The earliest explorers in the Whistler valley were the Hudson Bay Company’s employees, J.W.McKay and Major William Downie at the request of the chief factor James Douglas. The company wanted to facilitate a more efficient transportation system through the numerous valleys within the Garibaldi mountain range for trade goods. Captain R.C. Mayne of the British Navy also went on a mission to map the area and find a route to the interior in 1862. This idea was reinforced by pressure placed on the government by residents of the interior, cattle ranches and saw mill owners, struggling to transport cattle to and from Vancouver.
The Lil’wat and Squamish people had used the trails as a trade passage for centuries and when a road eventually materialized in 1877 it was so poorly constructed that transportation was barely improved. Subsequently, the trail was primarily used for those traveling by foot or horseback with many of the earliest known settlers of the area from the 1900s onwards using the route.
Trappers, Loggers and Prospectors
Towards the end of the 19th century an increasing number of people began to explore deeper into the Canadian wilderness, traveling from far and wide. These explorers had dreams of gold, fur, land and tranquillity without much knowledge about what awaited them. Whistler was no exception. Adventure was one main factor linking all who resided here and ironically it still is to this day. The trappers, loggers and prospectors all had a raw frontier spirit and up until 1909 they were the sole inhabitants with small homesteads, logging camps, mills and cabins in a gradually growing community. The first prospecting team of 1903 who worked in the area called themselves ‘the London Group’ and are credited with the naming of London Mountain which was partially due to the heavy fog and cloud that often surrounded it. Trappers are known to have frequently listened to the shrill whistling sound made by the western hoary marmots as they worked away amongst the rocks. The mountains nickname “Whistler” caught on and was made official in 1965.
An Alta Lake timber license was granted in 1888 and lumber became the chief source of income for the Alta Lake residents. To begin with, the loggers would haul poles down the mountain on a basic road made only with grub hoes and shovels. The workers soon realised there was also a regular market for rail ties due to the construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. Consequently the first sawmill for rail ties and bridge timbers was constructed in 1912. Logging was closely linked with the railway and also the lakes. It brought business to the area and an increase to the resident population.
The third reason for people coming to Whistler was prospecting, in search of copper, silver and gold. Myrtle Phillip of Whistler spoke about the life of the prospectors in an interview in 1982:
My, they were a peculiar breed of animals. The way that they would tramp the hills with the packs on the donkey’s back and all. From the earliest days they would go for miles and miles with their old donkey’s going along with them, carrying their pick. They’d live the hardest kind of life you know. It’s a fever that gets them, and they can’t get away from it. [i]
One renowned character from Kansas was the rugged Henry “Harry” Horstman. The Horstman glacier is named after him and there are still remnants of his solitary life today with his cabin and hand-dug tunnels preserved at 5300 ft. Whistler wasn’t a suitable place to be prospecting all year round, therefore growing produce and trapping were a way of supplementing income.
In 1914 the area around Alta Lake was opened up and made more accessible after the completion of the P.G.E railway. It spelled the beginning of a new era in Whistler; the tourist trade, which is today a billion dollar industry. The first to use the beautiful landscape and abundant resources to create a destination resort were the legendary pioneers Alex and Myrtle Philip. The two met when Myrtle was lodging at Alex’s parents’ home while she worked as a teacher and the pair married in 1910. They became tempted by the stories of a stunning wilderness at Alta Lake from one of the first settlers: an eccentric trapper named John Millar, who was visiting Vancouver to trade furs. The Philips decided to visit John to see this so-called paradise for themselves for it had always been Alex’s dream to set up his own fishing lodge. It was no easy task getting there, having to travel by steamship to Squamish, stay overnight in Brackendale and then hike with packhorses for two days. The Phillips eventually arrived in August 1911 and with their bold, enterprising personalities, the pair purchased ten acres of land on the west side of Alta Lake from the resident trapper Charlie Chandler for $700. This led to the first boom town days of Whistler in which Rainbow Lodge was born and soon became the most popular resort west of Jasper. Myrtle began cooking meals for the train crews coming along the PGE, along with this she was known to be a great fisher and a skilled horsewoman. Kay Alsop was interviewed by CBC radio and spoke of Myrtle being labelled ‘the first lady of Whistler’, she also spoke of her as “a fantastic lady….all of her life she was very resourceful, but when she was young she was strong, sturdy, tall, with a lively (if it’s got to be done, let’s do it) approach to every problem.” [ii] Along with fishing, hiking and horse riding in the summer months, it was the new found popularity of skiing in the 1920’s that was to really put Whistler on the map — the next step in Whistlers history.
Attracting the Crowds
Scenery and unknown peaks attracted people from all over Canada to explore the sleepy community of Whistler. As a result, government surveyors Neil Carter and Charles Townsend explored the area extensively in 1923. After several seasons they created one good map which is still in use today. The coastal range snowfalls and amazing terrain was beginning to draw even more attention towards the 1950’s and 60’s, developments along the shoreline and further up on the mountain were beginning to appear. The village as we know it today was in fact, the old garbage dumb. Nevertheless, in 1962, four Vancouver businessmen began to explore the area and saw promise in it, with the intent of building a ski resort and bidding for the 1968 Winter Olympics. Flying over Garibaldi Park they decided that Whistler’s large and varied terrain was the most suitable mountain to develop a ski area on. A road was constructed in 1962 when the downhill skiing development on Whistler Mountain was proposed. The Garibaldi Lift Company was formed, shares were sold, and in 1966, Whistler Mountain opened to the public. By 1975 Whistler Village was incorporated as British Columbia’s first resort municipality.
The 1960s and 70s brought the free spirited hippies and squatters to Whistler, they lived in the woods and gained the nick-name of the ‘ski-bums.’ This counterculture preferred to live a slow paced life away from the mainstream and were, to a certain extent, similar to both the early pioneers and the Aboriginal nations, living a quiet, spiritual life. The squatters would become the workforce of the mountain in the low-paid seasonal jobs and the ‘ski-bum’ still remains to this day. They were and still are the colourful, free-spirited members of the community whose relaxed, romantic view on life has left lasting impressions on Whistler’s personality.
[i] Myrtle Philip interviewed in 1982.
[ii] Kay Allsop interviewed in 1982 for CBC radio