When the Railway Came to Whistler.


The construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) through the small community of Alta Lake greatly improved the quality of life for its residents. Starting on October 11, 1914, Alta Lake received rail service, granting easier access to services and amenities from the Lower Mainland. It also made visiting the newly established Rainbow Lodge easier for early tourists of the Whistler region. While the establishment of a railway affected the residents of Alta Lake in a direct capacity, the community also adapted and utilized the new infrastructure in innovative and unprecedented ways. 

A previous entry to the Whistler Museum’s Whistorical blog, entitled “Sparks and Speeders” showcased how maintenance and construction workers on the PGE used speeders and handcarts to traverse and repair the railway. However, the usage of such vehicles was not limited just to those who worked on the railway. Residents of Alta Lake also utilized handcarts and speeders in order to travel, both for pleasure or to simply shorten travel time. One image from the Museum’s collection shows Sala Ferguson, who moved to Alta Lake with her mother in 1923 and another unidentified girl utilizing a railway velocipede, a three wheeled handcart that ran along the tracks. 

Pictured: Sala Ferguson (on the back) and another unidentified girl using a railway velocipede. Photo Courtesy of J’Anne Greenwood.

Even after the railway had been constructed, and trips to either Squamish or Vancouver made significantly less arduous and time consuming, walking remained the primary form of transportation for those living in Alta Lake. However, instead of using the Pemberton Trail, instead, they walked the newly installed railway. While walking the rails both then and now is both dangerous and illegal, at the time, it was often an efficient way for residents to get to where they needed to be. 

Jean Tapley and Katie McGregor in 1918 or 1919, making a trip to Green River Falls via speeder. Phillips Collection.

Bob Jardine and Jenny Jardine (Betts), who first came to Alta Lake in the 1920s as a child recalled that the fastest way to get to school was to walk two and a half miles along the tracks. While their parents and other adults did warn them about the dangers of using the railroad in such a way, Bob recounted that everyone in the community was aware of how the tracks were used, stating that “the train crews kept an eye out for us kids.” As the years went on, using the tracks remained the most popular way of traveling, as John Burge, who first visited Alta Lake with his parents in 1956 recalled that “So there were only really two ways of moving around. One was the railway tracks, which was the most popular way, and the other was the back road is what we called the Pemberton Trail.” 

Pictured: Myrtle Philip with two P.G.E. Executives, John Quick and Robert Wilson, superintendent of the line. They stand next to a Ford motor car converted to ride the rails with flanged wheels. Phillip Collection

A symbol that exemplifies how the residents of Alta Lake adapted to their changing environment is the handcart built by Bob Jardine. According to Jenny Betts, the cart was built out of pinewood and was pushed along the track using handmade wooden spools, which were later replaced by metal wheels donated by another local, Ross Barr. Betts recalled that “Henry Horstman when we came, used to have a cart, it had two wheels to rune of one rail and one wheel to run on the other end, and you hat to load it with all your stuff and then you wheeled it down from the station to his farm.” Betts attributes Horstman’s cart as inspiration for their own hardcart.

Even though rail service was somewhat infrequent during the early years, the utilization of the tracks as a footpath allowed the residents of Alta Lake to improve their daily routines. This is best exemplified by how they utilized handmade carts and mechanized speeders to travel the tracks on their own terms.

Leave a Reply