Whistler's newest attraction isn't the allure of Whistler Blackcomb's multi-million-dollar Renaissance plan. Or the inevitable devouring of WB by Vail Resorts.
It is a haunting train wreck that, for the first time, has unrestricted access via a new $176,000 bridge built by the Resort Municipality of Whistler using Resort Municipality Initiative funding.
But to embark on the journey includes a bittersweet realization that there is no more mystery.
The bridge to the site, which was completed last month, now provides legal access. Previously, the trail took eager spectators along a spongy forested route that snakes alongside the glacier-green waters of the Cheakamus River, but which required them to illegally cross the CN railway track.
"In previous years, one of the biggest questions we had was from people coming in and asking us the history of the train wreck," says Brad Nichols, executive director of the Whistler Museum and Archives Society. "There was nothing on it. We knew bits and pieces about it — like the year (it happened) but it wasn't until a couple of years ago that the full story came out."
And what a mystery. How did seven rail cars wind up seemingly perfectly placed between tall trees, at various angles and distances from each other? There were no visible signs that the train had derailed and crashed down the slope, forcing the rail cars into the forest. And there was no sign that the surrounding landscape had been disturbed. There didn't appear to be a scratch, a gouge or a big trough through the soil anywhere — nothing to indicate how seven rail cars wound up nestled among the trees.
"It's this kind of weird area with trees and trains far away from the train tracks," says Nichols.
One had to know where to find the trail. Much like the access near Tofino that takes hikers to the site of a crashed Royal Canadian Canso bomber from 1945: it is the literal train wreck that draws people in to gawk.
The walk is around 3km each way and should take you around 30 minutes to get to the actual train wreck. Keep an eye out for the yellow arrows and you should have no problems following the trail. Or, just go along the train tracks and pop into the forest at various times...
Previous blog post from BoredinVancouver.com
It was called the Pacific Great Eastern Railroad (PGE) and it was built to link Lillooet to Squamish — but not Vancouver.
There wasn't any tourism — except for Alex and Myrtle Philip who first visited Alta Lake in 1911. Coming from Vancouver, it took the couple three days to get here.
It wasn't until the Philips built Rainbow Lodge in Whistler in 1914 that travel became a little easier. The first leg of the PGE railway was constructed that same year to service the big industries in the B.C. Interior, particularly for mining and forestry. Timber and ore required the heavy-duty transport capabilities of the train and, as industry ramped up, the railway was crucial for shipping to the coast.
If you chose to travel from Vancouver for some fishing at Alta Lake, you'd take a steamship to Squamish, then hop on the passenger car on the PGE for the rest of the trip to Whistler. If you left early in the morning, you could get to Rainbow Lodge in time for dinner.
At one point, PGE offered a "fisherman's excursion" package in partnership with the Philips and the first such trip brought 22 men from Vancouver, who returned to the city and raved about the great fishing and grand mountain views.
The original plan was for the railway to extend all the way to Prince George, the commercial centre of northern B.C., where it could connect to the broader, nation-wide rail system. Even with provincial control, however, this wasn't achieved until 1950, earning it tongue-in-cheek nicknames such as "Province's Great Expense" and "Prince George, Eventually."
By 1972 the PGE was taken over by the British Columbia Railway. Even with the completion of the Sea to Sky highway from Vancouver in 1965, passenger service continued on the PGE until 2002: The end of an era.
Up until a few years ago, Nichols says a Whistler Museum blog post made it easier for hikers to get to the train wreck site — until CN Railway asked the museum to remove the information because hikers crossing the train tracks were doing so illegally.
And so the questions continued. Mystified hikers continued to cross the tracks — some of them were ticketed by CN for the illegal trek — in pursuit of the sight of battered, rusted and graffiti-covered railway cars.
Then in 2013, the then-executive director of the Whistler Museum, Sarah Drewery wrote about the mystery.
"We had always known that it had been there since the 1950s, but apart from that we knew very little about it. In 2013, our 'Museum Musings' column in the Whistler Question newspaper featured the 'mysterious' train wreck. We were subsequently approached by two members of the Valleau family (who ran a big logging operation in Mons at the time of the accident) who set the record straight once and for all."
The Valleau logging company was a family-run business that initially operated out of Whistler, founded by Everett Valleau, who recruited his seven sons to help. They moved to Pemberton after about 20 years apparently due to conflicts with the ski industry, according to the Pemberton Museum. Those were the days: It was forestry forever as B.C. timber was in such high demand.
Full speed ahead
The story of the train-wreck was told to Howard Valleau by John Millar, a conductor for PGE. "The train had four engines," said Millar at the time. "There was a mistake made on the tonnage of the train, making it too heavy, and they had to split the train to get up the grade to Parkhurst (on Green Lake).
"This put them behind schedule, and they tried to make up time by travelling a little faster than usual. The speed limit on that section of rail was only 15 mp/h (24 km/h). The fourth engine turned a rail, causing the train wreck. They checked the paper-tape record in the engine, which told how fast they were going — the crew had thought the speed was 15 mp/h, but in fact it was 35 mp/h.
"The crash occurred in 1956... The wreck happened on an area of track constricted by rock cuts, and there were three boxcars loaded with lumber jammed in there, blocking the line."
The PGE Railway's equipment couldn't budge the rail cars, so the company approached the Valleau family.
"The Valleaus took their logging machinery (a couple of D8 Cats) down to the site, put a hitch (luff) on with two moving blocks to the boxcar and pried them out. They then dragged the cars up the track and into the forest, where they lie today. To all those who were confused by the fact that there is no damage to the trees around the wreck, this is because the train did not come off the rails at this point, but the boxcars were moved there after the fact."
Millar told Howard Valleau that had they known the actual speed, they would have removed the paper-tape record out of the engine. The engineer and crew were subsequently fired after the investigation into the wreck.
Over the years, the trees grew, framing some of the cars and making it the perfect site for filming of the 1985 Depression-era movie, The Journey of Natty Gann, which starred a young John Cusack. Local photographer Dave Buzzard had a role as an extra as a logger for about three weeks during filming, and said: "I think it was only one scene, but that's where they filmed it."
Buzzard says he doesn't remember what he got paid, but he wore what he calls "an Armani logging suit."