Whistler’s metamorphosis from logging camp to ski resort came at a cost
By Rick Crosby
A hawk hovers motionless above a rock cliff at one end of Green Lake. Below the cliff an empty logging truck lumbers along the highway past the lake towards Pemberton. A minute later another logging truck loaded with logs passes, heading south towards Whistler and Squamish. Standing on the shoulder of the highway, I stare at the rusted cables curling through the rotting wood on an abandoned log dump. Young alder trees sprout up between the logs where a twisted haul-back cable snakes out of the wood and disappears into the underbrush; a stark reminder of the youthful ski industry that has flourished in Whistler and the loggers who dropped everything and left without saying goodbye.
But maybe the loggers shouldn’t be forgotten so quickly. Further down the highway, towards the Pemberton Valley, second growth seedlings are coming back on old rocky ground adjacent to a fresh orange clear-cut.
And in Pemberton Meadow, inside a spacious farm house on 47 acres surrounded by lush green fields, Diane Valleau, daughter-in-law of pioneering Whistler logger Laurence Valleau, brings out black and white photographs and spreads them on the dining room table. The photographs are of Rainbow Lodge and the original Whistler gondola building, part of a collection that adds to the memories of Laurence Valleau, who in 1955 came to a tiny community known as Alta Lake to run a logging camp.
Logging and saw milling were the primary industries in Alta Lake in the ’50s, with the Mallock and Mosley logging camp operating out of Function Junction, at the south end of the valley, and small mills dotting the shores of the valley’s lakes. The Valleau Logging camp at Mons, near the south shore of Green Lake, had six bunk houses, a cookhouse and an office. Many of the loggers who worked at Mons had families who stayed at the small community of Parkhurst, at the north end of Green Lake.
"It was pretty primitive," concedes Don Gow who worked for Valleau Logging for 20 years, from 1955 to 1975. "The cabins were not insulated and you could spit through the cracks between the planks."
A generation later, when Alta Lake had become Whistler, the rustic Soo Valley Lumber Company buildings at Parkhurst became home to a group of ski bums and site of the infamous Toad Hall poster. But in the 1950s Parkhurst was the largest settlement in Alta Lake. Probably 60 or 70 loggers, their wives and their children spent the summers in the wooden buildings. A school served as the social centre on Friday and Saturday nights, when movies were shown.
"There was quite a settlement," Florence Petersen says of Parkhurst’s logging days. "There were homes, bunk houses, a community hall and at one time there was even a little store.
"If they had running water it was set up as cold water in the summer time," says Petersen, one of the founders of the Whistler Museum and an active member of the community since the ’50s. "They probably had a generator for light or used coal oil lamps."
Petersen checks a reference and then quotes from a lady who lived at Parkhurst with her family in the late ’40s and ’50s.
"We had a big circular heater that cooked big chunks of wood that could last all night. In the kitchen, we had a sawdust-burning stove. The water supply came from a ‘V’ flume that ran from a creek behind the house. In winter the flume froze and water had to be packed in."
There was also a successful steam-run sawmill operation at Parkhurst. The loggers had a small boat they used to boom logs for the mill and to cross Green Lake to Mons, where they had their meals and got ready for work.
This was the scene Saskatchewan-born Laurence Valleau found when he arrived in 1955, after travelling by ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish and then by train from Squamish to Alta Lake. It wasn’t altogether foreign to him. Valleau had moved to Duncan on Vancouver Island when he was 15 years old, where his father, Everett, was a logger. Valleau saw Alta lake as a good place to work.
Logging was not easy work in the ’50s. All one has to do is look at the photographs that hang in Lower Mainland bars and hotel lobbies to get an idea of what working conditions were like: tired looking loggers dressed in heavy woolen pants and jackets stand in two feet of snow beside noisy, dangerous machinery. There are stories of entire families falling timber all winter then buying a sawmill and hauling it through the bush so they could cut enough lumber to sell and last through the next year. Laurence Valleau’s was one of those families, and he and his sons worked hard all their lives.
"It was his life," Diane says of her father-in-law. "Just like most of these older fellas who have done this all their lives, logging becomes — it’s just their whole life."
It was Laurence’s life and it was his family’ business. Laurence and his three sons worked long days in the woods.
"My husband started logging in the summers when he was 16," says Diane, who is married to Dave Valleau. "He and his brothers worked with their dad all their lives. They headed out at daylight and probably worked until dusk, and it wasn’t easy if something broke down and they had to get parts."
The huge snowfalls that Alta Lake received over the winter also made for tougher working conditions than on the coast. In the spring fallers often had to shovel snow away from the trees and it might be close to noon before they could start falling. But logging continued.
The bunk house mattresses loggers slept on were made of straw. An air-tight stove provided heat, at least until the middle of the night when somebody had to get up to stoke the fire and throw another log on.
"You had to be pretty damn husky to work in the bush, there’s no doubt about that," Gow says.
But in some ways, logging was easier on people in the ’50s; loggers were self-reliant, and they knew there was a market for their wood.
"They knew that they could just keep logging," Diane says. "They didn’t have to deal with all the stresses loggers deal with now."
In the ’50s the tiny population in Alta Lake was flexible. People came and went, some starting small sawmill operations in the valley while others worked at the logging camps. Out of the hard work and the settlement at Parkhurst came the beginning of a community in which Laurence Valleau played a prominent role.
People living in the isolated valley depended upon one another and Valleau’s Logging camp at Mons became the place to go for help if someone was in distress. There were a few older people living on the west side of Alta Lake and employees at Valleau Logging kept an eye on them.
"There was one old lady named Bee Russel and I know the loggers were very good to her, you know, if she needed anything," Diane says.
By the same token the P.G.E. Railway was also good to people in the valley. If there was a need to get someone out to Squamish then a railway speeder operator would take them out.
Maybe Laurence Valleau was the type of person the valley needed in the ’50s; he had a sense about people.
"He just knew, you know?" Diane says. "He just had a presence. I don’t know what it was but he was very charming, very quiet. He helped people. He liked to help out but he could be tough when he had to be."
Anyone running a logging camp employing 30 or more men has to have respect. The work was dangerous and there wouldn’t have been any place for someone who sluffed on the job or brought a rough day back to the bunk house. Everyone had to pull their weight.
"I know the guys respected him from when I knew him," Diane says. "He commanded respect but was very fair. He didn’t expect anyone to do something he couldn’t do himself. He just had a good rapport with the guys who worked with him."
Very few people left Valleau Logging, which says a lot given this was an era when a logger could quit a job in the morning and hire out to another by afternoon.
"He had a virtually permanent crew who couldn’t work in the winter time but everybody was back in the spring," Gow recalls. "There was very, very little turnover."
But times began to change in the early 1960s. Valleau sensed this when the highway was being put through to the new development at Whistler Mountain, although that didn’t affect his generosity towards people. The highway crew could always go to the logging camp for assistance if something broke down. And there was always coffee and soup on in the cookhouse while someone waited for a piece of equipment to be fixed.
"The cookhouse was great because they had a damn fine cook," Gow recalls.
The cookhouse was a piece of history born out of a vibrant period when Valleau Logging was operating full bore. With big thick pieces of bread and great coffee and fries the cookhouse was known as the best — the only — place to eat breakfast in the valley.
"Best breakfast in town," Bill Porteous recalls fondly while doing paperwork in a construction shop located on the old Valleau Logging site at Mons. "It was ready when they were ready. It was like the meals my grandmother used to make."
In later years when the Valleau camp at Mons was winding down the cookhouse would become famous among a new breed of locals who worked in the valley. With its crocked chairs and slanted floors the cookhouse had a lot of character. Jan Systad seemed to think there was a demand for another little place to eat when she took the cookhouse over about 1972.
"Things were beginning to buzz a little bit in Whistler," she says. "When Valleau moved out of his camp the cookhouse was there. It was a summer kitchen. It thawed out in the spring and froze up in winter, in concert with the logging season. So I asked if I could open the cookhouse up to the public, and I did."
Systad ran the cookhouse for four seasons and you can hear the excitement in her voice when she’s asked who her customers were.
"Oh everyone!" she exclaims. "An incredible cross section. To begin with, we were just open Monday to Friday. Then in the second year people said, gee, we only come up on weekends and we’ve heard about the cookhouse."
The cookhouse was the last piece of Valleau Logging’s operation in Whistler. It was razed in the mid-80s.
But Valleau provided a variety of services and amenities through the ’60s as Alta Lake grew and early development of the ski industry got underway. When the road was built from the valley up to mid-station on Whistler Mountain, Laurence Valleau took the timber out. Once the mountain opened, Valleau Logging cleared snow. The company also provided services to property owners and subdivision planners and supervised the construction of water works and roads for the Alta Vista subdivision.
"When he put in the subdivision at Alta Vista one of the stories is he was offered waterfront lots as payment." Diane Valleau says, "And he just said, ‘who would ever live in this mosquito infested swamp?’"
Through this early period of the fledgling ski resort Valleau’s camp at Mons became a kind of community centre.
"When Rainbow Lodge sold in the ’70s, we lost the post office and he generously provided an office in his building," Petersen says.
The post office was like the village well where everyone gathered.
"After the train, you gave them a couple of hours to sort the mail then went and collected what you hoped was there," Petersen recalls.
"That was one of the services he just provided," Diane Valleau continues. "He was the type of man who would help out. There was a need for a post office and the loggers at Mons were closer to where their families lived than the other camp. Laurence let them use part of one trailer that was also being used as an office. That’s where people met and picked up their mail and got caught up on all the local gossip."
And when a volunteer fire department was needed for the valley, Valleau made a place available at the logging camp. As development continued, something had to be done about garbage disposal.
"This was one big thing that Laurence was acclaimed for," Petersen continues. "Free of charge and at no charge to the taxpayer over the years, he put his men and equipment in there to look after the garbage dump."
The garbage dump, of course, was to became the site of Whistler’s Town Centre in the 1980s.
After Whistler Mountain opened for operation in the winter of 1965-66 the pace of change in the valley accelerated.
"There were more buildings and more people moving up," Diane Valleau says. "It began with subdivisions in Alpine Meadows and roads in Alta Vista. Then there was development at Creekside and a gas station was put in."
Laurence Valleau was part of the development in the beginning, but as the ski industry became the main focus of the valley there was less and less tolerance for logging.
"At first the new people coming in didn’t affect Valleau Logging," Diane says, "but attitudes were changing."
People in a rush to get to the ski lifts were doing things like pulling out of side roads in front of logging trucks, not realizing that fully-loaded trucks couldn’t stop on a dime.
"There were some things going on that could have escalated," Diane recounts cautiously. "It was all these little things like pulling out in front of trucks and just things that were being said that started Laurence thinking about leaving."
A general lack of respect upset Laurence Valleau. The logging company had been active in Whistler and worked with the community for 20 years.
"That’s a long time, especially in those days," Diane adds.
Laurence was quietly proud of Valleau Logging’s commitment to the community and that was enough — then disaster struck. A crew had finished building a bridge to access timber beyond the White Gold subdivision. Someone stuffed oil-soaked rags under the bridge and lit it. Ironically, if Valleau Logging personnel hadn’t been available with fire fighting equipment the fire might have spread to the new subdivision. Regardless, Laurence Valleau was devastated by the bridge burning incident.
"Oh, you better believe it!" Petersen exclaims. "It really rocked them. They moved away. They were hurt to the core. He put his heart and soul in here for the good of the community."
"He was very disillusioned when they left in ’72 because he had been such a big part of the community and all of a sudden there were people there who didn’t want him around," Diane says. "But he wasn’t the type of guy who would wait for them to burn down the logging camp. If it was time to go, it was time to go."
There was a lot of talk in the valley about who might have been behind the arson. Police, and others, had their suspicions but arson is hard to prove. No one was ever charged.
These days it seems there are more limos on the Sea to Sky Highway than logging trucks but if you look closely the history of logging is still here. At the back end of the Mons industrial site, half concealed by shrubs and bushes, a faded brown, plywood-faced bunk house is all that’s left of the Valleau Logging Camp. A piece of paper taped to the front door discreetly advises guests to take notice that tenants may be asked to vacate on three days notice as the building’s days are numbered.
Diane Valleau was asked what she thought Laurence Valleau’s legacy might be. She thought for a moment before answering.
"Just the fact he was so involved in helping the community when there was nobody else there."