With all the glorious snow recently, Whistlerites and our visitors have been pretty stoked. However, compared to the snow that used to be here in the pioneer era our recent snowfall feels quite puny. The irony is that back then the snow wasn’t even wanted.
I haven’t checked the weather statistics from that period, but all the anecdotal evidence suggests that the snowfall back in the day was epic. Bear in mind that the following accounts are all based on snow in the valley — who knows what things were like up in the mountains.
In Florence Petersen’s new book First Tracks she quotes Bob Williamson’s experience of winters at Alta Lake. Bob came here as a lineman working for the PGE Railway.
“The second winter (at Alta Lake) seven-and-a-half feet lay on the level. One winter (1936, I think) it snowed seven feet in 48 hours with a temperature of -25 C!”
When the roof got shoveled off, the snow level was sometimes higher than the eaves and the doors and windows had to be shoveled out.
Pioneer Jenny Jardine remembered being ill equipped for the weather: “The snow was four feet deep every place we went out wading. Every day our leather shoes became very wet in no time — rubber boots were things we had not yet seen.”
Residents of Alta Lake had to be careful to keep enough food in their homes as on occasion it would snow so much that the PGE railway could not plow through and they were isolated from the rest of the world until there was a thaw.
One year, probably 1915, the snow was so deep that the train and the train crew were stranded in Pemberton. They stayed there several days until they started to run out of supplies and decided to walk back to Squamish. They stopped off at Rainbow Lodge to rest for two days and Myrtle Philip “made a kettle of pea soup that would reach from here to Quebec” for them.
Myrtle then agreed to lead the team to Cheakamus Canyon, which was as near as the train could get until it hit the snow bank. Luckily she had a decent pair of skis, so her and one of the younger men broke the trail and the others followed. One of the engineers was fairly elderly and was having a terrible time walking for such a distance over deep snow. With about six miles to go to reach the destination he actually gave up and told the others to leave him there.
Myrtle managed to revive him with a rest and some soup and he made it to the train after all. When they arrived their colleagues had prepared a huge “bucket” of tea to revive the stranded men, but unfortunately they over estimated how much tea was required and produced a brew that, according to Myrtle, could “pretty nearly stagger a horse!”
You can see the PGE railway train with its snowplow in action outside Rainbow Lodge on the Museum’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK9CzpTH8s4. This clip is taken from 16mm film footage belonging to Myrtle Philip.
Sarah Drewery is the executive director of the Whistler Museum.