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Museum Musings: The Spirit of Whistler

'While reorganizing artifacts in the collection recently, we came across a mounted model of a SkyTrain car...'
A mounted model of a SkyTrain car presented to the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1985.

While reorganizing artifacts in the collection recently, we came across a mounted model of a SkyTrain car presented to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) on Sept. 5, 1985. While it wouldn’t seem like Whistler had much to do with a transit system built in Vancouver, the plaque attached to the model tells us it was presented by Grace McCarthy (then the “Minister Responsible for BC Transit”) to Terry Rodgers (then the mayor of Whistler) “on the occasion of the naming of car number 053 in the SkyTrain system the ‘Spirit of Whistler.’”

Vancouver’s SkyTrain began as a legacy project of Expo 86, which had the theme “Transportation and Communication: World in Motion—World in Touch.” While other transit projects were proposed for Vancouver in the past, such as a light rail line proposed by the NDP in 1974, none came to fruition. Construction of the Advanced Light Rapid Transit (ALRT) SkyTrain, a new technology from the Urban Transportation Development Corporation in Ontario, began on March 1, 1982 under the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett.

Not everyone was a fan of this project, with some politicians such as Vancouver Mayor Mike Harcourt preferring cheaper technologies that were already tested. Some of the objections to the project came from the fact the new system did not have a driver, though many rested on the expected cost.

Despite this opposition, the first kilometre of track was ready to open as a demonstration line in the summer of 1983. While riders wouldn’t get all that far from Waterfront Station, they could try out the train and get an idea of what it would be like to travel on when it was finished. The rest of the original Expo Line out to New Westminster Station was completed in 1985, and began running free weekend service on Dec. 11, 1985. Full service (with fees) began on Jan. 3, 1986, just a few months before Expo 86 opened.

According to the Whistler Question, the 114 SkyTrain cars were all going to be named after towns and places in British Columbia, though they questioned who of the 136 municipalities would not get to see their name on a car. We don’t know if each municipality received a model car on a plaque from a government minister, but it is possible part of the reason Whistler did was because the provincial cabinet was having its annual retreat in Whistler at the time. This meant ministers and Premier Bill Bennett were on hand as the RMOW celebrated 10 years, and for the official opening of the Whistler Conference Centre on Sept. 8, 1985.

The name of the “Spirit of Whistler” is similar to Whistler’s community production created for Expo 86: Whistler—Let the Spirit Grow. This song, dance and comedy show featured the Whistler Singers and a group of Whistler characters (including Sandy Boyd dressed as a downhill skier, complete with racing skis and helmet) and, after premiering to the community in the Rainbow Theatre, was performed at Expo in the BC Pavilion.

Today, the Expo line extends past New Westminster, and more lines have been added to the SkyTrain system. While it is unclear whether individual cars still have names, you might find yourself thinking of Whistler if you happen to find yourself on car 053.