Parallel Histories

Whistler and Western Canada

Photo: Joern Rohde










In 2017, as Canada celebrates 150 years since Confederation, it’s interesting to note that in large measure, the post-European-settlement history of what is now one of the world's most popular mountain resort towns parallels the larger story of the West, said Brad Nichols, the Whistler Museum and Archives's executive director and curator. British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, but the driving of the “Last Spike” on the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, B.C., in 1885, is what really spurred the development of industry and the coming of civilization.

Locally, it was almost 20 years later that mechanization arrived, but it had the same effect, Nichols said. “The area changed a lot once the railway came through, with natural resource extraction becoming much more prominent,” he said. “Prior to the railway coming through, most of the economy that was happening was trapping, which is a prominent part of Canadian heritage. That’s how this part of the country became more mapped out and developed.”

Photo: Joern Rohde

Photo: "Mahogany John" Millar, August 1911

John Millar, described in local historical lore as “a Texan with a checkered past,” has a prominent role in the post- European-settlement history of Whistler. But viewed in the context of the broad sweep of the settlement of the Canadian West, the time Millar spent in what’s now called the Whistler Valley — especially how he earned his living — isn’t particularly unique. Known to some as “Mahogany John,” Millar was a trapper. Having arrived in the area in 1906, he set up traps to catch marten, wolverines, rabbits, mink, muskrat and beavers. It was during one of his Vancouver trips to sell his furs that he met Myrtle and Alex  Philip and invited them to visit his stopping house along the Pemberton Trail at what’s now known as Millar Creek, near Function Junction. They learned that his tales of abundant rainbow trout and other species in the nearby lakes were true and, in 1914, the couple opened a fishing getaway called Rainbow Lodge. In that same year, Millar “felt the push of civilization” with the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) Railway and moved further north, according to his official biography at the museum.

Whistler Museum - Philip Family, ca. 1930s

It should come as no surprise that local First Nations hold ancestral title to the area. For thousands of years the peoples of the Squamish and Lil’wat nations had an intimate relationship with the land of the Whistler Valley — part of their shared traditional territory. They used the area  for hunting, berry picking and ceremonial purposes. The nations now share their unique cultures and traditional beliefs at the award-winning Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. For more information, visit

Events elsewhere in B.C. influenced events here. The first non-aboriginal visitors to the area, first known as Summit Lake and later Alta Lake, were William Downie, a Scot who took part  in  the  California  Gold  Rush  in  the 1840s and ’50s, and Joseph Mackay, a fur trader for the Hudson's Bay Company. Accompanied by four assistants and three Lil’wat guides, Downie and Mackay visited in 1858 on a commission from the colonial government to explore the area for a route linking the head of Howe Sound to the B.C. interior and its burgeoning gold mines. Mostly following a series of pre-existing trails, the Pemberton Trail, which was improved after Downie’s and Mackay’s visit, was one route used to transport men and supplies to the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1861-’67.

Forestry and mining came to the area after completion of the railway. In the 1920s, Alison and Ross Barr established a sawmill at Parkhurst, on the northeast shore of Green Lake. The employees, numbering between 60 and 70, lived in bunkhouses and a few family homes on site. The mill operated off and on until the 1950s. Foundations and at least one intact building from its past existence remain. This past spring, the Resort Municipality of Whistler purchased 81 hectares (200.5 acres) of land on which the mill operation stood as part of its program of preserving prominent green spaces.

Early  mining  operations  included the Green Lake Mining and Milling Co., which started operating  around 1910. Workers mined 10 small claims on Whistler Mountain, finding  small quantities of gold, silver and copper, “but never in commercially viable quantities,” museum records state. Later, Harry Horstman — for whom the Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb Mountain is named — lived in a cabin on the slopes of Mount Sproatt, digging several tunnels from which he mined “enough copper to eke out a modest living.”

The steps in Whistler’s development, from trapping to recreational use to industrialization, occurred much later than they did elsewhere in the west. Nonetheless, the steps were the same, Nichols said. 


For more information on Whistler’s history, visit the Whistler Museum and Archives, 4333 Main St., or





Photo: Parkhurst Images 1937-1939. Whistler Museum - Debeck Family



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