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The Saga of the Hollyburn Chairlift
Donald Grant

On January 17, 1951, the Hollyburn chairlift was officially opened. Hollyburners who had previously relied on a network of logging roads and trails to reach their cabins and skiing grounds could now look forward to a 12 minute ride from Hat-Inn at 300m to Hi-View Lodge at 850m. For school-age children growing up in the 1950’s, the “Chairway to the Stars” provided thrills that rivaled those experienced on the scariest amusement park rides. To the generations that preceded them, the easy access provided by the Hollyburn chairlift robbed the mountain of some of its charm. Hollyburn was no longer an ‘exclusive’ playground for teenagers and young adults.

For Hi Colville, Bill Theodore, Dick Lawerence, Roy Sims and others who had invested time and money in Hollyburn Aerial Trams Ltd., the inaugural run of the chairlift was the realization of a dream. They believed that Hollyburn could now compete with nearby Grouse Mountain, which had opened a chairlift in 1948.

The Hollyburn chairlift was designed by Riblet Tramway Company of Spokane, which also provided prefabricated materials for the towers, chairs, and loading platforms. Unlike Grouse’s double chairlift, most of the chairs on the Hollyburn lift were single. Hi-View Lodge, built beside the top station, was a magnificent log building, where visitors could enjoy a meal and an expansive view of the Lower Mainland. Oscar Pearson, owner/operator of the Hollyburn Ski Camp from 1927 to 1946, was on hand to greet people when they reached the top of the lift.

During the fourteen year lifespan of the Hollyburn Chairlift, thousands of people made the trip up and down the mountain without incident. Many were day-trippers, coming to enjoy the ski facilities at Hi-View, Westlake, and First Lake. Others were cabin owners, carrying essential supplies for their weekend retreats, some quiet, some a little more boisterous.

On occasion, Hollyburners would begin to consume the most essential of these supplies while still on the chairlift. A few years ago, HHS secretary-treasurer Iola Knight found a bottle of wine, half full, near one of the old chairlift towers. Although tempted, she decided not to sample this mature vintage. Perhaps the bottle had been thrown or dropped there by the young man who, smitten by the damsel on the chair ahead of him, had attempted to join her by making a hand-to-hand trip along the cable. Unfortunately for him, the object of his affections went by the next tower before he could reach her, forcing him to drop to the snows below.

A number of riders, through no fault of their own, were forced to make similar leaps. Trudy Staley tells the story about how she was forced to make a nighttime jump because the lift operator at the top station shut down the chairlift before she had reached the bottom. This was not an isolated incident.

Another miscalculation by a lift operator almost caused serious injury to one of Alex Swanson’s children. David Swanson had broken his leg while skiing at First Lake and needed to be transported by stretcher to the bottom of the mountain. Alex got on the chairlift and a few moments later watched as David was placed on a special ‘freight’ chair about 50m behind him. Because it was loaded at an awkward angle, the stretcher was almost knocked off the lift when it went past the first tower. In order to save David, Alex had to jump from his chair onto the next tower and wait until the ‘freight’ chair approached. At precisely the right moment, Alex jumped from the tower onto the ‘freight’ chair and quickly repositioned the stretcher. Later that day, Alex confronted the lift operator and told him his presence was no longer welcome on the mountain. According to Alex, he hasn’t seen him since.

The most spectacular of mishaps on the Hollyburn Chairlift occurred late in the evening on December 26, 1962, when 56 young people coming from a special event at Hi-View Lodge were left stranded on the lift for hours. Four youths at the bottom station started to swing the chairs as they turned around a large pulley mechanism. The swinging motion flipped the cable out of the pulley mechanism causing it to sag up and down the mountain. One of the chairs was dragged into a tower, which subsequently pulled the structure down. Fortunately there were no serious injuries.

Such incidents did not enhance the reputation of the Hollyburn Chairlift. Three years later a spectacular incident caused its demise.

Imagine waking one morning to learn that major sections of the Cypress Bowl Highway had been swept away by a massive landslide and would not be replaced for several years. A similar dilemma faced Hollyburn ski lodge operators and cabin owners on the morning of June 6th, 1965. During the previous night, a fire had destroyed beautiful Hi-View Lodge and severely damaged the upper station of the Hollyburn Chairlift, thereby cutting off easy access to cabins and ski trails. No doubt many Hollyburners worried about the impact this disaster would have on their cherished way of life.

Residents in nearby cabins were awakened by the fire about 2:30 a.m. which had already cut a chairlift cable and BC Telephone lines to West Vancouver. Using the municipal forest service’s own line on the mountain, they telephoned Ted Russell at the ranger station. Ted alerted Fred Russell and Kjell Karlson. The three of them rode in Fred’s jeep to a point near the ‘spar tree lookout’.

There was little anyone could do. Most of the firefighting equipment on the mountain had been stored in the lodge. While Fred continued down the mountain to report the fire to West Vancouver Police, a bucket brigade worked hard to save Oscar Pearson’s cabin, which stood next to the chairlift station. Fortunately the cabin survived and the fire did not spread into the neighbouring forest.

Over the years, there has been much speculation about how the fire got started. At the time of the fire, Hollyburn Aerial Trams Ltd. was facing financial ruin. There had been little snow during the 1962/1963 and 1963/1964 ski seasons. Ironically, during the winter of 1964/1965 there was too much snow low down on the mountain. It had been expensive clearing the road to the bottom of the chairlift. A week before the fire, the lodge had been closed and the electrical power to the lift and lodge cut off. The previous Thursday, Hi Colville had announced the company was going into voluntary bankruptcy.

For some, these circumstances suggest that the fire may have been deliberately set. However, investigators were never able to determine the fire’s cause. Insurance paid only a small part of the $300.000 Hollyburn Aerial Trams had invested in Hi-View Lodge and the chairlift. The financial backers were left with little money and broken dreams. It was highly unlikely that H.A.T. would repair or rebuild what had been damaged or lost. For the next ten years, Hollyburners would have to use a network of rough roads and trails to get to and from the mountain.

In 1938, the Heaps Timber Company of Los Angeles had bulldozed a steep, hairpin-turn logging road as far as the old Nasmyth mill site (just south of parking lot 5). This was the road Fred Burfield had used to notify West Vancouver police about the fire at Hi-View. During the summer, it was relatively easy to make the trip up the Hollyburn road in a sturdy jeep equipped with four-wheel drive. But in 1965, not many Hollyburners owned such a vehicle. Most chose to drive the family car as far up the road as its transmission and their nerves allowed and then to complete the journey on foot. In winter, with snow covering much of the road, they faced a longer hike.

In the years immediately following the fire, the late 60s, those whose cars were not up to the challenge of the Hollyburn road could make the trip in Fred Burfield’s bus from the chairlift parking lot to the snowline, or even as far as the Spar Tree Look-out when the road was bare to there. When Fred discontinued this service due to high costs and low revenue, a growing number of cabin owners began to acquire trucks to get to the Ridge. Motorcycles and and an interesting assortment of off-road vehicles were also were used to make the trip.

The Hollyburn road could be accessed from the the top of 15th Street, through the Panorama Film Studios off Skilift Road, or from a point near the base of the chairlift. In the late 1960’s, one could get onto the Hollyburn road from a road that went to the Hydro substation just east of Cypress Creek. Sometimes, Hollyburners would drive up the Cypress Bowl logging road which began in upper Caulfeild, traversed across the east flank of Black Mountain, and terminated near the present day Black Mountain Lodge. In the early 1970’s this road was extended and connected with a rough road that eventually became the Cypress Bowl Highway.

As the Cypress Bowl Highway neared completion, it became the favoured route. In 1974, Hollyburners were able to drive along a well-maintained, paved road to the top of the Ridge, together with thousands of curious Vanvouverites. A good, four-season road to Hollyburn was finally open, but a way of life had been lost.