Crowsnest Lake, near the summit of Crowsnest Pass. Source: M. Rogers, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crowsnest_pass.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
In a country known for its mountain scenery, the Crowsnest Pass corridor between British Columbia and Alberta manages to stand out as one of Canada’s most scenic mountain destinations. Contained within its gorgeous Rocky Mountain vistas, however, is the legacy of a devastating 15-year-long series of horrific tragedies that were all connected in some form to the very rock that forms much of those mountains and continues to drive the region’s economy today: coal.
In this 78 km (48 mi) corridor split between the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, over 400 people were killed in various explosions, fires, and landslides between 1902 and 1917, along with dozens more in the decades since.
The Crowsnest Pass is the southernmost pass on the Canadian side of the Rockies. Used by First Nations people for millennia, the pass only came to white attention in 1873 when two men named Michael Phillipps and John Collins crossed it on a prospecting/trapping expedition. The following year, Phillipps and three partners returned to the Elk Valley just west of the pass to prospect further, finding nothing but coal to his dismay on creeks they would name Morrissey Creek (after another member of the group) and Coal Creek. While the first Canadian transcontinental railway in 1881 would bypass the Crowsnest well to the north (it was considered to be too close to the US border for the government’s liking), the samples of coal Phillipps had sent to the Geological Survey of Canada and its most famous member, George Dawson (of Dawson City and Dawson Creekfame) created a small amount of interest in the potential of coal mining in the region. Eventually, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) would open up a line through the pass in 1898, and almost immediately there was a massive influx of mining companies into the Crowsnest, along with thousands of miners to work for them.
The largest community in the Crowsnest Pass/Elk Valley region for most of its post-1898 history has been the city of Fernie, British Columbia, which sits at the western edge of the corridor at the confluence of the Elk River and Coal Creek. It’s also perhaps been the region’s most star-crossed community (more on that in Part II). Just four years into the young city’s history, a horrific explosion would set the tone for the numerous tragedies that would befall both sides of the pass over the coming years.
8 km (5 mi) up Coal Creek from Fernie was the massive Coal Creek Colliery. Just five years old in 1897 (its founder, local Gold CommissionerWilliam Fernie, started the first camp at Coal Creek a year before the CPR arrived), the operation was already massive with hundreds of employees working in three different mine shafts around the clock. As such, any large mishap within the mine was likely to affect large numbers of people. Such an explosion came at 7:32 pm on the evening of 22 May 1902, in which 128 out of just under 200 miners in the mine’s No. 2 shaft lost their lives; the third-worst mining disaster in Canadian history. The cause of the explosionwas found to be the accumulation of flammable methane gas (‘firedamp’) in high levels at the bottom of the chamber, which was easily ignited by open flames and sparks. Electric trolleys were used to haul coal out of the shaft, giving off sparks along the rails as they went. Dynamite blasts were set off using black powder. Electric lamps for use in mining were still uncommon at this point; instead, the miners were using lamps fuelled by seal oil. The lone ventilation fan in the mine had clogged up and ceased functioning. Despite these obvious safety violations, the government inspector had signed off on the mine just two days prior to the disaster. 35 separate funerals were held in a single day in Fernie two days following the explosion, with the first body hauled out of the shaft being that of a labourer just 13 years old.
As massive and as deadly as the Coal Creek explosion was, it would be dwarfed in memory, if not in death toll, by the most famous disaster in the history of the Crowsnest Pass just 11 months later. While coal mining on the British Columbia side of the border was consolidated under the auspices of the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company, the east side of the pass was still part of the Northwest Territories at this time (Alberta would not be split off until 1905) and as such was subdivided into 160 acre (64.7 ha) plots according to the township-and-rangesystem seen on the Canadian Prairies and in the US Midwest. As such, mines were smaller in size, and numerous coal companies speculated on various 160-acre plots. Each mine had its own feeder community to house workers, creating a set of ten villages within a 23 km (14 mi) stretch of valley. One of these villages was the town of Frank, and in the early morning of 29 April 1903, between 70 and 90 of its denizens would be crushed to death in their sleep.
Founded in September 1901 as a model village to house the workers at Henry Luplin Frank’s new mine, the village of Frank would be the first incorporated village on the east side of the border. It sat in the shadow of Turtle Mountain, in which Mr. Frank’s mine was located. The village steadily grew by 1903 to around 600 residents. Little did they realise that the location of their town was precarious at best. Turtle Mountain had gained another name many years before from the local Blackfoot people: ‘the mountain that moves’. A thrust mountain like many of the Rocky Mountains, Turtle Mountain had been formed approximately 65 to 70 million years ago when older rockbeds where ‘thrust’ eastward on top of younger and structurally weaker sedimentary rocks, most notably limestone. Water seeping through cracks in the bedrock had been dissolving the limestone present at the summit and in the east side of the mountain for millions of years. After Pleistocene glaciers sheared off the outer layers of rock at the bottom of the mountain underlying the limestone at the top of mountain during the last ice age, the weakened layers of limestone were essentially left hanging above the valley and began a slow but constant slump process.
With these conditions in place, it was simply a matter of time before the entire mountainside collapsed into the valley below. The development of the coal mine and the further removal of material from inside the mountain simply accelerated the process. As early as seven months prior to the slide, movement was reported inside the mine, and the timber support beams used to hold up the mine shafts were fracturing at an increased rate. The tolls of the 1903 winter would be the final piece of the deadly puzzle: a heavy snowpack on Turtle Mountain meant that a large amount of meltwater was able to seep into the various rock fissures. Once chilly winter nights caused the water in the cracks to freeze and expand, the fissures were made larger and larger, eventually severing the rock layers from the mountain completely.
Finally at 4:10 am on 29 April 1903, a 30 million m3 (1 billion cu ft) block of Turtle Mountain measuring 150 m (500 ft) in depth, 425 ms (1 400 ft) in height and 1 000 m (3,280 ft) in width collapsed, sending a plume of rock and mud racing toward Frank at a speed of about 70 km/h (120 mph), wiping out the eastern portion of the town including residences, construction camps, two kilometres of railway, the village cemetery, and all of the mine buildings. With between 70 and 90 of the 100-odd people in the slide’s path perishing (most of whom were killed in their sleep), it remains the deadliest landslide in Canadian history, and ranked as its largest landslide until the 1965 Hope Slide in southwestern British Columbia’s Cascade Mountains. The exact number of dead remains unknown as only 12 bodies were ever recovered; the rest still lay somewhere in the rubble.
The Frank Slide scar today. Note the Crowsnest Highway (at top) and 152 Street (at left) cutting through the debris. Source: Amateria1121, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frank_slide_panorama.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
Despite the tragedy of much of the village being obliterated, some miraculous stories were to come out of the slide. A three-year girl (whose name, ironically, was Fernie) was found lying alive in the rocky debris outside of her family’s home, a 27-month-old girl was thrown from her house by the force of the slide only to land safely on a pile of hay, and a 15-month-old girl was found choking on mud outside of her destroyed home by her parents, who cleared the mud from her airways and saved her life (that girl, Gladys Ennis, would go on to be the longest-lived survivor of the slide, passing away in 1993). 17 miners were saved because they were in mine shafts deep within the mountain and not carried away by the slide; they took 13 hours to dig themselves out. Even a mine workhorse would be found alive in the shaft when the mine reopened a month later, having survived on eating timber shaft supports and drinking from puddles, only to die from being overfed by its rescuers. The CPR would clear its buried rail line of rubble in three weeks’ time, and Frank would be rebuilt on the north side of the line where it sits today, gaining nearly 1 200 residents by 1906 before shrinking over the years due to declines in the village’s mining industry after the mid-1910s. Today, Frank is a neighbourhood of around 200 residents, and the portion of the original townsite not covered by the slide is an industrial park. Sensors are now embedded in Turtle Mountain to provide warnings in the event of future slumping.
In Part II, we’ll revisit Fernie and look at the twin disasters that caused the young city to be rebuilt twice in the span of four years, as well as talk about the deadliest mining disaster in Canadian history (among others).
Alberta Ministry of Culture (2012). Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. Available at http://www.history.alberta.ca/frankslide/default.aspx. Accessed 31 October 2012.
Anderson, F. and E. Turnbull (1983). Tragedies of the Crowsnest Pass. Surrey: Heritage House.
Cranbrook Herald (1902). Fernie’s Horror: Explosion in the Coal Mines Kills from 100 to 150 Miners. 29 May 1902. Available at http://www.crowsnest.bc.ca/fernie01.html. Accessed 28 October 2012.
Kinnear, J. (2011). Looking Back: Canada’s Third-Worst Mining Disaster. Crowsnest Pass Herald 81(43), 25 October 2011. Available at http://passherald.ca/archives/111025/index5.htm. Accessed 30 October 2012.
Wilson, D. (ed.) (2005). Triumph and Tragedy in the Crowsnest Pass. Surrey: Heritage House.