Newfoundland rebuilt after their devastating hurricane in 1775, the Nisga'a continued to live at the site of a volcanic eruption and the mining town of Frank in North West Territories is no less resilient in the face of their natural disaster – 82 million tonnes of rock buried the eastern section of its town and killing upwards of 90 people. It is one of Canada's largest landslides and remains the deadliest in the annals of Canadian history, even if plenty of Canadians have no idea it ever happened.
Many records list this disaster has happening in Alberta, but at the dawn of the twentieth century Alberta was just a small piece of the North West Territories, it was not its own province yet, not for another two years. Splitting hairs I am sure, but note worthy none the less.
On September 10, 1901 a grand gala event was in full swing with speeches, sporting events, dinner and tours. They, Henry Frank and Samuel Gebo, were celebrating the creation of the town of Frank that would support the mines they owned in the area. Over fourteen hundred guests from neighbouring communities arrived and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) ran special service to the town for the event.
The year before coal had been discovered and Henry Frank and Samuel Gebo were shared owners of the company Canadian-American Coal and Coke Company, which operated a mine and needed a town to support the mines. Frank was situated near the base of Turtle Mountain in the Crowsnet Pass where the coal was discovered.
For the next few years the town flourished and bustled, a permanent population of 600 lived in Frank and the town had four hotels and not just one school, but a two-storey school.
During the wee morning hours of April 29th 1903 the people of the town of Frank would either be just getting home, sound asleep or have already started the day. Even if it was high noon in the remote town, not many would have been able to escape the 83 million tonnes of limestone that came crashing down from east face of Turtle Mountain in under a hundred seconds obliterating the eastern side of the town, entrances to the coal mine and two kilometres of Canadian Pacific Railway line.
The native people's known as Kutenai and the Blackfoot all warned the settlers since their first arrival to not settle near Turtle Mountain that it was a mountain that moves, walks even. Both the Blackfoot people and the Kutenai refuse to camp near the mountain's base or even too close to the mountain in general.
Native's may have a lot of oral history that many view has simply folklore and stories, nothing more. But give credit where it's due, a number of native tales across Canada have accurately reflected what was going on around them at the time of the tale. For example the Inuit and the missing ships of the Franklin expedition, the Nisga'a tale of a volcanic eruption in British Columbia and the natives of Gwaii Haanas and their flood.
Of the 600 people living in Frank, about a hundred of them were in the way of the mountains collapse and there were only 23 survivors, mostly children and the seventeen miners. We can only estimate the death toll based on who we knew lived where and who was missing afterwards.There were as many as 50 transients seeking work who found themselves camped at the base of Turtle Mountain that night. Some residents stated they had left before the rock slide whilst others said they had not left. The general accepted death toll is between 70 and 90 people.
The town people's resilience is astounding within weeks the mine opened, the railway cleared and running, the town had doubled its population by 1906 and found itself relocated in 1911 amid fears of another slide. Today the town is home to about two hundred people.
The rock slide is untouched and pretty much the same now as it was seconds after coming down. Most of the victims remain entombed beneath the rocks; only 12 bodies were recovered in the immediate aftermath and six additional victims unearthed in 1922. The actual site of the disaster has been designated a Provincial Historic Site of Alberta and is home to an interpretive centre that is popular with tourists, since the centre receives more than a hundred thousand people annually.
A Not So Slow Moving Mountain
In 1880 a rancher looked at the two thousand metre high mountain that was thrust up by the Rockies nearly eighty million years ago and saw a turtle's face staring back at him with its great shell rising up behind him. Louis Garnett named the mountain Turtle Mountain.
The section of mountain that broke off twenty-three years later, was neither small nor slow, it was a staggering one thousand metres wide, four hundred and twenty-five metres high and one hundred and fifty metres deep. Overall it was eighty-two million tonnes (enough rock to build a wall from British Columbia to Newfoundland .), took no more than one hundred seconds to travel hundred and twelve kilometres per hour down the side of the mountain.
Once the dust settled the rock slide covered three square kilometres with rocks as thick as forty-five feet and it had made enough noise that the sound of the disaster was heard over two hundred kilometres away. Portions of the eastern edge of town obliterated, mine entrances buried deep under rock and homes smashed.
Of the twenty miners working the late shift three had been outside the mines and ultimately killed the remaining seventeen miners found themselves sealed in the mines.
Those sealed in the mines did what miners do best and proceeded to dig their way out. It took a couple of tries before finding the right spot to dig, working in narrows tunnels and in pairs, the work was long, arduous and in dangerous conditions as the air was not getting any better the longer they stayed in the mines. All but three men were utterly exhausted by fumes and work, it took the better part of the entire day to dig themselves free and they emerged late in the afternoon, thirteen hours after the rock slide.
What they emerged into was a completely different story. Seven cottages used by the miners and their families were destroyed, several businesses and all the mines buildings, a two kilometre stretch of both road and tracks were either obliterated or buried.
Some learned that not only did they lose their home but also family members, in some cases entire families. Others were lucky and their families survived as did their homes. To the victims at the time it must have seemed all so terribly random. One of the three miners who died outside the mines had a daughter survive, Lillian Clark, his wife and other six children all died.
There were a few silver linings in the tragic event, one being that even though twelve men died at the CPR work camp – one hundred and twenty-eight were saved when their train failed to pick them up the night before. A passenger train that was due to arrive was stopped before arriving at the rock slide, the brake man responsible for running from the town to the tracks received an award of twenty-five dollars for his heroism.
Turtle Mountain formed roughly eighty million years ago when the earth jutted up rocks creating the two thousand metre tall mountain. It is what is known as an anticline in geology structures. This essentially means that the top of the mountain is older and heavier limestone which is folded over lighter or softer substrates such as sandstone and shale. Over thousands of years, possibly hundreds of thousands of years the mountain suffered erosion, cracks and fissures opened allowing water to travel through and settle in these gaps – small and large. With water running, limestone started to erode and give way to caves, to which Crowsnest Pass houses some of Canada's finest limestone caves, though some of these caves like the one under north peak on Turtle Mountain are sulfur based and slowly eating away at the various rocks.
Even without the mining at its base - worming a two kilometre hole through it and the removal of more than a quarter of a million tons of coal - this mountain was anything but stable from its very creation. The natives had warned Europeans against settling near it and throughout their lore were the stories and tales of the mountain that moves.
Weather only added to the lack of stability within the mountain. During the winter of 1902 – 1903 there was more snow than what was considered usual. April was early spring and unusually warm, the snows melted and the water filled the crevices of the mountain. A cold snap on the night of April 28th was likely the proverbial straw that broke the camels back – the water froze which means it also expanded. By 4 am in the morning on the 29th, the mountain gave and 82 million tonnes of rock came sliding down.
The miners for as far back as seven months prior to the disaster could feel the mountains instability in the form of rumblings, the cracked and splintered timbers supporting the shafts, early mornings the floor of the mine would shift as if a wave passed under it, morning shift workers found that the mine had mined itself overnight.
The mine owners refused to admit or even agree that the presence of their mines played any role in the rock slide. Geological Survey Canada concluded in later studies that the mining operation very likely did play a role as the mountain, without the mining, the mountain had achieved an equilibrium of sorts and even a small trigger or deformation (such as the mines) could help trigger a slide.. The mine was quickly reopened – within weeks of the deadly rock slide and operated while rocks, big and small, continued to tumble-down the shifting mountain
Geologists have debated endlessly about how the rock slide debris managed to travel as far as it did and in the way that it did. An early theory was 'air cushion' – air cushioning between the bottom of the rock slide and the top of the ground allowing it to glide almost frictionless down the mountain. A similar theory was 'acoustic fluidization'  which stated that the large volume of debris created seismic energy (waves) that allowed it to flow like water down the mountain. There are at least four more theories, but most scientists do believe the rocks flowed like a thick liquid, following the contours of the land and its features.
The geologists are still arguing it out but in the meantime they created the term debris avalanche to describe the unique slide at Turtle Mountain.
Legends Are Born
Myths, legends and heroic acts can all find their beginnings in disasters. This one is no different. This disaster does have some amazing stories that are completely honest, and some that are incredibly persistent and inaccurate.
Other than the 'I am the sole survivor' tale told by some, there are two persistent myths that just won't go away.
The first is that the entire town of Frank was buried - including its Union Branch Bank of Canada Bank with at least a cool half a million in it. Nearly twenty years after the slide this myth was still widely held, despite the fact that the entire town was not buried, in 1924 crews were working at creating a new road, but because it went through some of the rock slide, they did it under police guard so they could not accidentally unearth the treasure. The bank was untouched in the rock slide and demolished in 1911.
The second myth, which has now grown into legend, involves an infant girl whose entire family was lost in the rock slide. Her real name was never discovered and she was named instead Frankie Slide. She was found under a rock, no under a collapsed roof, wait wait I recall now, she was found in her mothers dead arms amidst the rubble of their home. No not that one, she was found in a bucket ... well this myth has a thousand variations and none are true.
Some little girls did survive the rock slide and perhaps the myth was inspired by their survival stories - Marion Leitch and Gladys Ennis who was only two years old at the time and found outside her home in the mud. Marion was thrown from her home and landed in a hay bale, her sisters were found under a ceiling joist.
One true story that actually does sound like a myth or flight of fancy is about Charlie, the mine horse. He survived a month in the mine alone but quickly died after being found.
Today, geologists believe that another slide is inevitable, though not imminent. The Alberta Geological Survey and their latest monitoring system used by scientists and researchers around the world and with no less than eighty monitoring stations watching Turtle Mountain for any movement, people will have months, if not years of advance notice of the next rock slide.
Many geologists believe that the south peak will likely fall first but that it would considerably smaller about one sixth the size of the Frank Slide.