One of the unexpected highlights of our recent trip to Alberta was a visit to the Frank Slide. It wasn’t something we deliberately planned to include in our route, but since our route passed right through it (literally) we decided to make a stop. We didn’t have time on the way up, so we point of it on the way home.
July 8 was a stiflingly hot day in southern Alberta—well north of 30°C (86°F) and without any breeze. We followed the windy road up to the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, dreading the thought of stepping out of the car. Frank is now part of the town of Crowsnest Pass, an agglomeration of communities strung along Highway 3 by the B.C. border in southwestern Alberta. The town of Frank was the first incorporated village in Crowsnest, inaugurated in 1901 to serve the coal mines in Turtle Mountain.
By 1903 Frank had grown to a community of about 1000 people. As agreeable as the town may have been to them, the town was likely destined to be reduced to an single-paragraph encyclopedia entry like so many other mining towns in Canada’s history.
That changed in a hurry at 4:10 a.m. on April 29, 1903. In less than two minutes, 82 million tonnes (90 million tons) of rock dropped off the face of Turtle Mountain onto the sleepy town below. The eastern edge of Frank was obliterated, killing an estimated 70-90 people, damming the Crowsnest river, and burying a 2-km (1.25-mile) stretch of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s transcontinental line with limestone up to 100 feet deep. But many more survived, including 17 miners working underground when the mountain gave way.
As a vital link between eastern Canada and British Columbia, reopening the railway was critically important. Crews worked intently, and had the tracks rebuilt within 3 weeks. The rest of the town rebounded quickly too. Once an evacuation order was lifted on May 10, residents returned to the town. By the end of the month, the mine was reopened, and by 1906 the town was bigger than it had been before the slide. (The mine closed in 1917, though, and the town’s population has dwindled to about 200 now.)
The story has been told in several songs, notably “How the Mountain Came Down” by Stompin’ Tom Connors and my favourite, “Frank” by the Rural Alberta Advantage. You can read more about the slide here and also here. (The latter link includes an interesting story about a mine horse who survived a month trapped underground only to be killed with kindness by his rescuers.)
Big numbers notwithstanding, it’s hard to convey the scope of the slide. It covers the apron of Turtle Mountain and spreads fully across the valley floor to the opposite mountain, in a swath more than a mile wide. The highway runs through a cleared section of rubble scores of feet deep. And it’s not just gravel: much of what you can see are boulders six feet in diameter or more.
From the parking lot, Perrie and I took a short walk out onto the scorching slide trail before heading off to find an elusive geocache. We then took refuge in the air conditioned gift shop before heading back on the road.