“Patience, Guts and Endurance”: The PGE Railway Reaches Whistler

by Sarah Drewery, Whistler Museum.

August 2014 marks the 100th year anniversary of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway line reaching Whistler.

The Whistler train station ‘Mons’ was so named because the railway line was completed as far as that station on 23rd August 1914, the same day as the Battle of Mons – the first major engagement between British and German forces in the First World War.

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Crowd waiting for the train at Alta Lake, c. 1930s. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

The completion of the railway line was the most significant development in the history of the valley, until the building of the ski hill in 1965. Before the train, Whistler was a remote destination. It took three days to get here, two of which were on foot. First you would take the steamship from Vancouver to Squamish, then it was possible to take a horse-drawn buggy a few miles north to Brackendale. After this you would have to rent packhorses and walk the rest of the way along the Pemberton Trail.

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As a consequence, there were very few people living in the area before 1914. However, once the railway was built it became far more accessible. Suddenly the journey took one day instead of three (it was still necessary to take the steamship to Squamish however, as the extension of the train line from Squamish to Vancouver didn’t happen until 1956).

PGE trestle in Cheakamus Canyon. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.
PGE trestle in Cheakamus Canyon. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

The PGE Railway was incorporated in 1912.  Backed by the provincial government, it hired contractors Foley, Welsh & Stewart to build track from Squamish to Prince George.  A ribbon of land 100 ft wide plus 15 ft for side track was cleared.  Trees cut were saved by rolling them to the side and the timber was picked up when the steel track was laid.  It was especially challenging to lay track through the Cheakamus Canyon, because the route had to be carved out of solid rock.

The company’s acronym was the focus of journalistic barbs for 50 years – its name was a bit of a misnomer as the railway could not really be considered Pacific, Great, or Eastern.  Over the years the company acquired many unofficial names: ‘Please Go Easy’, ‘Past God’s Endurance’, ‘Province’s Greatest Expense’, ‘Political Government Expense’, ‘Promoters Get Everything’, ‘Patience, Guts and Endurance’, and ‘Prince George Eventually’.

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Travelling in the open top observation car, 1919. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

On October 11, 1914, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway officially commenced train service from Squamish to Quesnel, and service was later extended to Prince George.  With it came a busy logging industry in the Whistler Valley as well as a number of fishing resorts along the shores of Alta Lake.  Whistler was finally accessible to the world.

Reg Shurie in front of a PGE train. Note how the ‘cowcatcher’ on the front acted as a snow plow. 1920s. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.
Reg Shurie in front of a PGE train. Note how the ‘cowcatcher’ on the front acted as a snow plow. 1920s. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

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