The Day the Mountain Fell
Part 1 - Prelude to Disaster
Part 1 - Prelude to Disaster
Not far from Calgary, Alberta, and just east of the Crowsnest Pass, lies the small, bustling town of Frank, Alberta, nestled on the floor of a deeply-glaciated valley. Looming menacingly nearby is Turtle Mountain. Also nearby is a scene of a destruction of such magnitude that it has never been equalled!
In the early morning hours of April 29, 1903, Turtle Mountain collapsed, resulting in the greatest landslide in North American history. In 100 seconds: at least 76 people were buried alive under tons of massive limestone boulders; three-quarters of the homes in Frank were crushed like balsa wood; over a mile of the Canadian Pacific Railroad was completely destroyed; and a river became a lake.
Yet, few people have ever heard about it.
In 1901, excavation began and a drift mine was sunk deep into the bowels of Turtle Mountain in order to mine the massive deposits of coal beneath the eastern slope of the mountain. The mine contained huge rooms (called 'stopes') separated by gigantic 12-metre (40-foot) long pillars which contained walk-ways and chutes. By October of the following year, the stopes burrowed over 700 metres (2,300 feet) along the eastern vein of coal. Tremors became a regular occurrence in the mines, especially in the early-morning hours, and the miners became quite accustomed to the shaking. Besides, the tremors made their work a whole lot easier. By April of 1903, the mine was virtually 'self-operating' in that all the miners had to do was to shovel up the coal as it fell from the ceiling.
Just below the mine entrance, the Old Man River ran along the base of the mountain. Beyond and to the left lay the town of Frank, divided by Gold Creek which flowed in from the east across the valley and joined the Old Man River below the mine entrance. The Canadian Pacific Railroad ran somewhat parallel to the River and passed Frank on the eastern side; the mine spur line branched off from the CPR, running west of Frank, across Gold Creek and the Old Man River and up to the mine entrance, completing the triangle framing downtown Frank. A well-worn path ran between the river and railroad, joining Frank to Pincher Creek to the south and Blairmore to the north. Coming down from the valley far to the east was the Frank Grassy Mountain Railroad. Soon, over 100 men would arrive in Frank to complete the extension joining the FGMR to the CPR.
The Indians of the area avoided Turtle Mountain. To them, it was the 'mountain that walked'. Their legend would soon become all too real.
6:00 p.m., April 28. John Thornley bid 'goodnight' to the last customer in his Shoe Shop ('G' on the map). His sister was in the kitchen of their combination shop and cabin, just finishing washing the evening's supper dishes. This was her last night in Frank before returning to her home and parents in Pincher Creek.
On a whim, John convinced Ellen to spend her last night in town in a hotel in Frank rather than sleep at the cabin. Delighted at the prospect, Ellen quickly packed her suitcases and the two walked the short distance to town where they took rooms at the Frank Hotel.
This 'whim' would save their lives.
6:30 p.m., April 28. John McVeigh, general manager of the McVeigh and Poupore construction camp set up near the railroad tracks, convinced stable-boss Jack Leonard to ride into Pincher Creek to buy more hay in preparation for the men and horses which would be arriving soon. With Leonard gone, there were 12 labourers plus McVeigh left in the camp.
Midnight, April 28. The night crew for the mine was assembled in Frank. There was Alex Tashigan, an Armenian weigh scale operator; Joseph Chapman, foreman of the crew, from Wales; Evan 'Halfpint' Jones, Chapman's assistant; John Watkins; William Warrington; Alex Clark; 'Shorty' Dawson; Dan McKenzie; Alex McPhail; Alex Grant; and Charlie Farrell, and one other unknown man.
Together, they crossed the bridge over the Old Man River and headed toward the mine entrance.
Meanwhile, Robert Watt and Les Ferguson were just coming out of the Imperial Hotel. Declining Ferguson's invitation to stay at the hotel that night, Watt crossed Gold Creek and walked to the livery stable ('D' on the map) where his assistant, Francis Rochette, was already asleep.
In the boarding house ('A' on the map), Lillian Clark, who had never spent a night away from home in her life, worked so late that she decided not to cross Gold Creek and join her mother and 5 brothers and sisters. Instead, she decided to remain at the boarding house over-night. This 'decision' would save her life.
Thomas Delap worked alone at the electric light plant beside the river. In a month or so, he would have saved enough money to bring his bride from Red Lodge, Montana, to live with him in Frank.
Beside the livery stable ('E' on the map), Alfred 'Jack' Dawe slept. Nearby were his two Welch friends. Had their ticket reservations not been confused, they would have been on the train heading east where they would catch a boat to take them back home to Wales. Meanwhile, Charles and Robert Chestnut slept in the Union Hotel in Frank. Had Dawe's reservations not been messed up, the Chestnut brothers would now be sleeping in the cabin beside the livery stable. This 'confusion' would save their lives.
Shortly after midnight, Ned Morgan declined an invitation from Mrs. James Graham to stay the night with herself and her husband. Morgan walked past the bunkhouse where the 2 Johnson boys from Calgary, hired by Graham to watch his herd of stock while his own 2 sons worked in the mine, lay sleeping. Not far away, on the edge of the property, sat a tent occupied year-round by Andy Grissack Jr., a gnarled old trapper from Lethbridge with a bent for telling wild tales. 'Declining the invitation' would save his life.
In the Warrington home ('C' on the map) were Warrington's wife and three teen-aged children, Reginald, Florence and Ivy. Also living with them was Alex Dixon who had come to Frank to escort the eldest daughter, Florence, for a visit to their hometown back east. Beside their home ('B' on the map) were 6 miners from Lancashire, England. No-one in Frank knew much about them.
Carl Bansemer (see 'F' on the map) had left town earlier on the 28'th with a load of furniture, accompanied by his 2 eldest sons, Rufus and Henry. They were on their way to their new homestead in Lundbreck, to the east. Left at home in Frank were Annie Bansemer and her 7 other children, Albert, Carl Jr., Frances, Rose, Hilda, Kate and Harold (who had been born in Frank only 5 months earlier).
Beside them (see 'F' on the map) lived the Leitch family: Alex and Rosemary and their 7 children Athol, Wilfred, John, Allen, Jessie, Rosemary and baby Marion.
Next was the Ackroyd family (see 'F' on the map) from Montana, Charles and his wife, Nancy, and step-son Lester Johnson.
Sam Ennis lived in the 4'th house (see 'F' on the map) along with his wife, Lucy, and their 2 boys, Delbert and James, and 2 girls, Hazel and Gladys. Delbert, the eldest, was only 8 years old. Living with them were Lucy's brother, James Warrington.
The next house (see 'F' on the map) was occupied by John Watkins, his wife, and 3 teen-aged children, Thomas, Fernie and Ruby.
The 6'th house was vacant, but, in the last house in the row lived the Clarks (see 'F' on the map). Alex, who worked the night shift, had already gone to the mines. His eldest daughter, Lillian, was, unbeknownst to him, staying at the boarding house where she worked. His 5 other children, Charles, Albert, Alfred, Ellen and Gertrude, were in bed.
They did not hear the freight train as it approached from McLeod to the south-east. Engineer Ben Murgatroyd scanned the dark rails ahead, watching for broken rails and snow slides common in the Crowsnest Pass during winter. Beside him, Bud Lahey stoked the boiler. Behind, in the caboose, were the conductor, Henri Pettit, and brakemen, Sid Choquette and Bill Lowes. At the boxcar, which served as a station until the new one was built, Pettit checked with the agent, T.B. Smith, where he learned that the 'Spokane Flyer', a passenger train, was running an hour and a half behind schedule due to a snowstorm between Frank and McLeod. It would arrive in Frank at about 4:30 a.m. The freight would have to lay over on the siding until the Flyer passed.
With the train connected to 2 coal cars and a bridge-building pile driver on the siding, the engine was disconnected and then reconnected to an empty coal car and sent on to the mine to drop off the empty car. Meanwhile, Pettit curled up beside the pot-bellied stove in the station to wait. At the mine, the weigh-scale man, Tashigan, along with Fred Farrington and Alex Clark, two of the miners who had come out into the open to eat their lunches, sat watching in the darkness as the the train crew worked. Then, switching to the mine spur line, the engine backed up to the tipple where the men sat eating to 'spot' the single coal car.
Choquette set the brakes on the coal car and pulled the connecting pin. With the job done, the Mogul engine began to roll slowly down the track to the mine bridge. Choquette and Lowes ran along beside the engine. It was just after 4:00 a.m. on April 29.
In the darkness, the mountain began to walk.