Squamish has an interesting aviation history.
Until the late 1950s, Squamish was fairly isolated, without road or rail connection to the Lower Mainland. Back in the 1920s there was no telephone connection to the city, either. The PGE railway, however, did have its own telephone service.
The very first aircraft landing in Squamish harbour involved a desperate businessman needing to get to Squamish to phone his partner who was at Mons (Whistler).
On June 15th, 1921, James D’Ersby had until Noon to submit a bid for a big building contract but needed figures from partner Duncan Dewar at Mons. At 10am he got hold of the Jericho Beach air base to charter a plane to take him to Squamish and the PGE phone line with which he could connect with Dewar.
D’Ersby was flown to Squamish to make the call to Mons and they arrived back in the city just a few minutes before deadline. D’Ersby Dewar got the contract.
British Columbia’s early pilots and pilot instructors got their training during WWI. Aerial survey photography was also pioneered during the war and use of airborne cameras and photogrammetric methods were further advanced during the 1920s.
In 1929 a project began to apply the new aerial surveying methods in charting the route and resources of the PGE Railway line from Squamish northward.
It is in the period 1929-1931 that the very first aerial photos of the Squamish Valley were produced, for the PGE survey and also for Cheakamus River hydro power planning.
By this time log buyers for the coastal mills were visiting Squamish harbour in seaplanes.
The Squamish Board of Trade saw opportunity to collaborate with local logging operator Merrill & Ring and in 1930 established the community’s first proper seaplane docking facilities, near the Union Steamships dock (at southeast corner of today’s Oceanfront peninsula).
In the Spring of 1933, Pacific Airways Ltd. would offer a four days per week regular flight service connecting with PGE trains. (“VANCOUVER TO SQUAMISH IN 35 MINUTES!”) Another market was certainly fishing, hunting and tourist parties wishing to explore the Squamish area.
Unfortunately, the service only ran for a couple of months, as available aircraft and skilled pilots were in great demand on the part of a very busy gold mining industry.
Nonetheless, charter air flights to Squamish, for business people in a hurry and for tourists interested to enjoy fjord and mountain scenery from above, were available ongoing from the mid-1930s.
Women aviators may also have been using the Squamish seaplane dock at this time. By 1933, the Aero Club of B.C. had trained four women pilots – each of whom might very well have made recreational flights from Jericho up into nearby Howe Sound to the Squamish Valley.
At a 1936 Sea Island air show event, a special airplane flight was organized for a group of First Nations chiefs. Chief Jimmy Jimmy from the Squamish Valley (then quite elderly but still vigorous) is remembered to have said when they landed, “I prefer my canoe!”
Development of aircraft uses in the Squamish area in the 1930s was also focused on more serious applications such as reconnaissance of forest fires, rescue missions to Garibaldi Park alpine lakes, and air ambulance services.
A rescue mission of a sort was self-organized by a very thirsty Merrill & Ring logger Gustav Backer in July 1937.
It was a Sunday, with no boat out of Squamish until Monday. Gustav had local pharmacist Bun Yarwood phone for a plane from Sea Island, which arrived at 5 o’clock to take him to Vancouver.
As related by the Bridge River News: “It was the Sabbath eve; Gust would have to pay a bootlegger in Vancouver a top price for his rum to quench the thirst that persisted even on the Lord’s Day, he would have to pay $35 for the plane, but that is all in a day when hard-fisted loggers have the money – and the thirst!”
So, as this story illustrates, by the end of the 1930s seaplanes are fully established as part of the local transportation picture, part of how Squamish was now connected to the rest of the world.
Eric Andersen is a local historian and District of Squamish councillor