The West is an astonishing place ranging from the lower reaches of Mexico up into the Arctic. A region of mountains, canyons, deserts, great rivers, and vast prairies. It can be a harsh, unforgiving place that doesn’t allow for errors. It reflects a history of perseverance over inconceivable obstacles in finding freedom on one hand and a record of people subjected to other people's will on another hand. The West is a region of surreal natural wonders and impossible landscapes, as well as the exploitation of the same. While the emphasis is so often placed on the U.S. story, a large part of the saga of the West took place beyond the frontiers of the United States.
On the Canadian side of the border, the story of the West greatly diverged from the experience of our American cousins. In terms of geography, the seemingly endless prairies encountered a virtually impassible wall at the northern Rockies. Our history with the First Nations who inhabited the West differs somewhat from the American culture clash. There was less open conflict, although the end result was somewhat the same: most First Nations people ended up on reserves and/or marginalized. The widespread violence of the American West was paralleled by a steadier law and order presence on the Canadian side.
We have our own experience of building a transcontinental railroad, spanning the continent and tying East with West. In both the U.S. and Canada, the western wilderness was hard on the unprepared and often unforgiving of mistakes. Many came seeking a financial windfall from the riches that appeared to be out there, but some found tragedy instead. This is one of those stories.
At the close of the 19th century, a small town rose up by Crowsnest Pass in Alberta, near the British Columbia border and amidst the Rockies. Frank was one of a number of coal mining towns in the area, its workers involved in extracting minerals from the earth. Frank is in the shadow of Turtle Mountain, now known by geologists to be unstable for several reasons including its mode of formation, an undermining of the interior by water, and the force of erosion over time.
Before Europeans came to the area, Turtle Mountain had a reputation among First Nations as “the mountain that moves.” They refrained from camping below the mountain and witnessed periodic evidence of rockfalls. This geological instability was a primary cause of what was to come, though human actions certainly didn’t help.
Traditional wariness about the mountain was likely shrugged off by early settlers as native superstition and nothing more. There was money to be made in digging out coal and Turtle Mountain was ripe for the picking. The rich seams of coal were too big for mining interests to ignore and the close proximity of the transcontinental railroad was another incentive to dig into the mountain. It’s estimated that between 1901 and 1903, a quarter million tons of coal were removed from deep inside the mountain. This was also a time when safety standards were virtually nonexistent.
In early 1903, there were warnings that something was wrong. Support beams in the mine shafts seemed to crack more often than expected. Miners reported strange shiftings of the mountain. Coal mysteriously fell off the face of a shaft when no one was there mining it. That winter left some exceptionally heavy snowpack on the mountain, which scientists today believe may have been a trigger.
April of 1903 was warm, so the snowpack on Turtle Mountain was rapidly melting with much water draining into the cracks below. Then late in the month, temperatures dropped. On the 28th, the night was the coldest of the entire winter, a rare event for late April. The water in those fissures turned to ice, expanded, and widened cracks. This put even more pressure on an unstable mountain. A huge wedge of rock (estimated to be a kilometre wide, a half kilometre high, and a hundred fifty metres deep) was forced away from the mountainside. The rock fall rumbled down towards the valley floor below, while the roar was heard over two hundred kilometres away.
The slide took about ninety seconds in all. By the time it ended, three square kilometres of the valley floor were covered in rocks to an average depth of fifteen metres. The final weight of the avalanche is estimated to be eighty-two-million tonnes of rock. Eastern stretches of Frank were buried. Over a hundred people lived in the path of the avalanche and only twenty-three survived.
Most of the dead remain buried to this day, along with their flattened homes far beneath the debris field. Surprisingly, the miners working that night mostly survived. They managed to dig their way out past the blocked passages to discover a transformed valley with friends and neighbors lost forever.
The mines in Turtle Mountain were closed a few years later. Frank itself went into a population decline, eventually being incorporated into the township of Crowsnest Pass. The devastation from the slide is still there. The area is now a historic site with an interpretive centre that draws visitors to see the scar where millions of tonnes of rock fell a century ago. Geologists study the record today, attempting to learn from the multifaceted causes of the disaster.
As a story of the Canadian West, Frank Slide offers a hard lesson. While the geological factors were a primary cause of this disaster, the added weight of human greed didn’t help much.
Building a town so close beneath a mountain known by earlier inhabitants to be problematic was asking for trouble. Digging furiously for mineral wealth while disregarding signs that something is amiss was more of the same. The consequences of rampant overmining oft repeated themselves throughout the West as people recklessly pursued dreams of riches or just a paycheck. In this case, dozens paid the ultimate price. The mountain is quiet now, but the conditions that once caused it to tremble so violently and take the lives of so many are still in place. One day, it will happen again.
William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.