The Day the Mountain Fell
Part 2 - The Mountain Walks
Part 2 - The Mountain Walks
4:10 a.m., April 29, 1903.
Far above the train engine, a huge rock shivered and then fell forward, rolling down the mountain side toward the train. Then another... and another. Engineer Murgatroyd, who had had more than one close call with landslides in the pass, took no chances and slammed the throttle forward as he screamed at his brakemen to get aboard. Choquette and Lowes sprinted for the handrails as the wheels screeched against the rails. The train quickly gathered speed on the grade.
The mountain began to creak and groan much more menacingly than ever before. Inside the mine, stope ceilings began to collapse, clogging the walkways and chutes. Miners ran for their very lives as the ground began to move beneath their feet. From high above, an horrendous sound like a thousand cracks of thunder split the night as a massive wedge of Turtle Mountain broke away and began careening down the mountain. Ahead of it, a huge wall of frigid air was being pushed along.
The mine entrance disappeared entirely, as did the 3 men sitting outside. The solitary coal car eventually ended up over 3 kilometres (2 miles) away across the valley. Seconds after the train engine cleared the bridge, huge rocks hit one end of the wooden structure, twisting it sideways before splashing into the Old Man River.
The wall of air rushed across the valley, ripping houses and tents and occupants apart like twigs and flinging them hundreds of metres across the valley floor, only to be buried under the wall of limestone following close behind.
The power plant was gone in an instant as the rocks spread out like a fan. The main stream ploughed forward, erasing the Dawes cabin and the livery stable. Everything in its path disappeared from existence, including all the temporary homes, the construction camp (including a boxcar full of dynamite), the cemetery, and Alex Graham's farm.
One spur of limestone shot toward the east. James Graham's two-storey farmhouse, along with the bunkhouse, was buried under 30 metres (100 feet) of limestone. Another spur followed the banks of the Gold Creek with an almost fanatical precision, pushing an icy wall of mud in front of it and smashing through all the buildings across the creek from Frank.
100 seconds later, it was all over.
Survivors described a cracking sound like cannon fire echoing throughout the mountains. A 640 metre high, 915 metre wide, 152 metre thick (2,100 feet by 3,000 feet by 500 feet) wedge of the eastern slope of Turtle Mountain gave way and slid 700 metres (2,300 feet) down the mountain side. An estimated 182,000,000,000,000 kg (one hundred million tons) of limestone slid into the valley and onto the town of Frank.
Joseph Dobeck, working in the train shed only 180 metres (200 yards) from the slide, felt the earth shaking and heard the horrible noise. He stepped outside and looked to the east, but, seeing nothing, returned to his work.
'Mormon' Bill, one of Frank's more interesting local characters, stood outside the Miner's Hotel after a long night of poker and drinking. He was swept off his feet by the blast of air, but passed it all off as too much booze and went home to bed.
John Anderson, awakened by the shaking of the house, thought he could see a cloud of smoke passing his window only steps away from Gold Creek. When the noise stopped, Anderson returned to bed.
Ellen Thornley, who would have been buried under the rock covering her brother's Shoe Shop, was thrown out of bed and dumped unceremoniously on the other side of the room. Dressing quickly, she ran downstairs and into the street where people were already running around in wild confusion. Over the noise and din, Ellen could hear shouts that 'the end of the world had come'. A woman carrying a small child, both dressed only in night clothing, ran toward her. Ellen ripped off her tweed coat and stopped the woman long enough to wrap it around her and the child. With a grateful glance and a whisper of thanks, the woman and child disappeared into the night in the opposite direction of the devastation behind them.
160 kilometres (100 mile) away, two young men had just dropped off their girlfriends after a dance at Cochrane. The driver reined in the team when they heard what they thought was a cannon being fired somewhere to the south.
North West Mounted Police Constable Robert Leard was awakened by the noise. He dressed quickly and ran toward the station. No-one seemed to know what happened except that a huge explosion must have occurred at the mine. His first thought was to get help from the outside.
When Leard arrived at the station, he found the train crew recovering from their brush with death while the two brakemen, Choquette and Lowes were already preparing to set out across the rockslide to flag down the Spokane Flyer, which would arrive within 20 minutes. Without any warning, they could slam right into the wall of rock blocking the tracks. The eastbound telegraph lines were gone, so Leard sent out calls for help to Cranbrook to the west.
Choquette and Lowes made their way over the mass of rock, their small lanterns barely piercing the darkness and the cloud of dust that still hung over them. Choquette soon became aware that this was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Some of the rocks blocking his path were the size of small apartment buildings. Lowes had to give up in exhaustion, but Choquette pressed on. When he, too was about to give up, he found himself scrambling down the eastern edge of rock, surprisingly right at the spot where the railroad tracks emerged from the rubble. Minutes later, scarred and exhausted, Choquette safely flagged down the Spokane Flyer.