Museum Musings: Powering Whistler

If you’ve been in Whistler over the past couple of months you probably experienced or heard about power outages around town, most notably on Oct. 18 when most neighbourhoods experienced a loss of power.  

The most common reason Whistler residents lose electricity seems to be from trees coming down on the lines due to rain, wind and snow storms. The recent outages remind us how dependent we are on electricity today but only 52 years ago using electricity in the Whistler valley was a luxury and something of a rarity.

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Residents of Alta Lake made do without connecting to the grid for decades. Ice blocks cut from Alta Lake and covered in sawdust provided refrigeration through the summer months. Wood stoves and fireplaces, as well as a few oil or coal furnaces, provided heat through the winter.  

Individual properties used generators to provide their own power, though some were more reliable than others. Bob Williamson installed a wind-powered turbine at the south end of Alta Lake. As he recalled, “I thought there’d be a lot of wind there, but there was only enough to charge the batteries of the radio, but when the wind was blowing we had lights.”

At Rainbow and Hillcrest Lodges the Philips and Mansells installed generators that ran until 10 p.m. when the lights went off. Cypress Lodge, as well as a few neighbours, was powered by a water wheel and generator installed on Scotia Creek by Dick Fairhurst.  Having a generator meant you could charge a battery-operated lamp to use after the generator was turned off for the night.  

Even the Alta Lake School had a gas-powered generator for community use. It ran the weekly movies and played the records for dances, though dances always ended when the gas ran out.

Amenities such as gas-powered washing machines and propane fridges also appeared in the valley, though as Bob remembered, “In those days there was a lot of red tape to put these sort of things in, you had to get a permit, and in these days there was no one to do the inspecting so it was left to this Walter Giel to the inspecting and he says to me, ‘I don’t know a damn thing about it, just you inspect it yourself.’”

Though Alta Lake had no hydro service, transmission lines did run through the valley as early as the 1930s. Bob Williamson even worked on the power lines in the 1940s, despite having no home access to the electricity they carried. More transmission lines were put in by BC Electric in the 1950s, connecting Seton Portage (about 25 km west of Lillooet) to Squamish. It was this project that first brought long-time resident Peter Alder to Alta Lake in 1956 as part of the construction crew.

It was almost 10 years later, just months before Whistler Mountain opened for skiing, that the Rainbow Substation (near Nesters) was completed and Alta Lake was able to utilize the power running through the valley.  

Alex and Myrtle Philip were invited to officially open the substation on Nov. 18, 1965, and Alex even got to flip the switch.  Today it has become hard to imagine Whistler operating without power throughout the valley.

Don’t forget, next Tuesday (Dec. 5) is our annual Big Kids LEGO Building Competition!  We’ll provide the LEGO and electricity — you bring your ideas and skills.

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