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It is one of the worst disasters in Canadian history, and one that still resonates throughout the Frank, Alberta community.
While some disasters come from flooding, or from tornadoes, or from fires, there is one disaster that came from a mountain literally falling apart.
It is the Frank Slide and for the people of the small community that the mountain slid onto, April 29, 1903 is a day when the world changed.
Before we delve into the Frank Slide itself, we will look at the Frank townsite. When the town was founded, coal had been discovered at Turtle Mountain and the town was built at the base of the the mountain. Named for Henry Frank, who owned the Canadian-American Coal and Coke Company that operated in the town, Frank was officially born on Sept. 10, 1901.
To celebrate the founding, 1,400 people from neighbouring communities came out and over the next two years the town quickly bean to grow. It reached a population of 600 people by 1903 and had four hotels and a two-storey school.
Things were looking up for the community until that fateful day of April 29. It was in the very early hours when a train pulled out of the mine and slowly made its way towards the townsite. As it was moving, the crew on the train began to hear a deafening sound behind them. The engineer, without hesitating, pushed the train to full speed and got it over the Crowsnest River bridge. It was only afterwards the crew realized what had happened. A total of 30 million cubic metres of limestone rock had broken away from the mountain. The section that broke away from the mountain was one kilometre wide, 425 metres high and 150 metres deep.
Within 100 seconds of breaking away, and travelling at 112 kilometres per hour, the mountain side slammed into the community of Frank below. The crash was so loud that people in Cochrane, over 200 kilometres north, could hear it.
In total, 100 people lived in front of the area that the mountain slid down on, killing between 70 and 90 people. This would make it the deadliest landslide in the history of Canada, and the largest until 1965.
It can’t be known how many people actually died though, as there could have been 50 transients camped at the base of the mountain, looking for work.
No one knew what had triggered the slide, but initial beliefs were that it was either a volcanic eruption, an explosion, or an earthquake.
Initial reports also stated that the community of Frank was completely wiped out, but in fact the majority of the town survived but everything on the eastern outskirts was completely buried. Cottages, businesses, the cemetery, a stretch of road and railroad tracks and all the buildings of the mine were destroyed.
As for the miners who were working at the mine when it happened, 20 were on shift. Three were outside the mine when it happened and all three were killed. The 17 that were underground all survived the collapse and began looking for a way out of the mine. Working in pairs and threes, they spent hours digging out the coal as they struggled with air that was becoming more toxic by the minute. They would finally break through to the surface in the afternoon but falling rocks made the opening too dangerous to use. With new air coming in, the miners cut a shaft through an outcropping of rock that would protect them from falling rocks.
After 13 hours of being trapped in the mountain, all 17 emerged alive.
Sadly, many soon found out that their homes had been destroyed. One miner found his family at a nearby hospital, while another lost his wife and all four children.
There were several other tales of luck that saved the lives of many individuals. Lillian Clark, a 15-year-old girl who was working at the town’s boarding house, had been given permission to stay overnight there for the first time. She would lose her father, who was one of the three miners killed, and the rest of her family. While 12 men at the CPR work camp all died, 128 more were scheduled to arrive the day before but they had not arrived as their train failed to pick them up.
Sid Choquette, a brakesman with the CPR, rushed across the rocks to warn a the Spokane Flyer, an incoming train, that the track was buried. He did this even with rocks falling around him and dust impairing his visibility. After running two kilometres, he was able to warn the locomotive. He received $25 and a commendation from CPR.
Police officers and doctors arrived the next day and Premier Frederick Haultain arrived on May 1 to survey the damage. Upon arriving, he ordered the entire town evacuated. The evacuation order would be lifted nine days later after further surveying of the mountain had completed.
The CPR line had to be cleared as well, and completely rebuilt. The process took over three weeks and the old mine was reopened by May 30. Upon reopening the mine, it was found that Charlie the Horse, one of three who worked the mine, had survived for an entire month underground drinking from pools of water and eating the bark off timber supports. Ironically, he died when rescuers overfed him on oats and brandy.
There were many legends that sprang up from the disaster, including the already mentioned fact that the town was buried when it was not. One legend that lasted for many years was that the Union Bank of Canada was completely buried with $500,000 inside. The truth was the bank was not hit by the slide and the legend only arose after the bank was torn down in 1911. The legend lasted long enough that in 1924, when crews were digging a new road through the area, they did so under police guard in case they unearthed the money.
The most common myth was that of a young girl surviving the slide in an miraculous way. According to legend she was found either on rocks, on a bale of hay, under a roof or in the arms of her dead mother. The story seems to come from the actual story of Marion Leitch, who was thrown from her home into a pile of hay when the slide hit her house. Her parents and four brothers died, but her sisters lived.
As for the town of Frank, it quickly grew after the tragedy and within three years there were 1,178 people living there. The impact of the slide would be felt, figuratively, for years afterwards. In 1923 when a construction crew was building a road near the town, they found the skeletons of seven people. It is believed that this was the family of Lillian Clarke.
So, why did the mountain fall? There are many theories behind it but it is believed that the mountain had been coming close to falling for many years. The local First Nations even called it the Mountain that Moves. In the months preceding the slide, miners began to see that there was movement and that there were constant tremors inside the mountain.
After a very warm winter with warm days and cold nights, the mountains supports began to weaken and the layer of limestone that rested on softer materials began to move even more. With heavy snowfall in March, followed by a warm April and then a freezing cold night of -18 Celsius, caused the fissures to break even more and the limestone to break away and come down the mountain.
It was determined that the mining activities did contribute to the slide as well but the owners of the mine naturally disagreed.
Coal continued to be mined out of the mountain, peaking in production in 1910, before it mostly ceased in 1917.
Today, the mountain is monitored on a regular basis to determine if there is a risk of a slide and most geologists believe it is a matter of when, not if, the slide will happen. It is believed it will come from the south peak, and will be about one-sixth the size of the famous slide.
As for the town now, 200 residents still live there and the site is a National Historic Site. In addition, with a museum and tourist shop set up, the site gets 100,000 visits a year.
The Stories Of The Frank People
Working in a boarding house across Gold Creek, she had planned to return home after work. Her father, Alex, was a miner on the night shift and her siblings, aged five to 15, were all asleep in bed when the slide happened.
Lillian had never spent a night away from home in her entire life but as it was so late when she finished her shift, her co-workers encouraged her to stay at the hotel and not return to her family across Gold Creek.
She chose to spend the night at the boarding house, a move that saved her life.
Working at the electric plant across the river, he had brought his wife to Frank only one month previous from Red Lodge, Montana. She was staying at the hotel in town while Thomas worked at the plant.
When the mountain collapsed, Thomas was killed. It would be several days before his body was found, a short distance away from the power plant where he worked.
Charles and Robert Chestnut
The two brothers had chosen to sleep at the Union Hotel for the night. Initially, they were supposed to be sleeping in the log cabin beside the stable but had been forced to postpone purchasing of the log cabin, and stay in the hotel, while a group of Welshmen were moving out. The circumstances saved their lives.
An old trapper who came from Lethbridge and camped along the Old Man River without any real neighbours around him, Grissack would live in his tent throughout the year. Many of the children would talk with Grissack, who would regale them with tales about his adventures, including looking for the Lost Lemon Mine and exploring the many hidden trails in the mountains.
That tent would also be his final resting place. With his neighbours all dead, buried under the rocks, Grissack was found wrapped in his tent and with an iron frying pan in his fist. When he was rolled over, it was said his scalp was peeled back like the skin of an onion.
Travelling from Ottawa, George Bond was in his bed when he felt a blast of wind smash into the structure of the Union Hotel. Everything in his room shook for several moments and Bond leaped out of bed and ran downstairs to see what had happened. Once outside, he saw a fire had started about 200 yards away. Running towards it with several other people, they came upon the ruins of houses, burning stoves, mud and rock, and a wasteland of destruction.
For the next day, despite only passing through, George Bond would work to free people from the rubble and save many lives.
Living with her strapping husband Sam and their two boys and two girls, she had come to Frank with her family the year previous from Ontario. Her brother James Warrington also lived with her, and worked up at the mine.
Once the disaster happened, several individuals came running over to what was left of the Ennis home. It was there they could hear cries from the house. Sam was able to get himself out and he was now working to free Lucy from the rubble. She had been pinned by a beam and while in terrible pain she was able to save the life of her infant daughter Gladys. Sleeping in the bed with her parents, Gladys was found with mud blocking her mouth. Lucy worked while trapped to free the mud from her mouth and save her life. Sam was able to free his other three children and his brother-in-law James. Under James they found Mrs. Watkins, the next door neighbour, alive but injured.
Lucy suffered a broken collarbone, but other than that the family actually escaped any major injuries.
Laying in bed, Lestern Johnson felt a sudden wind hitting his house. The wind blew so hard that their house was lifted a couple feet off its foundation. Just as soon as the house settled back on its foundation, a huge crash was heard and he heard the screams of his parents Charlees and Nancy.
Passing out, he awoke between two huge boulders that had crashed together over him. The boulders both pinned him but also saved his life by forming a roof over him. By the time he had awoken, he could see light through the cracks in front of him.
Attempting to crawl out of the rocks, a lath had driven into his right side and it got caught on a rock. The pain caused him to once again pass out.
Once again waking up from the pain, he pulled the lath out of his body with his bare hands and crawled out into the open. As he got out into the open, he realized the disaster had caused his clothes to be torn completely away.
Naked and cold, he swam across the creek and found the Williams family. He also noticed feathers in his wound and realized that the lath had gone through his pillow and embedded the feathers into him. The Williams family then took him to the home of Dr. Malcolmson near the river. He passed out once more and awoke to find the feathers gone and his wound stitched up.
Living at the foot of the mountain with his wife, a friend named Ned Morgan had been visiting the night of the disaster. As Ned left and James walked him out, he surveyed the land he had chosen to live, which was next to where Andy Grissack lived in his tent.
James also had two sons who worked in the mine.
When the disaster struck, it cascaded over the area and buried the farm in rubble. The log house of Graham and his wife had been buried by 100 feet of rock and underneath it all could be found the bodies of James Graham, his wife, John and Joseph Graham and the two hired men who lived in the bunkhouse.
Working as a stable boss with his assistant Francis, Robert had just finished his chores as he prepared to visit uptown.
Later in the evening, and coming out of the Imperial Hotel, Robert stretched his legs after playing some blackjack in the hotel.
His friend, Les Ferguson, asked Robert if he was going to stay with him at the hotel but Robert replied that he was going to turn in at the stable instead. The decision would cost him his life.
Watt, who had come from Manitoba in 1902 to find better work at Frank. As a man of 36 with grey hair, he took the job as a stable boss and left his children in Ontario. His wife, whom he had met in Ontario before moving to Manitoba to raise cows and grain, had passed away in 1902.
When the mountain collapsed and came down, it destroyed the stable killing both Robert and Francis. The body of Francis was found but the body of Robert was never found.
Les Ferguson did what he could to find his friend’s body, but was never able to.