Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 543

You can get there from here – a history of transportation to Alta Lake Some proponents of the 2010 Olympic bid hope improved rail service will be part of the Games’ legacy. As Janet Love Morrison shows, rail was the original link between Alta Lake and the outside world and it was an earlier Olympic bid that produced the Sea to Sky Highway. By Janet Love Morrison On Feb. 20, 1912, Messrs Folly, Welch and Stewart were awarded the contract to construct a railway line from Vancouver to Prince George, known then as Fort George, by the government of British Columbia . These three men established the Pacific Great Eastern Railway with the objective of opening up B.C.’s frontier. When the PGE reached Alta Lake in 1914, trapper Billy Bailiff wrote: "...the first desoilation of the forest has begun." In the autumn of that year the PGE pushed north along the western edge of Alta Lake, bringing anything and everything to the residents of the corridor. Over the years even minerals from Pioneer Mines at Bralorne were transported by the PGE to the docks at Squamish, where they continued their odyssey by steamship to a smelter in Tacoma, Washington. By the 1940s the train schedule was a busy one. Three trains equipped to transport logs departed Squamish daily at 5 a.m., bound for Parkhurst, Pemberton and Mount Currie and returning the same evening. Two freight trains also ran daily between Prince George and Squamish, one headed north, the other south. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays a combined train, moving freight and passengers, left Squamish for Lillooet, returning Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The passenger train schedule always coincided with the Union Steamship that arrived in Squamish from Vancouver. As the PGE entered the 1960s changes were happening with railway companies nationwide. They were becoming uninterested in carrying passengers. Passenger trains were a nuisance and not nearly as profitable as moving freight. Concurrently, logging firms were becoming impatient with the railways. They were not given priority and the train schedule was inconsistent. Logging companies were required to purchase the railway cars, maintain them and still pay freight rates. Eventually logging companies made the transition to trucks. Initial costs were more expensive but the efficiency was worth it, and they controlled the schedule of pick up and delivery. Meanwhile, back at Alta Lake in the 1950s, a transmission corridor was cleared along the west side of the lake and a B.C. Hydro service road was built — albeit rough — to Squamish. Around this same time individuals like Franz Wilhelmsen and Stephan Ples travelled on the PGE up to Alta Lake to cross-country ski. Post-war prosperity put tremendous pressure on recreational resources in the Lower Mainland and skiing had transformed the city’s North Shore mountains into busy places. Wilhelmsen and Ples opted to enjoy the tranquillity of the Coastal Mountains on Alta Lake. Little did the small community of Alta Lake know, it was about to be changed forever. In the spring of 1960 Sidney Dawes, Canada’s representative on the International Olympic Committee, expressed the conviction that the area could host an Olympic Winter Games. The story is now part of B.C.’s history, as a group of Vancouver businessmen, led by Wilhelmsen, formed an association to oversee and develop a site to host a future Olympic Games. The Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) was formed in the spring of 1960. In November of the same year the Garibaldi Lift Company was incorporated to lease London Mountain (the name was formally changed to Whistler Mountain on Aug. 27, 1967) from the provincial government. For the directors of the Garibaldi Lift Company, development was going to be a challenge — no electricity, no water system and no decent road. The existing road clung to the cliffside terrain along Howe Sound; the route was considered an engineering miracle. The journey to Alta Lake took between five and six hours — from Squamish. The directors knew they had to get skiers to their lifts faster than that. As early as 1955 Victoria had promised to create a new highway from Vancouver to Prince George through the Pemberton Valley. However, in the late 1950s the existing mud-road was plagued with delays and problems. Evidently there wasn’t enough money to finish the road for two election campaigns. Some observers suggested the government wasn’t eager to finish the road because it would mean a loss of revenue for the government-owned PGE railway. But eventually the work was completed. The provincial government built log bridges, dug culverts and gravelled the existing B.C. Hydro service road. It was a provincial road, but it wasn’t much. For 40 years newspaper headlines had told of provincial government plans to build a road to Garibaldi Provincial Park and develop a great public playground. In 1962 a plea was made to the provincial government by Independent Squamish Logging Operators Ltd. to be allowed to log the park, as there was a tremendous amount of timber there and they had come to the conclusion that nothing was ever going to be done at Garibaldi. Ottawa offered to make it a national park, like Banff and Jasper, as federal taxpayers had already paid for such playgrounds. But the B.C. government declined Ottawa’s offer, stating as it had for years that it would be developed as a provincial park. Later in 1962 the Garibaldi Lift Company and the village of Pemberton pressured Victoria into agreeing to upgrade the road north from Squamish. Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi predicted: "One day you’ll be able to drive from Vancouver north into the sportsman’s paradise of Garibaldi Park, into the great Pemberton Valley and on to Prince George." But travel remained a lengthy and difficult ordeal. In April of 1964 the provincial government stated that if capital for the lifts and operation of Whistler Mountain could be raised they would put a proper highway through. It was not until the fall of 1964 that the Garibaldi Lift Company was able to inform its shareholders that most of the road work, with the exception of the construction of two bridges, had been completed. At Daisy Lake the new road crossed over the top of the dam, just as the old road had. In winter the snow plow only went through on Saturday morning, so Friday night drivers often found themselves in some difficulties. Snow was often dug out of the roadside snowbanks to allow cars to pass one another on the narrow road. Five roads met at mile 34 1/2. Here it was necessary to branch left to reach Alta Lake’s west side. A popular way to pass the travel hours in those days was to play word games. One of the most popular was called Rhyme Time. A definition would be given for an answer of two words that must rhyme. On one trip Don Noyes coined the definition "useful-service crossing." The answer: Function Junction. While the improvement of the road could be construed as support by the provincial government for development of Whistler Mountain, not everything went smoothly. The Garibaldi Lift Company’s feasibility report suggested developing the north side of the mountain. However, the province rejected those plans as Noranda Mining Company had already staked claims along the north side. Plans for development were then moved to the southwest slopes, the area now known as Creekside. As skiing gained popularity with Vancouver’s growing population, Garibaldi Lift Company continued to pressure the provincial government to upgrade the highway. By 1973 the road had earned the grim label "Killer Highway." Parts of the road were widened and re-paved, which allowed for higher speeds, but there were still unexpected narrow sections which forced motorists to slow down quickly. Members of the Social Credit government of the day were among critics of proposals to upgrade the slide-plagued highway and widen it to four lanes. As Whistler grew from a regional ski area to an international resort in the late 1980s, the provincial government recognized the potential of tourism in the area and started to sink millions of dollars into upgrading the highway. For the past several years Highway 99 has been under regular assault by work crews, with seasonal road closures for maintenance work to prevent rock slides and creeks from flooding. Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, is a testament to the tenacity and vision of those who fought to create an artery from Vancouver to Whistler. As for the PGE (known as Please Go Easy and Prince George Eventually), it became the British Columbia Railway on April 1, 1972, and later BC Rail. Today it is primarily a freight line between North Vancouver and Prince George, but individually-powered Budd cars still carry passengers north and south daily.