The history of the highway 

click to enlarge PHOTO FROM THE PHILIP COLLECTION - TRAIN TRAVEL Guests and residents await the train at the Alta Lake Station. The PGE railway was finally up and running in 1913.
  • Photo from the Philip Collection
  • TRAIN TRAVEL Guests and residents await the train at the Alta Lake Station. The PGE railway was finally up and running in 1913.

Whistler's steep, mountainous terrain is part of what makes it so attractive as a tourist destination. It's perfect for skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking and hiking. However, those same mountains have been one of its greatest challenges, providing a frustrating barrier for tourists and residents alike.

For the first non-indigenous settlers, the area was accessible by a narrow path known as the Pemberton Trail constructed in the 1870s. The trail, which ran from Burrard Inlet, around the far side of Alta Lake and up to Lillooet, was intended to provide access to the Gold Rush. Unfortunately, by the time the trail was constructed the rush was basically over. An attempt was made to take cattle down it, but most of them died due to the lack of grazing and the difficult terrain. With no other use for it, the Pemberton Trail functioned as an occasional route for travellers. The trail took three days, by steamship and foot, assisted by a packhorse.

In those days, horses were an important asset. Travellers carried supplies on packhorses, as did Myrtle and Alex Philip, founders of the area's first resort. They also used a series of workhorses at Rainbow Lodge, and to simplify things, all the horses were called Bob.

Many of the area's inhabitants hoped the construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) would make access easier. The PGE had multiple false starts. A company was incorporated to build the PGE in 1891, and by 1909 about 19 kilometres of track was completed when the company ran short of funds and had to stop.

By the time construction began in earnest in 1912, the railway had acquired a number of despairing nicknames, among them "Province's Great Expense," "Past God's Endurance" and "Prince George Eventually." Finally, in 1913, the railway was up and running from Squamish past Alta Lake and soon resorts, logging and other industries began to spring up in the area.

Transit was still anything but easy. The journey involved four to six hours on steamship from Vancouver to Squamish and a further three to four hours to Alta Lake as the train only went from 25 to 40 km/h and often had to stop to refuel. The train ride was upgraded through the years, including the addition of open-topped observation cars and a dinner service.

Though the journey was long, it wasn't unpleasant. Travellers often enjoyed ice cream, or beer if they were older, as they waited in Squamish. There were also stops for afternoon tea at Rainbow Lodge, a treat that cost all of 35 cents!

In the 1960s, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., hoping to set up skiing in the area, realized that something more convenient than the train or logging roads would be necessary in order to draw in visitors.

A "road" was built from Whistler to Squamish in 1962. Initially, the track was mostly fist-sized rocks and dirt, and there were streams to cross along the way. The road was plowed infrequently, making winter journeys treacherous. Tire punctures were common, and the first trips from Vancouver took five hours.

Thankfully, the road was paved in 1966 and improvements have continued to the present day. The most recent upgrades were for the 2010 Olympics, cutting the travel time down to under two hours.

Although travel time has ranged from multiple days to a matter of hours over the past century, people have always felt that Whistler was worth the trip.

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