Mystery of Train Wreck not so mysterious

There are some questions that we at the Museum are asked regularly by our visitors, but the most common question we are asked by locals is indisputably this: "What do you know about Train Wreck?"

"Train Wreck" refers to a number of boxcars scattered through the forest south of Function Junction. A bike trail runs past them and the cars are covered inside and out with graffiti. The contrast between the old-growth forest, and the more urban scene of graffiti-covered train cars, is striking and unique and it has become one of Whistler's hidden cultural treasures.

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Therefore, it is unsurprising that the site attracts so much curiosity. Unfortunately, Train Wreck really is a bit of a mystery. The wreck is believed to have occurred in the 1950s. Wrecks were not necessarily a rare occurrence during that time. During transit, the boxcars would be constantly shifting and wobbling. This shifting could escalate until one car jumped the tracks, bringing all the other cars with it. There was no local newspaper here at the time, and no one was living in the area, so the event appears to have gone unrecorded.

Many people are surprised when they see how the boxcars are lying far from the railway tracks and are surrounded by substantial trees without any trace of a clear path from the tracks to their current location. Surely the trees could not have grown so large in a mere 50 years? Retired forester Don MacLaurin, who visited the site only a few years after the crash, provided the Museum with the answer:

"It was pretty obvious when you looked at the site, and looked at the big standing Douglas fir, there was no evidence of the cars ripping off the rail and slamming into the trees - none."

The forest in that area is, in fact, old growth. Don explains that the crash itself was likely a slow derailment on a curve, which caused the cars to gently fall over. In the thinking of the day, rather than retrieve the cars the railway company just dragged them into the forest and left them there.

Later, in the 1990s, the area was almost logged by a company who owned some remnant timber licenses. However, by that time the law had changed and logging within 15 metres of the Cheakamus River was not permitted. The Train Wreck area is squeezed in between the river and the railway tracks, and once 15 metres were measured out there weren't many trees remaining. The logging company still wanted to go ahead however, but the District Manager decreed that they had to mark every tree they intended to log, that the trees had to be removed by helicopter and the local community needed to be consulted. These stringent rules put paid to the logging company's ambitions and later the timber license was given back to the Crown and the land has subsequently become part of the Community Forest.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, access to Train Wreck is under dispute so it is best to hold off taking a visit to the site until this is resolved.

Sarah Drewery is the executive director of the Whistler Museum.

Caption: Train Wreck in 1994 when it was under threat of being logged. Photo from the Whistler Question collection / Whistler Museum.

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