The Ladies of the Valley

By Sarah Drewery, Whistler Museum.

In 1912, Ernest Archibald discovered the Whistler Valley while working on the construction of the PGE railway. He fell in love with the place and decided to look for land here.  His sister Grace Archibald and her friend, Grace Woollard, both nurses in Vancouver, joined him on his journey along the Pemberton Trail to pre-empt land in the Alta Lake area.

The ladies, Grace Archibald and Grace Woollard, on the Pemberton Trail, 1912. COURTESY WHISTLER MUSEUM.


On one of the early visits to the valley an incident happened that Grace Woollard would delight in telling her grandchildren in her old age. At that time there was a surveyors’ camp for the PGE railway on the west side of Alta Lake. Ernie decided to spend the night there with the men and sent the two women off to stay in a cabin on the east side of the lake. The pair rowed across to their accommodation and when they arrived realised that there were no curtains. They were modest women, and although it seems pretty unlikely that much could have been seen without a strong pair of binoculars, they decided to play it safe by hanging their cloaks over the windows so they could get ready for bed without fear of peeping toms.

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Very early the next morning, practically at dawn, the ladies were surprised to see Ernie Archibald rowing furiously across the lake. When they realised the reason for his panic, they were blown away. In those days nurses were issued with cloaks as part of their uniform. The exterior was navy and the lining a bright scarlet. Apparently, when the ladies hung their cloaks in the windows the coal lamps glowing through them emitted a soft red light, visible from across the lake.

This was a very provocative signal to the camp of surveyors, deprived of the company of women. Suddenly, two women arrive and put a red light up in the window! Apparently, Ernie had a very hard time that night persuading the men that the women in the cabin were his sister and her friend and not the ‘ladies of the night’ that they were hoping for.

Grace Woollard, later in life, showing off some impressive snowfall outside her Whistler cabin. COURTESY WHISTLER MUSEUM.

This story must have been quite a shock for these two professional ladies of the 1910s, who were presumably quite proper. However, they quite obviously saw the humorous side of it, as in later life they loved to recount their tale of mistaken identity in the wilderness.