been numerous attempts to achieve Olympic glory prior to the success of the 2010 Olympic bid. The early 1960s made way for a new era in Whistlers history and the events that took place from that point on would change the course of the valley’s life forever. The Garibaldi Olympic Development Association was formed in 1960, a non-profit organization led by a group of business men from Vancouver all sharing a passion for skiing. The group’s objectives were to have the “Whistler Mountain area in the North of Garibaldi Park selected as the site for the 1968 Winter Olympic Games and generally to promote the development of that area of the Park as one of the world’s outstanding summer and winter areas.” [iii]  The committee felt that the area was developed enough to hold the 1968 games. Sydney Dawes, a member of the Olympic committee came to visit the area by air; he assessed the suitability of the place concluding that Whistler had great potential to be a candidate. Upon further exploration by foot the Olympic committee realised that the village’s infrastructure was not up to standards, it lacked the developmental needs and furthermore the inconvenience of the journey to and from Vancouver was a deciding factor. The bid was lost to rival resort Banff.  Howver, hope was not abandoned; the unlimited terrain of the Garibaldi Mountain range was duly noted for future reference and the committee’s hopes of eventually wining a bid were not completely shattered. The Garibaldi Lift Company had dreams of developing the ski area and in 1965 they hired a contracting company to build a road from the valley up to middle of Whistler Mountain, known as the gondola mid-station. The logging company at Whistler felled and removed the timber in order to build the road and the downhill slopes. The North Vancouver to Squamish trail was extended further to Whistler in 1964 to cater for the ever growing sport of skiing. It was eventually paved and kept clear of snow making it a far easier journey. The far shorter journey of a few hours to get from the city of Vancouver to Whistler was a welcoming change for drivers, cars could travel with ease with far less risk of receiving a puncture or sliding along the snow and ice ridden roads. It was later extended to the Pemberton valley in 1969. A combined gondola and chairlift system was built and commenced operations on the South side of the Mountain in 1965.

Again, it was hoped that the 1972 Olympic Games could be hosted by Whistler; however, the bid was once again lost to the more developed resort of Banff. The bids that led up to the 2010 Olympic Games laid the foundation and began the concept for what Whistler could one day become. The town centre as it stands today is the legacy of the 1976 Olympic bid and took thirty years of intensive development.

Beck’s Legacy

In 1977 proposed development at the bases of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains would converge and Eldon Beck was the architect of choice. It was his task of designing Whistler Village on the site that was originally the garbage dump. He decided to let the land shape his plans and was influenced by the pedestrian walkways and charming architecture of European ski towns. Beck connects with the land spiritually, having an understanding of the land that is similar to the aboriginal people of the area, this is evident in the way in which the village looks as if it had sprung organically from the ground. He designed a quaint and authentic walking village, authentic to the history, traditions and customs of the region. Beck created a diverse village that revered the landscape through organising the village’s framework around vistas and viewing platforms, giving the mountains majestic backdrop the most prominence so people can experience the natural environment in the best light. In December of 1980 Blackcomb Mountain also opened for business which created one of the largest ski complexes in North America. Eighteen years later both mountains merged under the company Intrawest. The solid development and the countless awards the resort has won such as the 1992 Snow Country Magazine’s designating of Whistler as the number one resort in North America, paved the way for finally winning the 2010 Olympic bid in July, 2003. The most recent and record-breaking development is the Peak to Peak gondola planned in 2007 in preparation for the Olympics. It has the largest unsupported lift span in the world of 3.024 kilometres (1.88 miles) and is 1427 feet (436 metres) above the ground.

[i] Peterson (1995) 32

[ii] Bob Williamson interviewed in 1988

[iii] Peterson (1995) 50