With Christmas closely behind us, 'tis the season to recall one of Whistler's most curious holiday mysteries — an event that took place over 70 years ago on a December night in 1938 — the mysterious disappearance of Ernie Archibald.
Archibald first came to Whistler in 1912. He, his sister Grace and another woman, made the difficult journey up the Pemberton Trail and took over 160 acres of land on the east side of Alta Lake. The plot was located where the Alta Vista subdivision lies today and Archibald Way is named after him.
In 1914, Archibald met and married Lucy, a Scottish lady with no previous experience of wilderness living but a fine sense of adventure. The two of them lived on Alta Lake and Archibald built a house for his new bride to replace the rough shack he had previously been living in. The pair had two daughters, Peggy and Nita.
In 1927, Lucy died of cancer. The two small girls then went to live in Vancouver where they could be looked after by their aunt and attend school. Archibald got a job with a prospecting firm and spent his summers working in the Yukon; the cottages on his property were rented out to summer vacationers. However, Archibald returned to Alta Lake every winter.
It was the winter of 1938 that Archibald met his end. However, the accounts from the pioneers who were living here at the time reveal some discrepancies. What we know for certain is that on the night of his disappearance, Archibald had a guest, George Trites, staying with him at his home. It appears Archibald met Trites while working in the Yukon. Trites had an injured leg. One night the two men needed to cross the lake so Archibald was wearing ice skates and pulled the injured Trites on a small sleigh.
According Florence Petersen's book First Tracks, Archibald and Trites were heading to Fred Woods' home located across the lake from the Archibald residence. This is corroborated by Woods himself, who in an interview in 1984, recalled: "All of the boys were up for dinner except for Ernie and George Trites, they hadn't come, I thought that it was funny."
However, in an interview in 2012, Glen Smith (Ernie's grandson) recalls his mother telling him the story and stating that Archibald and Trites were on their way to catch a train as Trites's leg had deteriorated and they needed to see a doctor. It appears that Archibald kept a diary and had stated as such in his last entry. Unfortunately, the diary no longer exists, having been destroyed in a house fire in the '50s.
The two men — whether it was to catch a train or to visit a friend's house for dinner — left Archibald's house and attempted to cross Alta Lake. They never made it to their destination. The winter ice was thin and, in the area where a creek met the lake, it had cracked and the men fell through.
Fred Woods, alerted by their absence from dinner, went to the lake to investigate.
"I looked across the lake and I could see his house was still lit up! So I told Eddie Droll and he said that he'd go over and see. He noticed that there was nobody there. It had snowed that night. It was Sunday, Christmas night. It snowed on the way going out (when) we went to look again, I seen a heap of snow at the mouth of the creek. I went over towards it, and it was the sleigh that had stayed there, and had snow piled all around it."
The fact that Trites's sleigh was found on top of the frozen lake, even though Trites himself had managed to fall into the lake seems very peculiar, but this was confirmed by everyone who was interviewed about the incident. Jack Jardine remembers seeing "a box" from the train, but he didn't put two-and-two together until later.
The police were called and the lake was dragged. Trites's body was found almost immediately; curiously, he had sustained a serious wound to his forehead and it was speculated that this could have been done by Archibald's ice skate as both men fell in.
Stranger still was that when they dragged the lake they found Trites's body quickly but Archibald's was never found. Some people speculated that this, combined with the sleigh being out of the water, indicated foul play. Jack Jardine recalled: "Harry Horstman swears that he saw Ernie Archibald in Vancouver, and, you see, George had this mark on his forehead, some people think that Ernie kicked him with his skate. I don't know whether Harry knew what he was talking about or not."
Despite the strange plot twists, many believe that Ernie Archibald is still in Alta Lake. Of course, it is all speculation and hearsay. But it makes you wonder what really happened on that cold December night in 1938.
The Whistler Museum is full of fascinating tales of Whistler's past. Open 11am-5pm daily. 4333 Main Street. 604 932 2019.
Trish Odorico is Assistant Archivist at the Whistler Museum
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