Yesterday I rode my bike across the southeastern border of the Province of British Columbia into the Province of Alberta via an area known as Crowsnest Pass. Bundled up against sub-zero temperatures and cross-winds, I cycled 33 kilometres. To my north was an amazing view of snow-covered Rocky Mountains.
About 25 kilometers into Alberta, I pedalled to the historic site of the town of Frank. Frank was a coal mining town of 600 residents developed in 1901 by an American company. The mine was located at the base of Turtle Mountain for efficient transfer of coal from the mine to railway cars. Part of Canada’s national railway system, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) lines ran alongside the town.
First Nations people had long avoided Turtle Mountain and called it the mountain that moves. Indeed, the coal miners often heard the mountain rumble, support timbers in the mine cracked from the pressure of moving rock and coal crumbled from walls.
The First Nations people were justified in their avoidance of camping near Turtle Mountain. Turtle Mountain has a fault caused by sedimentary rock folded vertically rather typically stable horizontal layers. The lower portion of Turtle Mountain consisted of sandstone and shale, with limestone layers on the upper half. Years of erosion by water and ice through fissures deep into Turtle Mountain accumulated. The resulting huge overhanging section of limestone on the eastern face was geologically a disaster in the making.
On April 29, 1903 in the early morning hours, residents of Frank were asleep in their homes with the exception of 20 coal miners working the night shift and CPR employees expecting a freight train. It was a cold night, following an unusually warm winter of cold days and warm nights. The snow cap had already begun to melt in March.
At 4:10 a.m. the limestone overhang – one kilometer wide, half a kilometer in height and one-quarter a kilometer in depth – hurtled down Turtle Mountain and engulfed the mine entrance and the easternmost section of Frank. It’s estimated the speed of the descending debris was 120 kph. The noise of the slide was heard 200 kilometers away.
Three kilometers of the valley floor was 50 (15m) to 150 (45m) feet deep in rocks and boulders. A 100 million tons of rubble. A choking grey dust filled the air. The catastrophe took place in only 1,000 seconds.
Those 1,000 seconds took the lives of 89 slumbering residents caught in the path of the slide. Three miners outside the entrance of the mine were killed. The slide was fickle. Residents of one home perished, while a neighboring household survived. A fortunate 23 people in the direct path of the slide were spared.
Seven miners’ cottages, the American coal company buildings, a construction camp, a dairy, a shoe store, 2 ranches, a livery stable, the Frank cemetery (how surreal) and 2 kilometers of CPR track vanished beneath the heap of detritus.
The Frank Slide was a night of devastation, both human and ecological, but heroes and the tenacity of the human will to survive are legendary today. One CPR employee scrambled over rocks for 2 kilometers down the track through the dark and murk to flag down an oncoming train. Seventeen miners trapped below tunneled up a coal seam in toxic conditions. After 13 hours, they emerged safely. Charlie, the mining horse, was found alive after 3 weeks underground but, unfortunately, passed away soon after when his owners overfed him.
The town depended on the Frank coal mine for their daily bread. It was reopened and operating in May, 1903. The CPR rail line, crucial to cross-country access, opened 3 weeks after the Frank slide.
Myths about the slide circulate to this day. One claims a baby girl was the sole survivor. In fact, one toddler and two babies did survive after being ejected from their homes by the impact of the debris. Another 20 people were pulled alive out of the rubble by rescuers.
Only 12 bodies were recovered. Eighty victims remain entombed in the debris. Road crews rebuilding the highway in 1923 unearthed a home and recovered 6 skeletons.
An interesting sideshow in the highway rebuilding was a police guard while road crews worked. Despite a local bank remaining intact, a popular rumor spread there was $500,000 from the bank buried under the slide. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police presence ensured if such a discovery was made, the work crews were protected and so was the loot. No riches were unearthed.
109 years later, from an up-close viewpoint of a cyclist, the Frank Slide moved me profoundly. The sheer magnitude of the Canada’s worst natural disaster is still evident. The barren eastern face of Turtle Mountain is devoid of vegetation or forest even a century later.
Massive piles of rubble extend 1.5k along both sides of the rebuilt highway. Enormous boulders stand sentinel. Rocks mound in memoriam.
The Frank Slide is designated a historical site and protected. A sign that says “Defacing Rocks Prohibited” has graffiti but, astonishingly, other than 2 taggers, the burial site of 80 people is unscathed by spray cans.
Nature, with all her mightiness, reminds us we are at her mercy today and forever. For this solitary cyclist, a sobering, thoughtful and respectful moment in time.
*Postscript: There are approximately 80 monitoring devices on Turtle Mountain. The Frank Slide created two peaks, North and South. The southern peak is deemed unstable and the possibility of a 5 kilometer slide remains. Turtle Mountain is the fastest moving mountain in the Rockies, an estimated 2 to 3 mm shift every year.
*Note: Pictures were taken with my phone and, unfortunately, do not do justice.