100th Anniversary of Frank Slide Disaster

THERE IS PROBABLY no one alive who knows more about the horrific FRANK SLIDE than Monica Field. A lifelong resident of the area bordering the CROWSNEST PASS, the 43-year-old Field grew up hearing the story of a great uncle who narrowly escaped one of the deadliest natural disasters in Canadian history. For the past 18 years, Field has worked at Alberta's FRANK SLIDE INTERPRETIVE CENTRE, along the southernmost road and rail route through the Canadian Rockies. "I want the dead remembered," says Field, as she prepares for the 100th anniversary on April 29 of the crumbling of Turtle Mountain that killed at least 70 people. "Whole families were wiped out. Little children were left orphans. The human cost was very high - and we must never forget that."

But the lessons are not just about the past. Every geological survey that's been done on Turtle Mountain has come to the same conclusion: another massive rockfall is just a matter of time. For that reason, Field and others have pressed - so far, in vain - to have a sophisticated monitoring system that could give residents and officials fair warning that disaster is approaching. One problem is that proper seismic and tracking equipment could cost up to $1 million. Another is a lack of urgency; after all, the next rock slide could be 10 years, or 10,000 years, away.

While there were some warning signs for the 600 people who lived in the booming mining town of Frank at the base of Turtle Mountain in 1903, they went unheeded. With its massive limestone overhang at its summit, the mountain was notoriously unstable. Smaller rockfalls routinely rained down, especially during the spring thaw, which may be why the local Blackfoot and Kutenai Indians called the 2,200-m peak the Mountain that Moves. In the months leading up to the tragic slide, miners working a coal seam on Turtle Mountain reported strange cracklings and rumblings. They also noticed excessive slippage of coal from the mine wall and sometimes found that the two-foot-square timbers they used to prop it up would splinter into pieces overnight.

Still, for the 20 miners who went underground for the overnight shift on April 28, as well as the hundreds of Frank residents already nestled in their beds, there was no reason to think tragedy was nigh. Then, at 4:10 a.m., the entire east face of Turtle Mountain collapsed. A gigantic wedge of limestone, 650 m high, 150 m thick and one kilometre wide, hurled down the steep mountainside. Chunks of rock, some as big as houses, sent off sparks as they struck each other. A cloud of white limestone powder filled the air. The river of rock spilled over the valley and about 150 m up the opposite slope before coming to a rest. Miners' cottages and tents were wiped out, two kilometres of CPR track lay buried in rubble and the entrance to the Frank mine was blocked. It all happened in 90 seconds.

Three of the miners who came to the surface shortly before 4 a.m. for their lunch break perished in the slide. Hearing the noise, the rest of the men inside rushed for the mine entrance, only to find it sealed by a wall of broken limestone and coal. Realizing that one untouched coal seam reached the surface higher on the mountain, the miners doggedly dug their way upward through the soft coal. Finally, at about 5 p.m., 13 hours after the slide, Dan McKenzie's pick broke through. A rush of clean air greeted him as sunlight pierced his eyes.

Rescue parties had been at work throughout the day, scouring the ruins for bodies. By nightfall, only 12 bodies had been recovered and taken to the temporary morgue at the Frank schoolhouse. At least 60 other people are believed to have died in the slide. Their remains are still entombed beneath the jungle of boulders visible to this day to anyone travelling through the Crowsnest Pass when the snow is off the ground.

The actual death count might be even higher. Another 50 or more men were said to have pitched tents on the valley bottom days before the slide while they looked for work in town. Most were transients, known to no one but each other. Some townsfolk said later that the men may have left just before April 29. If not, they, too, are surely buried at the base of Turtle Mountain.

Many others escaped almost certain death because of the heroics of one man. Sid Choquette was the brakeman on a freight train that had just left empty coal cars near the mine when the slide struck. Realizing that the Spokane Flyer, a passenger train, was due in from Lethbridge at any moment, Choquette scrambled for two kilometres over jagged boulders as big as boxcars. Groping through the dust-filled darkness, he could have been killed many times over by the rocks that continued to fall from the mountain. Choquette reached the other side just in time to flag down the Flyer before it would have plowed into the limestone rubble.

Among the passengers was Field's great-uncle, Herb Stewart. He later described in a letter how Choquette's "nerves were pretty much gone when he reached us." For his efforts, the CPR presented the brakeman with a $25 cheque and a letter of commendation.

Most of Frank, including its main business and residential areas, escaped the slide's wrath. But to the southeast of town, the rockfall decimated a row of miners' cottages, randomly killing some of the occupants while sparing others. Take the Leitch family. Shortly after dawn on April 29, a rescue party sifted through the rubble of their three-room cottage. In one spot, they found two young girls, Jessie and Rose-Mary, pinned on a bed, with a ceiling joist resting between them - both of them miraculously unharmed. Elsewhere in the house, their parents and four brothers lay dead. Their baby sister, Marion, had been flung from the house and landed safely on a bale of hay. Her story inspired the tragedy's most enduring myth. It held that the rockfall had wiped out the entire town, save for one little girl, dubbed "Frankie Slide," who, according to various accounts, was found alive on a rock, on a bale of hay, in a crib, in an attic, in a pile of debris - or in her dead mother's arms.

Field still marvels at the cruel ironies of that day. She cites the Clark household. Alex Clark was one of the three miners who died while on their lunch break. His wife and six of their children were crushed to death in the family cottage. The sole survivor was 15-year-old Lillian, who worked at the Frank boarding house and who, for the first time, had her mother's permission to sleep in town that night. Then there's William Warrington, one of the trapped miners, who had to be lifted out on a plank because he fractured his leg while digging to freedom. Warrington emerged only to discover his wife and seven children had perished in the slide. "Warrington went on to remarry and have other children," says Field. "But I don't think you ever get over something like that."

Right after the slide, the residents of Frank were evacuated by train. But within a month, most returned and the mine reopened. Mining operations ceased for good in 1918 and the town, which today has a population of about 300, became a bedroom community for other working mines in the region. In recent years, it has also become something of a tourist attraction. The provincial Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, which opened in 1985, draws about 50,000 visitors annually.

Geologists say a combination of factors caused the Frank Slide. Foremost is the inherent instability of Turtle Mountain, which continues to experience rock falls every spring. An earthquake centred off the Aleutian Islands in 1901 is thought to have placed added stress on the mountain, as did the coal mining operation that opened shortly thereafter. Weather may have also played a role. In March 1903, the region experienced heavy snowfalls, followed by unusually high temperatures in late April. On the night of the slide, a cold snap hit. It's likely that meltwater entered fissures at the top of the mountain, then froze and expanded the cracks. That may have provided the final trigger.

While the 1903 slide issued from Turtle Mountain's north peak, overlooking the town of Frank, geologists now believe a second major rock fall is far more likely to occur on the mountain's south peak. There are nine homes in the direct path of such a slide, four of them built prior to 1903. Living in one are retired miner Roy Lazzarotto, 71, and his wife Eda, 68. The Lazzarottos, who enjoy a spectacular view of the Crowsnest Pass from behind their three-bedroom house, lose no sleep over the prospect of another major rock slide. "I know a lot people say they would never live where we do," says Roy. "But to me, it's beautiful here, and I love it." The Mountain that Moves has its charms, not all of them deadly.

See also DISASTERS, HISTORIC ROCKSLIDES IN CANADA and ROCKSLIDE.

Maclean's April 28, 2003