BROOKSVILLE, Maine — While Mainers justifiably revel in the successes of local athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics, they may also want to celebrate the fact that those dreams of Olympic glory were made possible, in part, by two Maine natives.
In 1914, Myrtle Tapley and Alex Philip — she from Brooksville and he from Blue Hill — established Rainbow Lodge, a hunting and fishing cabin, on the shore of Alta Lake in the Canadian Northwest.
While they were not the first settlers in the area, their lodge became a popular retreat that set the stage for the development of what is now the Canadian resort town of Whistler, British Columbia, the site for many of the Nordic events at this year’s Olympics.
“Isn’t it something, to think that all this came about because of two people from two small towns from right here?” said Connie Henkel of Brooksville, the grand-niece of Myrtle Tapley.
According to Henkel, who lives in the Tapley House on Wharf Road where Myrtle Tapley grew up, Tapley attended high school at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill. During the school years, she stayed at the Philip home in Blue Hill where, at 15, she met 19-year-old Alex when he returned home for visits from Bangor where he was working as a counterman in Frey’s Cafe on Central Street.
According to a Tapley family genealogy, Alex left Bangor in 1906 to work with his father at a granite quarry outside Vancouver.
“Alex didn’t like working in the quarry, so he went back to Vancouver. It was not much then; it was called Gas Town. He got a job there at a cafe called the Horseshoe Grill,” said Florence Petersen, who, as a young woman in the 1950s, moved to Alta Lake and became a neighbor of Alex and Myrtle’s.
According to Petersen, it was at the Horseshoe that Alex heard about Alta Lake, north of Vancouver, from a trapper who had a cabin there. He decided it might be the spot for the fishing lodge he dreamed of running.
Meanwhile, Myrtle had taught school in Brooksville after finishing high school, and according to Henkel’s family history, when Alex sent for his sweetheart, she too headed west. They were married in Oregon in 1910 and settled in Vancouver. But the call of Alta Lake was strong.
The couple visited the lake each year, and by 1913, they had saved $700 to purchase 10 acres on the shores of the lake.
According to Henkel, members of the Tapley family soon followed Myrtle, boarding the steamship at the end of their road in Brooksville, heading to Belfast and then, by train, to the West Coast. Her father, Sewall Tapley, brother Frank and eventually sisters Margaret and Jean all came to help clear the land and build the log cabin. By the end of 1914 the lodge was ready for guests.
The railroad had just completed a rail line to the lake, and the next spring railroad officials asked whether the lodge could cater to a fishermen’s excursion.
“Well, I had never catered to anybody,” Myrtle told a local reporter in a quote from an old news clipping kept by Henkel. “But I could cook, so we agreed to try it. I got busy planning menus because all of our supplies had to come in by pack horse or freightwagons.
“When the day came, 25 fishermen got off that special train. We had only one boat, and two rafts. But every one of those fishermen got fish. And they went back and told their friends about Alta Lake. And from that time on, we had all the business we could handle.”
Alex left the grill in 1916 and the couple ran the lodge until 1948, expanding it as needed, adding smaller cabins to accommodate more guests. When they sold the lodge, they remained in the area moving to a cabin on the lake.
The main lodge burned in the 1970s, and the lodge property is now a park, but some of the smaller cabins, along with newer replicas, remain at the site on the lake shore.
According to information from the Whistler Museum and Archive Society Web site, the wilderness community began to change in the early 1960s when a group of developers began plans for a ski resort on nearby London Mountain in Garibaldi Provincial Park with an eye to hosting the Winter Olympics. Alex and Myrtle were the guests at a special Olympic planning dinner in 1968.
Whistler initially was chosen as the host site, but the International Olympic Committee nixed the deal because Montreal was in the running for the 1976 summer games.
In the 1970s, with the help of the federal government, the Resort Municipality of Whistler was created, the first in Canada to include a planned, pedestrian-only town center. It now has a year-round population of 9,595 but swells to more than 28,000 at the peak of tourist season.
Myrtle welcomed change, according to Petersen, and always supported anything she thought would benefit the area.
“When skiing first came in, there were some who were concerned that it would disturb our little valley,” Petersen recalled. “But Myrtle was very welcoming of changes. I know she would be so excited to see what has happened here with the Olympics.”
Myrtle never complained about the hardships of living in the wilderness, according to Petersen. She always had a smile and a positive outlook.
“She was very tall for a woman,” Petersen said. “Very statuesque. And in those days, she often wore jodhpurs. This was at a time when a woman was not supposed to show her ankles, never mind her legs. But Myrtle said that there was a lot of work to be done, and she was not going to be hampered by a skirt.”
Alex Philip wrote three novels during his time at the lodge, one of which, “The Crimson West,” was turned into a movie in 1933 titled “Crimson Paradise.” He died in 1968 at age 86.
Myrtle loved the life in the wilderness and became a skilled horseback rider, fly fisherman and cribbage player. Petersen recalled that while she was teaching in the city, her husband would help Myrtle with chores, and every Thursday night he would stay for dinner and they would play cribbage.
“In all those years, I think he only won two games,” she said. “Myrtle really was an expert at playing cribbage.”
Myrtle was an active community member. She was the first Alta Lake postmaster and also served on various committees including a 30-year tenure on the district school board. The local elementary school was named in her honor, and schoolchildren regularly celebrated Myrtle Philip Day with a visit from the pioneer lady who would tell stories of the old days.
Myrtle died in 1986 at age 95. The simple marker at her grave in a local cemetery proclaims her “The First Lady of Whistler,” and when Connie and George Henkel traveled to the area in 2000, people they met remembered her.
“There seemed to be a pervasive knowledge of Aunt Myrtle. She’s a part of the whole community,” George Henkel said.
It has been 100 years since Myrtle Tapley left Brooksville to join her soon-to-be husband in British Columbia. But the Olympic Games have renewed the link between Maine on the East Coast and Whistler, a continent away.
Myrtle McVay of Ellsworth, Myrtle Tapley Philip’s niece, has been watching the Olympic games and remembering the aunt she knew only through letters and phone calls.
“I didn’t think much about it, but when they started mentioning Whistler, I thought about what Aunt Myrtle had done,” McVay said. “It’s kind of exciting. And gee, it’s unbelievable, to think that they went out there into the wilderness and built the lodge. And now all of these people are there to have this lovely enjoyment.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE AND CONNIE HENKEL
An advertisement touts Rainbow Lodge on Alta Lake near what would become the resort town of Whistler in British Columbia, which is hosting the Nordic and Alpine events at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The lodge was built by Maine natives Alex and Myrtle Philip and their relatives, and opened for business in 1914.
AP FILE PHOTO BY JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Whistler village as seen in Whistler, British Columbia, in October 2008. At the height of its Olympic glory, Whistler — the ski resort hosting glamorous Alpine events at the winter games — may be headed for the auction block.
Maine couple set stage for 2010 olympics
PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE AND CONNIE HENKEL
BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO
Alex Philip in 1956.